“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 odor of burning coal. Looking at this magnificent painting, we are gripped by the same emotion as before nature” (quoted in The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, p. 223).
So wrote the critic Georges Rivière in April 1877, describing the extraordinary ensemble of paintings that Monet had completed just weeks before at the Gare Saint-Lazare, the largest and most heavily used of the seven train stations in Paris. During the previous decade, under the aegis of Baron Georges Haussmann, Napoleon III’s powerful Prefect of the Seine, the Gare Saint-Lazare had been expanded to accommodate an upsurge in train traffic, resulting in a radical reorganization of the surrounding network of streets. The station was therefore a vivid symbol not only of the modern metropolis, but also of the exponential growth of the railway system, one of the nation’s primary agents of change and advancement. Monet could not have picked a better subject for what would turn out to be his last and most ambitious confrontation with the contradictions and complexities of modernity, before he abandoned the painting of contemporary life and turned to pure landscape.
During his English sojourn in 1870-1871, Monet had admired the Romantic painter Turner’s celebrated view of a locomotive, speeding so fast that it becomes a blur, and it was this same unstoppable dynamism that the Futurists would attempt to capture when they painted trains and their stations some four decades hence. Monet, on the other hand, found the poetry of modernity in more prosaic moments, depicting the trains slowly shuttling in and out of the Gare Saint-Lazare, bringing with them great billows of steam and smoke. In the present painting, we are deep in the railway cut, and three trainmen look toward a tunnel in the middle ground, where a locomotive is about to emerge. The buildings at street level seem to float, dematerialized, on the volumes of vapor that reach up the canvas to merge with the clouds.
“For many Parisians,” Kirk Varnedoe observed, “this site would have been only a hellish no-man’s land of grime and clatter; but for Monet it was the modern equivalent of a great harbor, where the city opened onto the countryside and lost its insularity in its newly swift connections to its suburbs, other cities, and nations beyond” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 26).
Monet indeed would have known these train routes well. When he set up his easel at the Gare Saint-Lazare in early 1877, he had been living for just over five years in the lively suburban town of Argenteuil, a fifteen-minute trip by rail from Paris. The postcard-picturesque enclave, a hub for recreational boaters and other leisure-seekers, had undergone substantial changes during this time. Agrarian land was increasingly being converted for housing, a new iron works was set to open, and plans were being made to bring a second rail line through town—all in the name of progress. As Argenteuil became more thoroughly modern, however, its appeal for Monet began to wane. Between 1872 and 1875, he had portrayed the town as a veritable suburban paradise, its contemporary pleasures in perfect harmony with its timeless natural beauties. In 1876, by contrast, he turned his back on the town and sought his subjects principally within his own sequestered garden.
Monet also spent as much time as possible away from Argenteuil in 1876. He undertook a brief campaign in Paris in the spring, his first in three years, but painted only in the Tuileries and the Parc Monceau, abjuring overtly modern subjects. In July or August, he traveled to rural Montgeron to create four decorative panels for the collector Ernest Hoschedé. Although only a few miles further from Paris than Argenteuil, Montgeron was an entirely different world, with neither industry nor vacationing crowds. Hoschedé had a studio on his property where Monet could work and an isolated fishing cabin on the willow-lined banks of the Yerres where he could enjoy the pleasures of nature. Monet remained at this idyllic, pastoral retreat until December.
In January 1877, however, the artist made a sudden about-face. Returning to Paris, he tackled the most radically modern subject that the city had to offer: the Gare Saint-Lazare. “The fire still burned within him to be the painter of modern life,” Paul Tucker has written, “even if Argenteuil no longer seemed to be his preferred setting” (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 92). In short order, he found a small apartment at 17, rue Moncey, roughly a ten-minute walk from the train station, and set to work with great fervor. He was already selling paintings of the depot by early March, and by the end of that month he had brought the entire sequence—twelve canvases in all—to fruition (though he evidently did not sign and date the present example until the next year, perhaps when it left his studio). When the Third Impressionist Exhibition opened in early April, seven of the thirty works that Monet showed were views of the Gare Saint-Lazare.
