But what could have pushed Claude Monet to set up his easel in front of Rouen Cathedral one day in February 1892, to paint its facade? He produced 30 paintings, a series that has become legendary, playing with lights and colors at different times of the day. The master of Giverny, a convinced secular republican, had never before painted anything monumental, nourishing his brush almost exclusively with landscapes. Not to mention that, from a practical point of view, the square in front of Notre-Dame de Rouen is narrow, offering neither comfort nor perspective to the artist. The city’s Museum of Fine Arts, which has a painting of the Portal and the Saint-Romain tower, in gray weather, resolves the enigma, through an exhibition on cathedrals in the 19th century. “Claude Monet did not choose Notre-Dame by chance, exactly a century after the acts of vandalism perpetrated by the revolutionaries. In the meantime, thanks to the writings of Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand and Prosper Mérimée, who pushed for the first major restorations of medieval buildings, Gothic cathedrals had taken an important place in the hearts of the French, explains Sylvain Amic, director of the Rouen museums . These large vessels had even become an issue of national identity, in France and Germany, which had attributed the construction of the cathedral of Strasbourg and had modified the appearance of Saint-Étienne de Metz, after its annexation of Alsace and of the Moselle! » In its rooms redesigned in neo-Gothic colors, the Museum of Fine Arts has hung a number of engravings, canvases or photographs, and placed objects in display cases embodying this revival, from the 19th century until the Great War, including the first months were marked by “the crime of Reims”: the methodical – and particularly symbolic – destruction of the cathedral for the coronation of the kings of France by German shells. “I wanted to involve our neighbors across the Rhine in this exhibition, and in particular the city of Cologne, whose cathedral, completed in the second half of the 19th century, is a peak of Rhineland Gothic. Especially since it is one of the rare buildings in the city to have resisted Allied bombing in the final months of the Second World War,” continues Sylvain Amic.
An art teeming with life
If Monet is one of the only ones to have tackled it, cathedrals nonetheless commanded the admiration of the Impressionists and their friends. “Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley… Gothic was for them a popular art, teeming with life. The opposite of the architecture of their century, which they found cold,” underlines the director of the Rouen museums. Without forgetting the great Rodin. His sculpture entitled The Cathedral – meeting of two right hands forming a Gothic vault – is presented in the exhibition. Before arriving at such an evocation, the brilliant colossus had spent thirty years visiting our Gothic vessels, one after the other, to draw out a sum of reflections, The Cathedrals of France, published just ago a century. In his chapter devoted to that of Le Mans, Auguste Rodin wrote: “The great artists who sculpted all these sublime figures are my true masters. The intensity of the attention with which I study them sometimes suggests to me the illusion that I experienced in those distant days when thought was simple, when masterpieces were the natural flowers of work. » To meditate, in Rouen.