‘The classical landscape is dead, it has been swept away by life and truth’
(E. Zola, in J. Newton, ‘French literary landscapes’, R. Thomson, ed., Framing France: The representation of landscape in France, 1870-1914, Manchester & New York, 1998, p. 35).
‘You can hear the trains rumbling in, see the smoke billow up under the huge roofs...That is where painting is today…Our artists have to find the poetry in train stations, the way their fathers found the poetry in forests and rivers’
(quoted in J. Wilson-Bareau, Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare, exh. cat., Paris & Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 105-106).
‘We see the broad sweep and tumultuous movement in this train station where the ground shakes with every turn of the iron wheels. We hear the shouts of the workers, the sharp whistles of the engines blasting their cry of alarm, the incessant noise of scrap iron, and the formidable panting of the steam. The pavements are damp with soot and the air is charged with the bitter odour of burning coal. Looking at this magnificent painting, we are gripped by the same emotion as before nature’
(G. Rivière, quoted in C. S. Moffett, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, exh. cat., 1986, p. 223).
‘I have always had a horror of theories; my only virtue is to have painted directly in front of nature, while trying to depict the impressions made on me by the most fleeting effects’
‘I remember having noticed a man in the Gare Saint-Lazare perched with his easel on a pile of crates…I moved closer because I wanted to know who couldn’t wait [until] he got to the first stop before hauling out his paints and putting up his umbrella. It was Claude Monet. He was doggedly painting the departing locomotives. He wanted to show how they looked as they moved through the hot air that shimmered around them. Though the station workers were in his way, he sat there patiently, like a hunter, brush at the ready, waiting for the moment when he could put paint to canvas. That’s the way he always works: clouds aren’t any more obliging sitters than locomotives’
Hughes le Roux
(H. Le Roux, quoted in J. Wilson-Bareau, Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare, exh. cat., Paris & Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 123-126).
‘One freezing winter evening I was crossing the Pont de l’Europe. I leaned through one of the large cast-iron openings that offer a view of the Gare Saint-Lazare. No spectacle since Rembrandt’s Nighteatch ever appear so fantastic. Immense perspectives lead towards the luminous eyes of machines that slide slowly in the distance along the rails. [There is] a flash, a burst of smoke, and mists pierced by a thousand lamplights, and as a frame for this industrial landscape [are] enormous lozenges of simple and massive cast iron’
(Champfleury, quoted in J. H. Rubin, Impressionism and the Modern Landscape, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 2008, p. 114).
‘Outside, in this vapoury sunshine, the buildings in the rue de Rome seemed hazy, as though fading into air. To the left yawned the huge roofs spanning the station with their sooty glass; the eye could see under the enormous main-line span, which was separated from the smaller ones, those of the Argenteuil, Versailles and Circles lines, by the buildings of the foot-warmer depot and the mails. To the right le Pont de l’Europe straddled the cutting with its star of girders, and the lines could be seen emerging beyond and going on as far as the Batignolles tunnel. And right below, filling the huge space, the three double lines from under the bridge fanned out into innumerable branches of steel and disappeared under the station roofs. In front of the bridge spans, scrubby little gardens were visible beside the three pointsmen’s huts. Amid the confusion of carriages and engines crowding the lines, one big red signal shone through the thin daylight’
Emile Zola, La Bête Humaine, 1890.
(E. Zola, quoted in Wilson-Bareau, Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare, exh. cat., Paris & Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 106).
