Painted in 1893, La Place du Havre et la gare Saint-Lazare was one of the very first group of Camille Pissarro's views of Paris that have come to be recognised as such revolutionary Impressionist masterpieces. The small group of pictures that Pissarro painted from his hotel room near the gare Saint-Lazare at the end of 1892 and beginning of 1893 marked the beginning of a new strain in his pictures, as he captured the ever-shifting kaleidoscopic beauty of the hustle and bustle of urban life, one of which is now in the Art Institute of Chicago. As Gustave Geffroy would come to say, Pissarro, 'became finally what he had been only intermittently: a landscape painter of towns' (G. Geffroy, quoted in R.R. Brettell & J. Pissarro, The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro's Series Paintings, exh. cat., Dallas, Philadelphia & London, 1993, p. 51).
The reference to Pissarro's intermittent landscapes of the city may partly refer to his earlier series of pictures of Rouen, executed in 1883; however, those pictures only occasionally focussed on the urban or the industrial, contrasting these elements with light-effects on flowing water. But in 1892, a confluence of events led him to reprise the concept of the urban landscape with renewed vigour. When Pissarro gave up his Parisian pied-à-terre on the rue de l'Abreuvoir, which was too small for his purposes, he moved to the Hôtel-Restaurant de Rome, run by Elisée Garnier (and sometimes accordingly referred to as the Hôtel Garnier). This was located at 111 rue Saint Lazare, conveniently close to the station which is shown in La Place du Havre et la gare Saint-Lazare and from which he took his train to Eragny.
Pissarro was clearly struck by the potential of the various views from the elevated position of his room there, and set about creating a small series of four pictures of which this is one. This served to provide the artist with a new challenge, a new idea, taking advantage both of the height of the room and the arbitrary constraints placed on his framing of the view by the windows. In La Place du Havre et la gare Saint-Lazare, this is especially evident in the fact that Pissarro has deliberately avoided showing any sky; the entire picture surface is covered by pavement, buildings and people, a concentrated image of the life of the city.
Pissarro was clearly enthused by the potential afforded by the views from his hotel, writing to Julie to say that, while his dealings with Durand-Ruel kept him in town, 'I am going to begin, while I wait, a study of the Place du Havre, it is very beautiful' (Pissarro, quoted in J. Bailly-Herzberg (ed.), Correspondance de Camille Pissarro, Vol. 3, Paris, 1988, no. 879, p. 317). For Pissarro, painting the streets of Paris from this angle must have recalled the earlier urban scenes of his friends and fellow Impressionists, Gustave Caillebotte and Claude Monet (who coincidentally had painted his famous interiors of the same station a decade and a half earlier). However, Pissarro brought a new sensibility to this theme, perhaps echoing the writings of Charles Baudelaire, which he loved so much. For, in The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire's description of his hero tallies perfectly with Pissarro and the scene in La Place du Havre et la gare Saint-Lazare:
'he watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling. He admires the eternal beauty and the astonishing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained in the tumult of human liberty. He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone, now swathed in the mist, now struck in full face by the sun. He enjoys handsome equipages, proud horses, the spit and polish of the grooms, the skilful handling by the page boys, the smooth rhythmical gait of the women, the beauty of the children, full of the joy of life and proud as peacocks of their pretty clothes; in short, life universal' (C. Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 1863, reproduced in Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated by P.E. Charvet, Harmondsworth, 1972).
This ability to turn towards modernity as a theme, to capture the fleeting beauty of the cosmopolitan crowd, of the blurring mass of people as they pass before the formal architecture of the façade of the station itself, is perfectly demonstrated in the swirling mass of the figures in La Place du Havre et la gare Saint-Lazare, in the sense of movement that Pissarro's seemingly rapid dashes of paint have lent them. At the same time, the picture as a whole, despite the limited colours of the scene before him, has been rendered with a deliberately loose use of many shimmering colours, reflecting Pissarro's earlier dalliance with the Neo-Impressionists and adding a luminous intensity to the picture surface. In this way, the picture manages to capture Baudelaire's concept of Modernity: 'Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the-eternal and the immovable' (Baudelaire, ibid., 1972).
The pictures that Pissarro painted while staying in the Hôtel de Rome clearly meant a great deal to him, as is reflected by his later stated desire to reprise the same theme. For, in what was almost certainly Pissarro's final interview a decade later, Robert de la Villehervé revealed:
'His plan was to set himself up on the Boulevard Morland, where he would have done a series of the Panthéon. However, the apartment that he had chosen was not available, and he temporarily took lodgings at the Hôtel Garnier on the rue Saint-Lazare, thinking that from there he could execute a new series of this Place du Havre, which kept him entertained with its continual hubbub of carriages and people, and to which he was already indebted for some delightful canvases' (R. de la Villehervé, quoted in R.R. Brettell & J. Pissarro, The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro's Series Paintings, exh.cat., Dallas, Philadelphia & London, 1993, p. 52).
It is a tribute to the quality of La Place du Havre et la gare Saint-Lazare that it remained in Pissarro's own collection before passing to his wife and then his son some thirty years later. In fact at the time of execution, Pissarro wrote to his wife Julie to explain, 'I am working on my Rue Saint-Lazare. I have not arranged anything with Durand yet, but I probably won't give him everything that I've done; I shall keep some' (Pissarro, quoted in Bailly-Herzberg (ed.), op.cit., 1988, no. 881, p. 318).