Claude Monet - La Gare Saint-Lazare

by Carina Stegerwald

"Our artists must find the poetry of railway stations as their fathers found that of forests and rivers."[1] (from the novel Beast Man by Émile Zola, 1890)

Claude Monet devoted himself to this very search in the spring of 1877, and within four months he painted twelve paintings known as La Gare Saint-Lazare, which can be seen as a portrait of the Paris railway station of the same name. This is the only phase in Monet's oeuvre in which he concentrated intensely on one place and was so productive in such a short time. Having spent the previous years living just outside Paris in Argenteuil, and having latterly been almost exclusively concerned with pastoral, idyllic scenes, Monet moved back to the capital in January 1877. There he opted for a radically modern, urban theme and - once he had been given permission to paint there - began his new project in the Gare Saint-Lazare. Interestingly, however - and rather unusually for him - Monet did not complete his works on site. This can be attributed to the fact that he did not have the time to do so due to the obstructions caused by the traffic in the Gare Saint-Lazare.[2]

The twelve paintings that were created in and around the station vary greatly in size, although they have the transverse rectangular format in common. While some of the paintings have a strong sketch character, others appear more mature. In the following, we will take a closer look at La Gare Saint-Lazare, which Monet probably painted first and which is now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

In the foreground of the picture, whose horizon is approximately at the level of the lower third, the interior of the station hall can be seen. Some of the tracks can only be guessed at and the trains and locomotives cannot necessarily be clearly identified at first glance. Presumably, the locomotive in the middle has just been uncoupled from the train and turned around on a turntable. The associated wagons can be located on the left, although only the first one is visible to the viewer. On the right side, next to the rails, there are some people, but they are hardly elaborated and therefore cannot be characterised more precisely. In any case, the different clothing is striking, as few of the figures are dressed in brown and the others predominantly in blue-green. For this reason, it is reasonable to assume that one group near the tracks are railway workers and the other are travellers. The whole scene in the station is framed by a large iron and glass roof, which dominates the upper part of the picture, as well as the almost Gothic-looking wattle and daub on the left and the thin columns on the right. The middle ground is characterised by clouds of steam - the centrally placed cloud of smoke from the locomotive is particularly prominent - and consequently by a certain blurriness. The latter leads over to the background, where the Pont de l'Europe and some blocks of houses can be seen. The viewer now finds it increasingly difficult to make out details. Monet may have wanted to illustrate the soot and steam clouding the view. On the left, several tall houses are depicted, blocking the clear view of the sky. On the far right, the picture is closed off by more houses that are nevertheless lower.[3]

Together with the painting La Gare Saint-Lazare, arrivée d'un train - now in the Harvard Art Museums - that work has the most mature view of the series, which also has the greatest symmetry or balance in the traditional sense. The upper end of the painting is formed by the monumental roof, which is positioned exactly in the middle and shapes the composition as a triangle; the use of the golden section is also remarkable. Moreover, in the painting La Gare Saint-Lazare from the Musée d'Orsay, the apex of the roof is exactly on the symmetrical axis of the painting and the format of 75 x 100 cm corresponds to a ratio of 3:4. Monet also chose the cropping of the picture carefully; the motif of the triangle in the form of the gable is cropped relatively narrowly above as well as on the sides, which makes the scene appear almost as if it has been zoomed in on.[4]

Since the subject matter of locomotives, trains and stations did not yet have a long iconographic tradition to fall back on in 1877, Monet had few potential models to draw on for guidance. Artists who had worked on the subject before him included William Turner and other Impressionists such as Pissarro, Sisley and Manet. Turner's painting Rain, Steam and Speed of 1844 is the first work to deal with a motif that was so unusual for the time, with the emphasis primarily on the depiction of speed and dynamism, underlined by the asymmetrical composition. Although the painting - especially in terms of atmospheric mood - is quite close to those of Monet, the railway is shown here merely "as a manifestation of the landscape"[5].