An icon of Impressionism, Claude Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare, vue extérieure is one of the extraordinary series of twelve works that depicts the Gare Saint-Lazare; the bustling, frenetic, steam-filled train station situated in the centre of Paris. Painted in a period of intense creativity, in just three months between January and March 1877, this ensemble of paintings would turn out to be the artist’s final and most ambitious confrontation with modernity before he abandoned scenes of modern life in pursuit of pure landscape painting. Never before had Monet worked with such speed and intensity, nor had he ever focused so absorbedly on a single motif and theme. In his quest to capture and distil the essence of modern life, Monet was irresistibly drawn to the newly expanded Gare Saint-Lazare. A beacon of modernity, the station was the largest and most populated train station in Paris at this time and had become a powerful symbol of the city’s newly acquired status as a modern metropolis. The station, trains and architecture, combined with the thick, billowing smoke, steam and light, produced a wealth of evanescent, elusive effects that provided endless inspiration for the artist. In La Gare Saint-Lazare, vue extérieure, Monet moved outside of the covered, interior area of the station, into the midst of the platforms; the railway track weaving a dynamic, serpentine path through the foreground of the scene, as two trains move through the busy railway yards. Rendered in a soft, symphonic palette of blue tones, with a combination of loose, rapid brushstrokes, as well as areas of more refined detail, the architecture and atmosphere of the station combine to create a painting that has become a true emblem of its time. When the Third Impressionist Exhibition opened in early April of this year, at least six of the thirty works that Monet included were from the Gare Saint-Lazare series. Coming from the renowned collection of Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass, La Gare Saint-Lazare, vue extérieure is one of only three works of this seminal series to remain in private hands; the other nine paintings hang in museum collections around the world, including the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, National Gallery, London, Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée Marmottan, Paris.
The precise reason for Monet’s decision to embark on this ambitious painting campaign set in the heart of modern Paris is not exactly known. The year before the inception of this landmark series, the artist had been wholly absorbed in depiction of the landscape in its purest, unfettered form. Since the summer of 1876, Monet had been living and working in Montgeron, a pleasant town south east of Paris, where he had been commissioned by his close friend and patron, Ernest Hoschedé, to paint a series of large-scale works to decorate the dining room of his country residence, the Château Rottenbourg. Here, Monet revelled in the bucolic landscape of rural France, painting an array of scenes that were free from any human presence. Indeed, before this, in the spring of this year, Monet had spent a brief sojourn in Paris, travelling there from his home in Argenteuil. Yet, even then, the artist had chosen not to depict the cosmopolitan aspects of the rapidly modernising city, turning away from its landmarks and the newly built boulevards, to instead focus on the Tuileries gardens and the verdant Parc Monceau. ‘Even in the heart of the capital’, Paul Hayes Tucker has written, ‘[Monet] was going to minimise the contradictions of modernity and concentrate, as he had in Argenteuil, on the world of the garden’ (P. Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet Life and Art, New Haven & London, 1995, p. 91).
What was it that prompted Monet to turn from the pursuit of landscape painting and plunge himself into the heart of the noisy, bustling, steam and smoke-filled Gare Saint-Lazare, and tackle this quintessential theme of modernity? Undoubtedly, railways had always interested the artist, appearing frequently on the peripheries of his Argenteuil landscapes, but never before had this theme taken such a prominent and singular place in his art. Indeed, save for Turner’s evocative Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway (1842, National Gallery, London), a favourite of the Impressionists, never before had this subject taken such precedence in the history of art as a whole.
Richard Thomson has suggested that it was artistic rivalry that spurred Monet on to take this unequivocally modern subject (R. Thomson, ‘The City and the Modern’, in Monet & Architecture, exh. cat., London, 2018, pp. 136-137). His close friend and fellow Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte was at the time working on an ambitious and strikingly modern group of works, set in his neighbourhood, the newly renovated residential district, known as the Quartier l’Europe. Both Le Pont de l’Europe (1876, Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva) and Jour de pluie à Paris (1877, Art Institute of Chicago) were monumental evocations of urban life in Paris, capturing the architecture as well as the habitudes and social rituals of life in the rapidly modernizing city. For Monet, an artist with a ‘competitive edge’, who was keenly aware of his prominent position within in the avant-garde, as well as of the work of his contemporaries, the need to move on from the depiction of the landscapes of Argenteuil, his home since 1871, which he had all but exhausted, and return once again to the city, may have made itself felt when regarding Caillebotte’s large-scale works (R. Thomson, ibid., p. 136).
