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Painting modern life: Monet's Gare Saint-Lazare

Monet's "Gare Saint-Lazare" captures modern Paris with its train station and new architecture. The painting focuses on light, color, and atmosphere, dissolving the solid forms of trains and buildings. Impressionists like Monet created a new visual language for the modern world, celebrating urban landscapes and the beauty of everyday life.

Claude Monet, La Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877, oil on canvas, 75 x 104 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

[music] We're in the Musée d'Orsay looking at Monet's canvas "Gare Saint-Lazare." This is one of several large train stations in the city of Paris, and it's really interesting that we're looking at it in the Musée d'Orsay which is a renovated train station itself. -We think about train stations as just an ordinary part of urban life, but in the late 19th century in Paris, large train stations carrying masses of people out to the suburbs, out to vacation spots, these were new kinds of structures. -And they express their modernity not only through their function, but also through their architecture. Trains, at this point, were powered by burning coal and creating steam, and that required large open sheds which were held aloft by iron all of which spoke of modernity. This was not the traditional architecture of wood or of stone. This is a completely modern subject. -So this space looked modern, and it's not just the train shed, but the apartment buildings that we see beyond it that looked new. During the second half of the 19th century, Paris was rebuilt. The old winding, maze-like, congested streets were torn down and wide boulevards were built with apartment buildings housing cafes and department stores catering to a new middle class, an upper-middle class that had cash to spend and the time and leisure to shop and to enjoy themselves in Paris. -And in a subtler way, the idea of transportation itself, the idea of a place where people of different classes mix is also itself modern. For so long, French society had been rigidly ranked, but that's unraveling in the modern era and perhaps nowhere more vividly expressed than in a public space like the train station. -We often think about impressionist painting as being about leisure, Renoir's "Moulin de la Galette," for example, where we see figures socializing and dancing. -This is a working space, but look at this surface of this canvas. It's absolutely luscious. It's so drenched with steam and light and smoke that it seems to almost dissolve before our eyes. -It's difficult in some places to make out the architecture of the train shed, because that steam hides it especially on the left where those blueish lilac puffs of steam obscure that iron framework. -Light is pouring through the opening at the top of the shed creating this prism of color that is playing across the steam within. In fact, one critic humorously said, I can't really see the paintings for all the smoke that's emanating from these six canvases that Monet exhibited together each a play on the subject. -And it's not only the architectural structure that's disappearing, but the forms of the trains themselves. I mean, these are big machines that dissolve into light and atmosphere. -Well that's what Monet is interested in: pure color and pure light in the optical play before him, rather than his empirical knowledge of the solidity of an iron engine. -We have to remember that the Impressionists were positioning themselves outside of the academic establishment. This painting and the group of other paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare were exhibited at an impressionist exhibition which was independent of the official exhibitions called salons that were sponsored by the Royal Academy, and so Monet is not giving us a painting that would be a view of the Gare Saint-Lazare with a factual accounting of what was in this station and what one knows of it, but you're right, this optical experience of light and atmosphere, this very subjective experience. -And Monet was not the only person in his group that was interested in this subject. Manet had painted this subject although in a very different way, and another important artist, Caillebotte, had painted a scene from the bridge that we see just beyond the smokestack of the locomotive. -What fascinates me too is the degree to which Monet has reduced the figures themselves to quick brushstrokes, and we can't make our faces. We can make out a little bit of gestures or postures, but he's really reducing the human figure to these quick strokes of pain. The human figure was the centerpiece of academic painting, and yet here it becomes equal to the trains and to the architecture he’s painting. -And subservient to the main subject of this painting: light and color. -Other impressionist artists, like Renoir, will concern themselves with the human figure within the light and atmosphere, but for Monet it is the landscape and here, an urban landscape that is most important to him. and critics like Baudelaire had been calling for artists to paint the beauty of modern life, and I think with paintings like the Gare Saint-Lazare, Monet is taking up that challenge. Artists didn't need to paint classical antiquity anymore. They didn't need to paint biblical and history paintings. -They were creating a new beauty that was true to the new modern world in which they lived. But for all our talk about the sense of spontaneity, if you look at the surface, this is a heavily worked canvas. Monet seems to be weaving color across the surface. You can see the paint has built up over time. There's no atmospheric perspective. The atmosphere is in the foreground as well as in the background all of which makes it impossible for us to forget that we're looking at paint on canvas. -Monet and the Impressionists are creating a new visual language for a new modern world. [music]