Rouen Cathedral (Monet series)

Rouen Cathedral, Full Sunlight
Artist Claude Monet
Year 1894 (1894)
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 107 cm × 73.5 cm (42 in × 28.9 in)
Location Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

The Rouen Cathedral series was painted in the 1890s by French impressionist Claude Monet. The paintings in the series each capture the façade of the Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day and year, and reflect changes in its appearance under different lighting conditions.


The Rouen Cathedral paintings, more than thirty in all, were made in 1892 and 1893, then reworked in Monet’s studio in 1894. Monet rented spaces across the street from the cathedral, where he set up temporary studios for the purpose. In 1895, he selected what he considered to be the twenty best paintings from the series for display at his Paris dealer’s gallery, and of these he sold eight before the exhibition was over. Pissarro and Cézanne visited the exhibition and praised the series highly.

Historically, the series was well-timed. In the early 1890s, France was seeing a revival of interest in Catholicism and the subject was well received.[1] Apart from its religious significance, Rouen Cathedralbuilt in the Gothic stylerepresented all that was best in French history and culture, being a style of architecture that was admired and adopted by many European countries during the Middle Ages.

Painting Light

When Monet painted the Rouen Cathedral series, he had long since been impressed with the way light imparts to a subject a distinctly different character at different times of the day and the year, and as atmospheric conditions change. For Monet, the effects of light on a subject became as important as the subject itself. His Series Paintings, in which he painted many views of the same subject under different lighting conditions, are an attempt to illustrate the importance of light in our perception of a subject at a given time and place.

Robert Pelfrey, in Art and Mass Media (Kendall/Hunt, 1996), says:

By focusing on the same subject through a whole series of paintings, Monet was able to concentrate on recording visual sensations themselves. The subjects did not change, but the visual sensations – due to changing conditions of light – changed constantly. (166)

The cathedral series was not Monet's first series of paintings of a single subject, but it was his most exhaustive. The subject matter was a change, however, for prior to this series, Monet had painted mostly landscapes. The cathedral allowed him to highlight the paradox between a seemingly permanent, solid structure and the ever-changing light which constantly plays with our perception of it. There were calls for the state to buy the entire series and exhibit them as a whole, but these calls were not heeded and the series was divided.


Rouen Cathedral, Facade (sunset), harmonie in gold and blue
Musée Marmottan Monet
Paris, France

Painting the cathedral was a challenging task, even for Monet. Michael Howard, in his Encyclopedia of Impressionism (Carlton, 1997), writes:

As always, the pictures gave him intense difficulties, which threw him into despair. He had vivid nightmares of the cathedral in various colors – pink, blue and yellow – falling upon him… [Monet wrote:] ‘Things don’t advance very steadily, primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before… In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.’ (224).

Monet found that the thing he had set out to paintlightwas, because of its ever-changing nature and its extreme subtlety, an almost impossible thing to capture. He was assisted, however, by his ability to capture the essence of a scene quickly, then finish it later using a sketch combined with his memory of the scene. For these paintings, he used thick layers of richly textured paint, expressive of the intricate nature of the subject. Paul Hayes Tucker, in Claude Monet: Life and Art (Yale University Press, 1995), writes:

Monet’s sensitivity to the natural effects he observed are just one factor that make these pictures so remarkable; the way he manipulates his medium contributes to their majesty as well. For the surfaces of these canvases are literally encrusted with paint that Monet built up layer upon layer like the masonry of the façade itself. (155)

The subtle interweaving of colors, the keen perception of the artist and the use of texture all serve to create a series of shimmering images in light and colormasterpieces worthy of the grandeur of their subject matter.


  1. Sumner, Ann (2005). Colour and Light: Fifty Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Works at the National Museum of Wales. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales. p. 86. ISBN 0-7200-0551-5.
External video
Monet's Rouen Cathedral Series, Smarthistory
Lichtenstein's Rouen Cathedral Set V, a Pop Art "reproduction", Smarthistory

Media related to Claude Monet at Wikimedia Commons
Media related to Rouen Cathedral by Monet at Wikimedia Commons

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