On 7 January 1877, Monet received authorization from the Director of Western Railways to paint the station, and began what would become his greatest, and most ambitious, and final, engagement with modern life in Paris. Without a base in Paris, Monet called upon Caillebotte for assistance. Caillebotte paid the rent for a small ground floor apartment near the station, at 17 rue Moncey, which served as both a place to live and a studio for Monet, and for the next three months, the artist worked at a phenomenal pace, producing approximately one painting every ten days until the end of March.
The Gare Saint-Lazare was, and still is to this day, situated in the Eight Arrondissement, in the north west of central Paris. Opened in 1837 at the dawn of rail travel, it was the city’s first railway station, and by the time Monet painted it, it was the busiest station in Paris, serving over thirteen million travellers for the Normandy region of France. Indeed, Monet himself often frequented the station, having travelled in his youth between Le Havre and Paris, and later, commuting to and from the suburb of Argenteuil, where he lived with his family. As the 19th Century progressed, rail travel had grown exponentially, profoundly transforming the social, economic and cultural fabric of French society, ushering in an entirely new concept of space, time and place. Inhabitants in both the cities and countryside were able to cross the country at speeds and distances never before possible. A direct result of industrialization, steam trains and railways became magnificent icons of modernity, with the resultant stations serving as new metropolitan structures, ‘cathedrals of humanity’, one writer described, that induced both awe, fascination and repulsion in equal measure (quoted in P. Hayes Tucker, op. cit., 1995, p. 93).
In the early 1850s, the Gare Saint-Lazare had been significantly enlarged and redesigned following plans conceived by engineer, Eugène Flachat. Flachat added two additional sets of tracks to the west side of the station to facilitate the burgeoning suburban services, the Gare de l’Ouest et des Versailles. The terminus for these lines was covered by a newly constructed, enormous iron structure with a glass roof, a daringly contemporary structure that utilised the latest innovations of cast iron architecture. It was this famed edifice that would become the structural centrepiece for five of Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare series almost two decades later.
It was however under the direction of Napoleon III’s Prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann that the most dramatic shift occurred to the station and its environs. Beginning in the 1850s, Haussmannisation saw Second Empire Paris transformed from a medieval city consisting of a maze of narrow, winding, warren-like streets, into the spectacular modern metropolis it is today; its wide boulevards, green spaces, uniformed architecture and highly visible monuments all thanks to the expansive vision of Haussmann and Napoleon III. Part of Haussmann’s major renovation of the city’s centre was the construction in the Quartier de l’Europe of the star shaped iron bridge known as the Pont de l’Europe. This new bridge – a gleaming symbol of industrialisation and modern might – replaced the previous Place de l’Europe, under which the tracks of the Gare Saint-Lazare had run in tunnels. Merging six avenues, the newly erected bridge spanned the railway lines, which were brought above ground, replacing the tunnels and thereby allowing the railway cutting to be considerably widened to accommodate the upsurge of train traffic. In addition, Haussmann also commissioned new, luxury apartment buildings to be constructed around the Place de L’Europe, all of which conformed to his strict regulations of height and aesthetic. The plan was carried out between 1865 and 1868, before being finally completed in 1872. The station and its environs proved compelling subjects for writers and artists alike. One of the first and most famous interpretations Édouard Manet’s compellingly enigmatic work of 1872, Le Chemin de fer (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C), that was set just outside the station.
Upon embarking on this series, Monet immediately positioned himself in the heart of the station. He set up his easel at various locations, painting a diverse range of scenes that capture the trains, tracks and surrounding architecture. It is unlikely, given the physical obstructions caused by passengers and trains, that Monet completed every work en plein air. Instead, he would probably have begun several of these works in situ, which he then completed, switching constantly between the works, in his rue Moncey pied a terre. He also made a number of bold, rapidly executed pencil studies of the station, picking out different views and exploring methods of framing and structuring these compositions. While some of these sketches are similar to specific paintings in the series, most served simply as preparatory material for the views that he developed in the final works.
