Artworks
La Gare Saint-Lazare
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Arty Fact

dbyerley's picture

Contributor

In the early days of the Impressionist movement, artists sought to bring awareness to the beauty of the modern world.

Claude Monet and the other members of the movement began painting motifs that embodied the innovations invading the world around them. Steam engines exemplified the idea of modernity (a term coined by poet Charles Baudelaire) that the artists aimed to capture visually.

When I lived in Paris, every time Google Maps made me switch trains at the Saint-Lazare station, I would cringe in anticipation of navigating the massive gare. Three different types of train systems all converge at this particular station: the metro, used for inner city transport, the RER, which connects the city center to the suburbs, and the larger international trains. Mainly, I traveled on the metro, but I remember distinctly the first time I took an international train out of Saint-Lazare. I arrived at the station with plenty of time to catch my train, but quickly realized that the upper levels confound far more than the labyrinth of the metro. After racing from platform to platform, asking anyone where the HELL I could catch my train to Amsterdam, I reached my train with about 5 minutes to spare before boarding began. Wiping the stress-sweat from my brow, I looked up and realized that I’d seen this platform in a painting before. Lo and behold, I had stumbled upon the famous Gare Saint-Lazare platform, where Claude Monet commuted from his home in the suburb Auteuil to the city of Paris.

During the late 19th Century, Paris underwent a process of reconstruction, becoming the city we know today, with its wide boulevards lined with boutiques, brasseries, boulangeries, and cafés. Prior to this city-wide restoration, the growing urban population overcrowded the narrow streets. This new, modern Paris became a major theme within the Impressionist group.

Impressionist paintings of trains proliferated in the 1870s. At first, I didn’t understand this sudden interest in locomotives, but as I gained an understanding of the context of these works I realized that trains epitomized everything about the new industrial world that the Impressionists aimed to capture visually. Let’s say, hypothetically, that engineers invented the hovercraft. Everybody would be trying to get their hands on one of them, and if they managed to do so, it would become a focal point of their conception of modern technology. If you consider the innovations of the 19th Century that way, the desire to paint the first train line in Paris becomes logical.

Ironically, this painting of a train station resides physically inside the Musée d’Orsay, a converted (and still functioning) train station. Before it landed in its current home, La Gare Saint-Lazare belonged to Gustave Caillebotte. Manet, Caillebotte, and Monet all chose to paint the Gare Saint-Lazare, each with a unique take on the motif. Monet created a series of 11 works depicting the station, 7 of which he showed at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1877, funded by Caillebotte. A sense of wonderment floods the canvas as the scene dissolves into space behind massive plumes of steam from the engines. Art curator Mary Morton at the Norton Simon Museum describes the painting as a “fantasmagoria for the hypersensitivity of Monet.” I don’t know what a fantasmagoria is, but I wanted to include this quote because it’s a fun word.

By committing to representing the beauty of the newly emerging modern world and rejecting the traditions of the past, Monet and the Impressionist group created a new understanding of modernization, renouncing the past and embracing the present.

Sources

Sources

  1. Harris, Beth and Steven Zucker. “Painting modern life: Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare.” https://smarthistory.org/monet-the-gare-saint-lazare/
  2. Morton, Mary. Manet, Monet, Caillebotte and the Gare Saint-Lazare. December 6, 2014. https://www.nortonsimon.org/learn/multimedia/videos-podcasts-and-lecture...
  3. Ostergaard, Tyler E. "Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare," in Smarthistory, February 25, 2016. https://smarthistory.org/monet-the-gare-saint-lazare/.
  4. Wilkin, Karen. "Manet & Monet at the Musee D'Orsay." The Free Library. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Manet & Monet at the Musee d'Orsay.-a054627801.
  5. Wilson-Bareau, Juliet. Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.