In order to understand the railway station series and its significance, it is important to take a look at the social, cultural and urban development of the time. Especially from the second half of the 19th century onwards, important changes were observed in Paris - especially with regard to the architectural image of the city. In addition, the World's Fair, which took place in Paris in 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900, established itself as an important institution whose preparations left their mark on the city. In addition, iron now played a major role in architecture. Engineers increasingly used this material in combination with glass for covered market halls, shops, factories, exhibition buildings and railway stations; the latter took on a more representative character and were integrated into the cityscape. Another central aspect to mention is that railway stations played an important role for the Impressionist painters in particular. On the one hand, joint meetings often took place in the Batignolles district of Paris, where many trains passed by, so that the artists were extremely familiar with trains and tracks. On the other hand, from the train stations - especially from the Gare Saint-Lazare - they could reach those places outside Paris that were relevant to them. Furthermore, the station was not only the starting point for excursions into the surrounding area, but also a stopover in everyday life, as many of the painters lived in the suburbs and frequently travelled to the centre of Paris. Thus Monet - especially in comparison with William Turner - chose a motif and a mode of representation that was closer to daily life.[6]

Finally, to understand Monet's La Gare Saint-Lazare paintings, contemporary assessments also represent a central aspect. For example, Georges Rivière, the editor of the magazine L'impressionniste, associated the series with "the shouts of the railway workers, the shrill of the steam whistles, the roar of arrivals and departures, the trembling of the ground beneath the great wheels, and the dramatic merging of sun, soot, smoke and steam"[7]. It was precisely this "synaethesia, the combination of two quite different sensory perceptions"[8] that even caught the eye of Monet's critics, who - perhaps unconsciously - credited him with this achievement. Even if the sounds and smells of a railway station in the 19th century are not as familiar to today's viewers as they were to Monet's contemporaries, it is still possible to sense the atmosphere of the time. It is precisely the impressionist style of painting that makes us feel as if we are being drawn into the picture and can literally feel, smell and hear the scene.

Moreover, it was probably the constantly changing effect that fascinated Monet so much. The spectacle of dark clouds of smoke forming and slowly receding from the viewer is constantly repeated. Depending on the incidence of light, the clouds appear lighter or darker and constantly take on new forms. In contrast to these immaterial, fleeting images are the rigid glass and iron constructions of the station. In this way, a juxtaposition of organic and tectonic components takes place. Monet sought out the lines and clear structures already provided by the modern building, filled them with steam and incident sunlight, and in this way gave them a spatiality. A remarkable aspect here is that the atmosphere that characterises the paintings to a great extent hardly differs from that in Monet's landscape paintings. In this context, Rivière expressed that he was as moved by the station scenes as he was by the contemplation of nature.[9]

Ultimately, with his La Gare Saint-Lazare series, Monet was one of the first to depict the novel technical invention of the railway, the rigid and cool architecture of the station and the anonymity of fast-paced city life from a very subjective, individual and almost idyllic point of view. At the same time, so much more is expressed here: the attitude to life of the time, the atmosphere of the station and Monet's fascination with these events. Thus, Claude Monet had actually found the idyll that the painters of the Barbizon School had previously sought in the solitary nature of the countryside, in the end, in his own way, in the city as well.

[1] Santorius, Nerina: The Deceleration of the Gaze. Claude Monet's 'Outside the Saint-Lazare Station (The Signal)'. In: Krämer, Felix: Monet and the Birth of Impressionism. Exhibition catalogue. Munich; London; New York 2015, p. 197.

[2] Cf. Bareau, Juliet Wilson: Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare. New Haven 1998, p. 105; Wildenstein, Daniel: Monet. Monet or the Triumph of Impressionism. Vol. 1. Cologne 1996, p. 125.

[3] Cf. Bareau 1998, p. 111; Tucker, Paul Hayes: Claude Monet. Life and art. New Haven (et al.) 1995, p. 96.

[4] Cf. Tucker 1995, p. 96.

[5] Seitz, William Chapin: Claude Monet. New ed. Cologne 1979, p. 106.

[6] Cf. Mathieu, Caroline: The Modern City. Paris 1850-1900. in: Fischer, Hartwig; Cachin, Françoise; Gianfreda, Sandra: Images of a Metropolis. The Impressionists in Paris. Exhibition catalogue. Göttingen 2010, p. 30; Wildenstein 1996, p. 125; Seitz 1979, p. 106.

[7] Seitz 1979, p. 106.

[8] Wildenstein 1996, p. 126.

[9] Cf. Heinrich, Christoph: Claude Monet. 1840-1926. Cologne 2007, p. 41; Seitz 1979, p. 106. .

Claude Monet- La Gare Saint-Lazare

1877, oil on canvas, 75 x 100 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Claude Monet - La Gare Saint-Lazare, arrivée d'un train

1877, Oil on canvas, 82 x 101 cm, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge

William Turner- Rain, Steam and Speed

1844, Oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm, National Gallery, London