Produced in an intensely concentrated burst of creative energy, Monet’s investigations of this quintessentially modern milieu represent his first major commitment to pursuing a single subject through a long sequence of variations. A unifying feature of all twelve views is the thick clouds of steam and smoke—the underlying force of industrial power—that pervade the scene, causing forms to emerge and dissolve in ephemeral, unpredictable ways. For a painter who repeatedly challenged himself to give form to the most elusive of visual effects, such a spectacle would have been irresistible—and indeed, legend has it that Monet persuaded the station master to keep the trains idling in the depot or the switchyard after they completed their runs.
Unlike Monet’s later series, however, which maintain a consistent vantage point throughout, the paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare seem to lead the viewer around the station as though on a tour, each canvas capturing a different area and atmospheric effect. “In the end, the Gare Saint-Lazare paintings are more an exploration of the bustling railroad station than a methodical examination of it,” Tucker has written, “more of an ensemble than a series per se” (Monet in the ’90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, p. 29).
Monet very likely began this pictorial survey by painting inside the depot. The interior views are the most heavily worked in the group and their compositions are the most traditionally balanced, suggesting that Monet started them sur le motif and completed them in the studio. The station was divided into two large bays, each with an enormous iron-and-glass roof. The southern bay or main line terminal, completed in 1837, was used for the long-distance Normandy lines, while the northern bay or Auteuil station, added in 1851-1853, handled the burgeoning suburban services. Monet painted two views of each side of the depot, standing near the terminus of the tracks and looking east along the rails (Wildenstein, nos. 438-441). Faintly visible in the distance are the iron trellises of the newly constructed Pont de l’Europe, an immense bridge consisting of six intersecting spans that carried the surrounding streets over the tracks.
To paint the remaining eight views in the sequence, Monet moved outside the Gare Saint-Lazare to the switchyards where the trains were shunted. In one canvas, he set up his easel just beyond the main line depot near a row of storage sheds; in another, he drew closer to the Pont de l’Europe, looking up at the span as it crosses the tracks toward the rue de Rome (Wildenstein, nos. 446 and 442, respectively). 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 (nos. 445, 447-448).
The present canvas is the larger and more fully finished of two closely related views that Monet painted from a spot on the far side of the Pont de l’Europe, between the bridge and the Batignolles tunnel, which was taken out of service in 1921 and subsequently demolished. The mouth of the tunnel is clearly visible in the middle distance in the present painting, while billows of steam from an arriving train obscure the entrance in the smaller version (Wildenstein, no. 444). The latter canvas uses cool tones to suggest a raw and wintry day, while the present scene is flooded with warm sunshine. Patches of green and pink on the embankment at the right may represent brightly colored advertisements, visible in contemporary photographs of these tracks. Monet made a rapid sketch of the same view in the sketchbook that he used at the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1877 (Musée Marmottan, Paris), and he painted one final canvas that depicts the tracks just north of the Batignolles tunnel (no. 449).
Monet, of course, was not the first of his Impressionist colleagues to paint the area around the Gare Saint-Lazare. In the Salon of 1874, Manet had shown a now-iconic scene of his favorite model Victorine seated on the rue de Rome, above the very same stretch of the rail yards that Monet depicted in the present canvas (Rouart and Wildenstein, no. 207). In 1876, Caillebotte painted two monumental vistas of the Pont de l’Europe, which hung in the same room as Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare series in the Third Impressionist Exhibition the next year (Berhaut, nos. 49 and 51). “Each of the three painters turned his back on history, on anything that smacked of sentiment or the merely picturesque,” Robert Herbert has written. “Each chose a central feature of the altered city, the hub of its new network of movement. Each expressed the mobility brought about by the industrial revolution, not by close views of speeding trains, but by oblique renderings of the ways the city and its people are forced to change their patterns of association” (Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 29).
