At the end of the 19th century, between the years 1892-1894, beloved Impressionist painter Claude Monet painted over two dozen portrayals of the same subject: The Rouen Cathedral. Located in northwestern France, the cathedral dates from the 12th century (though the site upon which it is built has housed religious structures since at least the 4th century), and is an icon of Gothic architecture. Monet rented a studio space directly across from the cathedral so he could explore its visual essence as it changed with seasons and times of day. Impressionism is more concerned with fleeting optical effects than physical details, and Monet endeavored to document how powerfully light and atmosphere can impact our visual comprehension.
Monet’s paintings illuminate how environments and objects—even those as seemingly permanent as a tall, solid, impeccably detailed cathedral—are mutable. Our perceptions of that which surrounds us are constantly shifting. Light and weather affect them, as do our eyesight, emotional and physical states, and subjective experiences. Monet focused on and remained deeply committed to his subject, and for his efforts, these nuances became evident to the rest of us.
Monet saw and felt something new each time he studied the cathedral. Those fleeting adaptations—products of his own endurance—are now memorialized in this series. His was a practice of exploring something again and again until its fluidity presented itself. Environmental changes (and likely those within the artist) prompted Monet to complete several fresh representations of the cathedral. The structure seemed to form itself over and over as light hit it differently, so rendering a single depiction of the cathedral on a single canvas would be dishonest. Likewise, a true understanding of our visual world is an ongoing practice. It’s not so much that we shouldn’t take things at face value, but rather that we should inspect their manifold face values.
Monet’s dedication to the visual inspires an instructive exercise that demonstrates the value of spending time examining the same object or idea in different lights, so to speak.
- Choose a subject. Choose a place, an object, or a theme that interests you and that you can easily locate. Sit alongside it (or, if it’s a theme or idea, sit peacefully while considering it) and study it. If your subject is an object or place, look at the lines, the colors, the relationship between all forms within it, and its general presence and mood.
- Depict your subject. With the medium of your choosing—paint/pen on paper, sculpture, mixed media—give yourself 30 minutes to portray the subject. Monet and most of the Impressionists tended to paint en plein air or, outside in the open air. They sometimes reworked and finished their pieces in the studio, but the point was to paint their subjects quickly, truthfully, and subjectively, which required on-site observation.
- Revisit your subject. Choose four more times, at different times of the day, and in different lighting conditions, to visit your subject. Try not to look at your previous depictions until your series is complete. When finished, look at the works as a grouping, and review the similarities and differences between them. Hopefully, your portrayals will reveal multiple ways of seeing the same thing.