Light in Art: Monet – The Painter of Light

Light influences and determines the way we see the world, particularly in terms of colors. This is evident in the art of the Impressionist school, including the works of the painter Claude Monet. We will examine how this perspective is connected to various ideas in Jewish tradition.

Resource Ages: 9-11, 12-14


Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, 1892-1894 

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do the holidays bring beauty and order to our Jewish year?
  • How do I grow as a result of the Jewish calendrical cycle? 
  • How are symbols used in celebrations and holidays?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How does light influence art and influence us?
  • What is an objective perspective? Can there be such a thing? Why / why not?
  • What is the significance of different perspectives?
  • How do our emotions and feelings influence our perceptions?

Background for Teacher

The colors we see in the world around us are created by the light waves received by our eyes from various objects in our surroundings. In complete darkness there is no color, and the colors in nature are the product of the intensity and...

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The colors we see in the world around us are created by the light waves received by our eyes from various objects in our surroundings. In complete darkness there is no color, and the colors in nature are the product of the intensity and color of light. The painters of the Impressionist school in the nineteenth century took full advantage of this fact. They argued that painters in previous periods had been influenced by their knowledge of colors in nature (leaves are green, the sky is blue…) rather than by the actual impression of what they saw. In order to illustrate their point, they would paint the same landscape repeatedly, at different times of day and in different seasons; the paintings showed how the changing light presents a different landscape. 

One of the most prominent Impressionist painters was Claude Monet. Monet painted an entire series of pictures, including a series featuring haystacks, a lake with water lilies, and the cathedral in the city of Rouen in France – which we will examine here.

In order to paint his Rouen Cathedral series, which comprises thirty works, Monet rented a room opposite the cathedral and set up his easel by the window. The time of day determined which painting he would work on: in the morning he painted the cathedral in the morning light, and at noon he would set aside this picture, even though it was unfinished, and work on a picture showing the cathedral in the light of noon, and so on. 

These paintings can teach us that there is no “objective” reality, even regarding things that we assume are constant, such as the color of stones on a wall. Everything depends on a wide range of contexts – the way we look at things, the surrounding conditions, and so on. In our own lives, it is not only light that colors things in a particular way, but also our personal perspective, our emotions and hopes, and our attitudes toward others.

The subject of the influence light has on us connects to various aspects of Jewish tradition that can be included in the lesson:

Chanukah: Light is a key symbol of the festival. We light candles in memory of the menorah in the Temple and to honor the miracle of the tin of oil that fed the menorah. The festival also symbolizes the victory of the Maccabees and the prevailing of “good” over “evil.” Monet’s paintings invite us to consider the function of the Chanukah candles – what events and themes in the story do they “illuminate” for us?

Shabbat: Candlelight marks the beginning and end of Shabbat, thereby framing the entire 24-hour period as one that is distinct from the weekdays; in traditional language – sacred time. Monet’s depiction of an identical object in different lights shows the impact different types of light have on our feelings: soft light can create a calm or romantic atmosphere; strong, focused light can have a dramatic effect. In the context of Shabbat – what feelings and atmosphere do the Shabbat candles create?

Jewish values: We can connect a central idea in Monet’s works –  the differing perspectives resulting from changes in light  – to  the concept of tolerance and acceptance of other opinions. There is a midrash which tells us that God instructed Moses to accept the fact that different people have different opinions: “Just as their faces are not the same, neither are their opinions’ (Midrash Tanchuma, Buber edition, Pinchas, 1). The principle of tolerance is also reflected in the perception of disagreement as an essential and productive thing; this can be seen in the debate between Hillel and Shammai concerning the correct way to light the Chanukah candles.

More information about Claude Monet and the Rouen Cathedral series.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Show the class the presentation of Claude Monet’s works. Ask them what creates the difference between the different paintings.
  1. Claude Monet was called “the painter of light.” Why?
  2. In your opinion, did the things that Monet painted have a “true” color? Explain your answer.
  3. Our emotions also “paint” events in different colors. Give an example of an event that has a different color or shade for you because of your feelings than it would otherwise have had or than other people experienced.
  4. Monet shows us that the same object can look completely different due to the impact of changes in light. With this in mind, explain the expression: “see things in a different light.” 
  5. What does it mean when people talk about “painting something in dark colors” or “painting a rosy picture”?
  6. Explain something that happened to you that could be described in “dark colors” or “painted as a rosy picture.”
  7. For older students: what can this series of paintings teach us about objectivity and subjectivity? 

For Chanukah:

  1. As we saw in Monet’s paintings, the type of light influences the general atmosphere and our emotions. According to the halakhah (Jewish law), the Chanukah light must be provided by candles, and not for example by electric lights. Why do you think this is the case? What is the difference in terms of the experience or emotions between the light that comes from Chanukah candles and the light from an electric chanukiya? 
  2. What is the symbolic importance of using oil to light the chanukiya? 

For Shabbat: 

  1. We saw in Monet’s paintings that light influences the way we look at reality. How do the Shabbat candles influence the atmosphere and our emotions and feelings on Shabbat?
  2. We begin and end Shabbat by lighting candles. The reason for the commandment is for us to have light during our meal. Why do we light candles and say blessings over them, instead of saying a blessing over an electric light?
  3. Why are the Shabbat candles an important part of the Shabbat atmosphere? Give examples of other types of light that influence our feelings and emotions.

The value of tolerance:

  1. How can Monet’s paintings teach us something about the idea that “just as their faces are not the same, neither are their opinions”? (Midrash Tanchuma, Buber edition, Pinchas, 1)
  2. What can we learn from the different paintings about the subject of disagreements?
  • Our feelings “color” events that happen to us or around us. Every student chooses an event in their own past that arouses strong emotions (sadness, anger, happiness, excitement, fear, etc.). They describe the event on a sheet of paper. Beneath the text, they divide the page into two halves. On one side, they will draw a circle in colors that match their feeling about the event at the time; on the other, they will draw a circle representing how they feel now about the event. Are the colors the same? Why / why not?
  • At Chanukah, this unit can be connected to the unit Light and Darkness (for ages 6-8), which discusses the importance of light in our lives.
  • At Chanukah, the class can study the unit Light – A Symbol of Good (ages 9+), which explores the symbolic meaning of light and darkness in the context of the Chanukah story.
  • The unit can also be connected to the unit on Shabbat Candles.