This painting is one of a dozen views of the Gare Saint-Lazare that Monet painted in early 1877. He had known the station since his childhood, and it was also the terminal for trains to many of the key Impressionist sites west of Paris.
One of the less finished paintings of the group, it is the most freely painted of the four pictures Monet made within the station itself. He positioned himself at the terminus of one of the main lines, looking across the platforms. In the foreground two locomotives are swathed in steam and surrounded by passengers probably waiting to board.
The dark angular lines of the roof’s girders contrast with the random patterns formed by the vapour and smoke. By including the closed roof at the top of the picture, Monet has turned the conventions of landscape upside down – the light and clouds associated with an open sky are contained inside a distinctly modern structure made of glass and iron.
Trains appeared in several of Monet’s pictures from 1870 onward, but the paintings he made of the Gare Saint-Lazare are his most extensive exploration of railways as a subject. This work is one of a dozen views of the Gare Saint-Lazare that Monet painted in early 1877, after he was granted permission in January to paint the station and its approaches. He had known the station since childhood as it was the Paris terminal for trains to Normandy, where he grew up. It also served trains to many of the key Impressionist sites west of Paris, including Bougival and Argenteuil, where he had previously lived. In late 1871 Monet had also rented a small apartment just a single block from the station’s main entrance.
The station had opened in 1837. It was enlarged 1851–3, following designs by Eugène Flachat, and extended again 1867–8. This expansion was in response to the demand for rapid transport links across France and to the dramatic growth of Paris itself; by 1870, the Gare Saint-Lazare was handling around 11 million suburban passengers every year. The station was an obvious example of the city’s newly built structures and had already been painted by Manet in The Railway of 1873 (National Gallery of Art, Washington). Monet’s friend Gustave Caillebotte was also working on paintings of the Quartier de l’Europe around the Gare Saint-Lazare, perhaps prompting Monet to tackle a similar subject. Caillebotte’s paintings include The Pont de l’Europe (Museé du Petit Palais, Geneva), a view of the recently built bridge over the station’s rail tracks. Painted in 1876, it was exhibited in the third Impressionist group show in May 1877. Trains were viewed as emblems of modernity both within France and elsewhere. During his stay in London in 1870–1, for example, Monet would have seen Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed at the National Gallery, in which a fiery locomotive hurtles across a rainswept bridge as a hare on the track leaps from its path.
Monet produced his 12 pictures of the Gare Saint-Lazare during a period of intense activity from January to March 1877. Seven of them were listed among the 30 pictures he submitted to the Impressionist group show in May, although it may be that only six were hung. It is not known whether the National Gallery’s picture was among those exhibited. The pictures display a range of techniques and compositions, and differ both in subject and in their degree of finish. While two of the group are highly finished, others are closer to rapidly executed sketches (or esquisses). Describing the pictures on display at the 1877 Impressionist show, the critic Georges Rivière noted, ‘these paintings are amazingly varied, despite the monotony and aridity of the subject. In them more than anywhere else we can see that skill in arrangement, that organisation of the canvas, that is one of the main qualities of Monet’s work.’
One of the less finished paintings of the group, the National Gallery’s picture is also the most freely painted of the four Monet made within the station itself. He positioned himself at the terminus of one of the main lines, looking across the platforms towards the Pont de l’Europe – the low grey oblong in the middle distance. In the foreground, we can see two locomotives swathed in steam and surrounded by passengers probably waiting to board. Further back on the left, the train under the bridge is barely visible in a cloud of smoke. Although this is a scene of industry and mechanisation, Monet was primarily concerned with the effects of light and atmosphere within the station’s vast interior space, which is covered by a glass roof supported by girders that could span 40 metres. Monet has placed the apex of the roof near the top of the picture, with the three arches of the parcel depot to the right. The dark and dramatic angular line of the roof contrasts with the random patterns formed by the steam, just as the rigid metal of the girders is the material opposite of the translucent steam and smoke. By including the closed roof at the top of the picture, Monet has also turned the conventions of landscape upside down – the light and cloud normally associated with an open sky are now indoors, contained within a distinctly modern and engineered structure made of glass and iron.
Although the painting looks as though it was completed in a single sitting, at least three separate stages can be identified. Monet first set out the principal framework of the composition, particularly the architecture and the position of the trains. He completed the bulk of the painting during the second stage. Working quickly using wispy, almost calligraphic brushstrokes, he established the principal components of the picture. He has employed a sophisticated method of colour construction throughout, his method providing an insight into Impressionist colour techniques. For example, despite the dark colours used in much of the picture, such as the almost black locomotives and station canopy, pure black pigment is very rarely present, and earth tones are entirely absent. Instead, Monet created dark or subdued hues by mixing vivid pigments, which he modulated by altering the mix. The dark purple tones of the station canopy were achieved by using substantial amounts of red lake, but the amount of blue was increased when Monet needed to indicate greenish-blue shadow. These blue pigments were all nineteenth-century creations. White was used throughout where lighter tones were needed, and some sections, such as areas of steam and smoke and the patch of sky, were painted almost entirely with pure lead white.
Having painted most of the picture, Monet returned to it later to add a few final and sparing touches of pure colour on top of the partly dried paint. These touches, such as dabs of pure bright red vermilion on some of the passengers and cobalt blue highlights on the locomotives, are the only instances of unmixed pigment in the painting.
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