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Getty Museum Acquires Monet's The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light, One of the Artist's Important Cathedral Series Paintings

July 2, 2001

Los Angeles—Today the J. Paul Getty Museum announced the acquisition of The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light 1894, by Claude Monet (1840-1926). The luminous painting, also known as Le Portail (Effet du matin), is the first and only of Monet's series of 30 Rouen Cathedral paintings in an American institution outside the East Coast. The painting will be on view at the Getty as of July 3.

The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light joins three paintings by Monet already in the Getty collection: one from early in his career, Still Life with Flowers and Fruit (1869); one from the moment of the creation of Impressionism, Sunrise (Marine) (1873); and one of his initial series paintings, Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning (1891).

Deborah Gribbon, director of the Getty Museum and vice president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, comments, "This is one of the most exceptional paintings of the entire Rouen Cathedral series. It was painted at a moment when the artist had fully mastered his new subject, but was still inventively experimenting with the richness of the cathedral's effects. It shows Monet moving beyond traditional landscape in his quest for pure painting. We are delighted to be the first West Coast institution to have an example of this important series in our permanent collection for the public to enjoy."

The painting's quality and significance are underscored by the fact that Monet himself selected it for the 1895 exhibition of the Cathedrals at Durand-Ruel—for which Monet chose only those examples he deemed "complete" and "perfect."

Monet painted the Cathedral series between 1892 and 1894. Preceded by the revolutionary Wheatstacks series (1890-91) and the Japanese-inspired Poplars (1892), Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral demonstrate a rethinking of his approach to painting mid-way in his career. He expressed that his essential goal was to capture his impression of light as it enveloped the cathedral at different times of day. Monet worked on the canvases as a series both on site and later in the studio when finishing and unifying them. He initially intended to display them together.

Getty Paintings Curator Scott Schaefer notes, "The 30 shimmering views of the cathedral façade are unique to Monet's oeuvre. For the first and only time in his career Monet concentrates on portraying another work of art."

Intense Focus on a Single Subject

Monet embarked on a new direction in his work in the fall of 1890, when he conceived his groundbreaking Wheatstacks paintings as a series exploring color, light, and form at various times of day. In this series, as well as the Poplars, Monet used a subject drawn from nature, the living, ephemeral landscape, as a vehicle to portray the dissolution of form in changing light.

In choosing the Rouen façade, Monet abandoned his preference for subjects drawn from nature. He deliberately sought an unchanging motif, one that would enable him to concentrate on his perceptions and their translation into paint. By painting the cathedral façade Monet expressed the inherent paradox of a solid, long-enduring object that evoked the ever changing and mutable qualities of light. Through layer upon layer of thick, densely worked paint, Monet captures the rich texture of his subject, extending the encrusted stone surface of the cathedral to the surface of the painting itself.

To keep the views constant Monet worked from only three improvised studio spaces in the cathedral square, painting nine, and at the end, 14 canvases per day as he struggled to translate his perceptions into paint. Ultimately, Monet transcended his task, transforming what he called his "obdurate encrustations of paint" into powerful, vibrating icons of color, permanent as the cathedral itself, and changeable as the light it evoked.

Schaefer describes The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light: "The great west façade of Rouen's Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame materializes in the light of early morning. Eliminating any sense of the bulk of the edifice as well as its urban context, Monet concentrated on the cliff-like screen of faceted and encrusted stone silhouetted against a light-filled sky. He was not interested in the cathedral as a religious symbol (though choosing it was a statement in itself) and even removed the cross surmounting the central pinnacle. Instead, the façade provided a fixed, immutable, and richly textured gray surface for his real subject: the play of light and atmosphere as day overcomes the darkness of night. The effects he captures are both dramatic and incredibly subtle."

When the Cathedrals were exhibited at Durand-Ruel in 1895 Monet expressed his desire that the series be purchased en bloc by the French government, though he probably understood all along that they would go to individual collectors. Indeed, by the time the exhibition had closed, eight of the 20 of Monet's finest Rouen paintings had been sold. Today a hint of the effect of the original exhibition of the Cathedrals can only be seen at the Musée d'Orsay, which exhibits a series of five canvases, four donated in 1911 by Camondo, the distinguished collector of Impressionist paintings. Monet's desire for a major series of his paintings to remain together was only fulfilled by the artist's gift of the Nympheas to France at the end of his life.

Some of the views of Rouen Cathedral are in European public collections including the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and Moscow's Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. The views in U.S. public collections are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Smith College Museum of Art, Massachusetts; and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

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Monet was the greatest Impressionist landscapist whose devotion to the genre remained vital and consistent throughout his long life. His career may be divided into decades, each of them characterized by a new approach to landscape painting.

When he moved to Paris from Le Havre in 1859, Monet was already a trained landscape painter who habitually sketched outdoors or "en plein air." In Paris he found some critical success with seascapes accepted to the Salon and soon made the acquaintance of the painters who would later become known as the Impressionists. During the 1860s he worked alongside Renoir at La Grenouillière, a bathing spot on the banks of the Seine. These paintings are remarkable for the informal and spontaneous way Monet captured reflections, light, and form with colored brushstrokes. By the end of the 1860s Monet, already famous for his commitment to "plein air" painting, was considered one of the leaders of the Impressionists. The title of his sketch-like Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan) shown in their first, groundbreaking exhibition of 1874, earned the group its name.

During the 1870s Monet lived in Argenteuil. In the numerous views of the Seine and the activities along its banks, Monet developed his technique for rendering atmospheric outdoor light using broken, rhythmic brushwork. In the paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare, Monet introduced a density and layering of colored strokes that foreshadow his later series paintings.

When Monet returned to a defeated France following the Franco-Prussian War in late 1871, he painted more than half-a-dozen pictures, such as Argenteuil, the Bridge under Repair (private collection), that depict the country after the war rebuilding its bridges, reopening its trade line, and restoring its pride. In the Getty's Sunrise (Marine), the industrial port city of Le Havre with its ocean-going clipper ships, packboats, and smoke-filled sky combines the evidence of industrial commercial activity with the beauties of nature, creating what might be seen as Monet's vision of a revivified France.

The 1880s were difficult for Monet. His friend Pissarro accused him of commercialism, younger painters like Seurat viewed him as a spent force and he chose not to exhibit in the Impressionist exhibition of 1886. Yet during the 1880s, Monet first began to think in terms of a series. He traveled widely, working on the rough, stormy coasts of Normandy and Brittany and in the brilliant Mediterranean harbor of Antibes, seeking out extreme effects of topography, weather, and light. In these paintings color is more brilliant than before, forms are more harshly and summarily treated and at times threaten to dissolve into colored light.

By turn of the decade, Monet had found his direction. The wheatstacks, conceived as a series in the fall of 1890, were Monet's first genuine foray into the concept of a collective ensemble of paintings. Monet continued to work in this mode for the rest of his career, producing series of Rouen Cathedral, poplars at Giverny, London scenes of the Houses of Parliament, and Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridge. The culmination of this line of artistic inquiry was to be the Waterlilies, Monet's gift to the French nation in the aftermath of World War I.

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About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts, and European and American photographs. The Museum's mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.