There exists one eye witness recollection of the artist working in the station by Hugues Le Roux. He recalled:
‘I remember having noticed a man in the Gare Saint-Lazare perched with his easel on a pile of crates…I moved closer because I wanted to know who couldn’t wait [until] he got to the first stop before hauling out his paints and putting up his umbrella. It was Claude Monet. He was doggedly painting the departing locomotives. He wanted to show how they looked as they moved through the hot air that shimmered around them. Though the station workers were in his way, he sat there patiently, like a hunter, brush at the ready, waiting for the moment when he could put paint to canvas. That’s the way he always works: clouds aren’t any more obliging sitters than locomotives’ (H. Le Roux, quoted in J. Wilson-Bareau, Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare, exh. cat., Paris & Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 123-126).
While any sense of exact chronology for the twelve works is impossible to ascertain, it is generally assumed that Monet began the series inside the newly constructed covered station depot. These interior views (Wildenstein 438 & 439; Musée d’Orsay, Paris and Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA) are the most heavily worked in the group and their compositions are the most traditionally balanced and tightly composed. Positioned right at the back of the new terminus, Monet has captured a carefully constructed panorama out across the station and the trains. While the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery, London’s works (Wildenstein 440 & 441) are rendered in a looser manner to the aforementioned pair, the vista is similar. Monet has come to the edge of the covered area, picturing the view out over the older tracks on the eastern side of the station that bordered the rue d’Amsterdam; the distinctive arched bays of the so-called parcels depots or storage sheds (the Messageries) flanking the right-hand side of these compositions.
It was when Monet left the depot and began depicting the exterior scenes that his pictorial experimentation truly took flight. Here, stationed outside, amidst the unfolding hustle and bustle around him, Monet found the ever-changing, elusive and unpredictable effects of thick smoke and evanescent steam, constantly tumbling, dissolving and billowing into the wide expanse of sky above endlessly inspiring. The spectacular combination of these transient, intangible elements with the physical structures of his surroundings inspired a wealth of imagery, as well as myriad colour harmonies, textures, and compositions.
In La Gare Saint-Lazare, vue extérieure, Monet passed further down alongside the older tracks on the east side to stand below the imposing, cavernous arches of the Messageries (also described as the old market halls); its bulbously shaped glass lamps emerging rather incongruously from the right periphery of the painting, ornate structures that contrast with the geometric iron structures of the roofs beyond. Beyond the green copper-roofed depot, the blue-hued Pont de l’Europe sweeps across the width of the canvas with a powerful horizontal force that is matched by the serpentine line of the train track that thrusts through the centre of the composition, imposing a dynamic sense of perspective depth into the scene.
Monet has left the immediate, central foreground of this painting empty. Save for the train that that lumbers along the tracks in the middle ground, about to pass under the bridge and disappear from view, and the imposing presence of its hulking black counterpart on the far left of the work, this central space is strangely vacant. As a result, the viewer’s eyes are led into the heart of the image, the place where figures, ballooning plumes of smoke, steam, the glowing lights of the train signals, and the surrounding architecture converge in a spectacular, symphonic union beneath a blustery winter sky. Just visible in the distance are Haussmann’s regulation height apartments along the rue de Rome. They appear as if they are a floating mirage, almost indistinguishable from the array of short, dancing blue flecks of the sky and smoke that surround them.
Yet, while the centre of the composition is empty, a sense of frenetic, bustling movement radiates from every inch of the canvas. Together, the various elements of this modern spectacle create an image in a state of glorious flux. Like Monet’s earlier great vista of Paris, Le Boulevard des Capucines (1873, Pushkin Museum, Moscow), La Gare Saint-Lazare, vue extérieure is instantly immersive, presenting a vivid, vital visual sensation of this industrial motif. The viewer is positioned on the platform, entirely immersed in the scene, able almost to hear the whistles and laboured puffs of the steam trains and the soft din of the passengers, transported for a second to this cold winters’ day in Paris. This immediate, evocative vitality was a feature that a number of critics picked up on when a number of this series were exhibited in the Third Impressionist Exhibition in April 1877. As Georges Rivière, who wrote a series of four reviews of this exhibition, exclaimed, ‘We see the broad sweep and tumultuous movement in this train station where the ground shakes with every turn of the iron wheels. We hear the shouts of the workers, the sharp whistles of the engines blasting their cry of alarm, the incessant noise of scrap iron, and the formidable panting of the steam. The pavements are damp with soot and the air is charged with the bitter odour of burning coal. Looking at this magnificent painting, we are gripped by the same emotion as before nature’ (G. Rivière, quoted in C.S. Moffett, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, exh. cat., 1986, p. 223).
