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Monet was tormented by gothic nightmares in which he was crushed by his own motif: “I am worn out, I give up, and what’s more, something that never happens to me, I couldn’t sleep for nightmares: the cathedral was coming down on top of me, it was blue or pink or yellow.”As in Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), the very stones seem to have human feelings: “The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones . . . above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement.” In Poe’s story, as in Monet’s nightmare, the ill-fated building comes crashing down.

In his influential book The Stones of Venice (1851), John Ruskin wrote: “The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” The glories of Monet’s sublime mutations are the iridescent colours that illuminate the ash-grey stones: lemon and gold; pink and rose; carmine, scarlet and vermillion; beige, fawn and umber; lilac, violet and magenta; olive, lime and emerald — all brilliantly projected against an azure and cobalt sky.

Unlike Turner, as Virginia Spate observes, “Monet severed the façade from the building, the building from its surroundings, the cathedral from the meanings history had given it.” He also “effaced the signs of modern time, the face of the clock”, and in some pictures the yellow sun on the white clock looks remarkably like the yolk of a fried egg. Though the numerals would have usefully told the precise time the paintings were executed, Monet preferred flowing visual to strict chronological time.

The first two Cathedrals show the base of one tower in the courtyard behind the building, steep-roofed medieval houses with bluish windows leaning against the side of the tower, a cloudy grey-blue sky and a dark circular tunnel leading to the main square and West façade. Monet’s heavy layers of paint suggest the weight of the ancient stones. The dramatic effects of light and fog, the subtle variations from bright sun to dark shadows, make the cathedral seem blurred and palpitating, fragmentary and friable. It sometimes seems to be trembling in an earthquake, or as if the medieval stones, aged and worn by the centuries, were absorbing the varied light and then weeping, even bleeding en plein soleil, down the ornamental façade. Like W. H. Auden’s description of his own creased and weathered face, the cathedral can look like “a wedding cake left out in the rain”.

The solid form and lacy stonework, transformed by Monet’s acute perception, thaw and resolve themselves into a dew. Although light, by its very nature, is ephemeral and evanescent, it seems to dissolve the monumental cathedral and — as Tennyson suggested — all that is solid melts into the air. Yet at the same time, the vanishing building is also brilliantly and permanently fixed on Monet’s canvas.
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