Of all three painters, however, Monet was the only one audacious enough to descend to the level of the tracks to paint. Manet and Caillebotte both observed the station from the street above, where their figures are separated from the rail yard by unembellished metalwork embodying raw industrial power. The iron railings in Manet’s canvas and the latticework in Caillebotte’s are symbols of the segmenting of Paris, of the discontinuities between the environment of middle-class strollers (the street) and railroad workers (the tracks). In Monet’s paintings of the depot interior, the viewer still occupies a relatively familiar position, that of a bourgeois commuter. The steam in these more conventional views creates a celebratory effect, mixing with the light that floods the shed from the glass roof so that the structure appears nearly weightless—a marvel of modern engineering.
In the exterior scenes, by contrast, we are in a service artery—the veritable entrails of the city—and the street hovers above us, distant and inaccessible. The steam now seems to undercut the rationality of the view, suggesting a critique of the forces of progress that had wrought such profound changes at Monet’s beloved Argenteuil. In the present canvas, a rectangular red signal panel provides a point of focus amidst the veils of vapor, but it seems small and insubstantial against the billowing steam. “When he moves out from the sheds themselves,” Tucker has written, “forms become more evanescent and incomplete. It is a world that has lost the clarity and meaning that Monet’s earlier works had propagated so forcefully” (op. cit., 1995, pp. 96-98).
When the Third Impressionist Exhibition opened in April 1877, virtually all the reviewers—supporters and detractors alike—recognized in Monet’s Saint-Lazare series an unprecedented evocation of the modern urban experience. “[His] brush has expressed not only the movement, color, and activity but also the clamor; it is unbelievable,” wrote an anonymous critic for the newspaper L’Homme libre. “The station is full of din—grindings, whistles—that you make out through the colliding blue and gray clouds of dense smoke. It is a pictorial symphony” (quoted in, ibid., p. 96).
By the time the reviews started to appear in print, however, Monet had already left Paris and returned to Argenteuil. There, he virtually stopped painting, producing only four new canvases during the next nine months. Having completed the Gare Sainte-Lazare sequence so rapidly, it is possible that his creative energy was depleted, or that he became preoccupied by the increasingly poor health of his wife Camille and his complicated relationship with Ernest Hoschedé’s wife Alice. He also sold quite a few paintings from his sizable inventory in the latter months of 1877, suggesting that he had decided to concentrate his efforts on generating income—and staving off creditors—following his return to Argenteuil.
“But it does not seem coincidental that this hiatus should occur immediately after an unprecedented experience of absolute opposites—the sublimity of Montgeron and the flurry of the Gare Saint-Lazare,” Tucker has noted. “He undoubtedly found himself unable to reinstate his former fantasy of Argenteuil, precisely because, more than at any time before, it had been shown to be exactly what it was—a myth, an unreality” (op. cit., 1982, pp. 169-171).
In January 1878 Monet left Argenteuil for good, settling some sixty kilometers downriver at the rural hamlet of Vétheuil, as yet untouched by the encroachments of modernity. Having traded the contradictions of contemporary life for the beauties of unspoiled nature, Monet never again painted in Paris or the close suburbs and never again grappled with overtly modern themes. His twelve views of the Gare Saint-Lazare represent a final, valedictory confrontation with the most evident of all agents of change—the railway—before the painter of modern life gave way to the painter of pure landscape.
Peggy and David Rockefeller purchased Extérieur de la gare Saint-Lazare, effet de soleil from the dealer Sam Salz in 1958, along with the Matisse Odalisque. Both paintings had been in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Leigh Block, whom David Rockefeller had known from his days as a trustee of the University of Chicago. “The prices they were asking seemed high,” he later recounted, “but we thought that they were both such outstandingly beautiful paintings that we bought them without much hesitation. We have been increasingly glad that we did so, as they are two of the pictures we enjoy most particularly” (M. Potter et. al., op. cit., 1984, p. 140).