Monet achieved this radical and unequivocally modern effect through his distinctive and emphatic paint handling. Unlike the interior works of the group, in La Gare Saint-Lazare, vue extérieure and the rest of the exterior scenes, Monet has adopted a far looser, more rapid and abstract mode of execution. Spontaneously applied, short brushstrokes are scattered in all directions across the surface of the painting, contrasting with areas of more refined geometric detail. Monet has portrayed the billowing, unfurling plumes of steam and smoke that drift amorphously upwards, merging and dissipating into the atmosphere, with bright white, gesturally applied strokes and flicks of thick paint, creating a literal screen of smoke that unites both the disparate various components and spatial divisions of this dynamic and multi-faceted composition. This democratisation of the paint surface – the same loose, staccato strokes are used for the sky and vapour, as for the passengers, trains and setting – was a method that had come to the fore in Monet’s painting at this time. Monet has constructed the composition not from individual parts, but rather as a whole vision that is united by effects of light and atmosphere. As John House eloquently explains, ‘connections across the surface are made not from one separate element in the physical scene to the next, but from one coloured touch to the next…The subject of the painting is now no longer the relationships between the separate ingredients of the view depicted, but rather its overall effect; its parts are subordinated to the light and weather that play across it, and the whole is woven together by brushwork and colour’ (J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven & London, 1986, p. 81). The dirty, industrial station is turned into an exultant theatre of colour, light and air, with Paris as its backdrop.
For the rest of the series, Monet remained outside, positioning himself out of doors and thus able to capture the din of the station. The Musée Marmottan’s work (Wildenstein no. 442) is the closest in composition to La Gare Saint-Lazare, vue extérieure. Here, Monet has moved further down from his vantage point in the present work, to stand right by the Pont de l’Europe, its massive iron girders looming from above. In three additional views, he positioned himself close to or beneath the massive bridge, but turned and looked back across the tracks toward the rue d’Amsterdam and the station itself (Wildenstein, nos. 445, 447-448). Two final canvases were painted from a spot on the far side of the Pont de l’Europe, between the bridge and the Batignolles tunnel (Wildenstein, no. 443; Sold, Christie’s New York, The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, 8 May 2018, lot 26. Sold $32,937,500, and no. 444).
Just three months after he embarked on this career-defining project, the series of twelves works was complete, and in April, he included at least six of these in the Third Impressionist Exhibition. Marking the high point of Impressionism, this exhibition presented the central tenets of this movement, with the Gare Saint-Lazare group standing as the quintessential embodiment of this. While seven of these views were listed in the catalogue, it is possible that only six were actually exhibited, one of which was hors catalogue (most likely Wildenstein, no. 448).
After this phenomenal period of creativity, Monet returned to Argenteuil and almost entirely ceased painting for a number of months. Never again would he paint, ‘stunning Paris’, to use his phrase, in the same exultant, heroic and monumental way as the Gare Saint-Lazare series. Indeed, Monet almost completely gave up the depiction of the city, the theme with which he had made his name as an artist, devoting himself for the rest of his life to pure landscape painting. No longer would he capture the relationship of modernity and nature but pursue the union of nature and painting itself. After Argenteuil, he moved to Vétheuil, and then finally to Giverny, both places truly rural and untouched by modernity. It was as if, with the Gare Saint-Lazare series, Monet concluded what he had first set out to do with his art: he had distilled the essence of modern life and of his beloved Paris onto the canvas; not through the figure, as his colleagues had done, but through his evocative, vital, immersive cityscapes, paintings that do more than simply record a scene, but conjure a living, breathing impression and sensation of the world. In so doing, he had invented an entirely new form of landscape painting.