When Georges-Eugène Haussmann, also known as Baron Haussmann, was assigned by Napoleon III to do a makeover of Paris in the mid-19th century, he was met with fierce opposition by the public. The expropriations en masse, the demolitions of entire neighborhoods and the tearing down of the Medieval, insalubrious, narrow streets, disrupted the daily lives and routines of Parisians for decades to come. Plus, the French really don’t like change.
But a group of open-minded artists embraced Baron Haussmann’s new, wide boulevards, bridges, squares and parks, finding beauty where others only saw debris, inconvenience, uprooting and a waste of resources. They were the Impressionists. Le Pont de l’Europe, in particular, can be seen in several of their works as a symbol of ultimate modernity. Consisting of six intersecting spans, this iron bridge was built between 1865 and 1868 under Haussmann’s plan in order to provide easy access to the newly expanded Gare Saint-Lazare railway station.
We can catch a glimpse of Pont de l’Europe in the far right of Édouard Manet’s The Railway, exhibited at the 1874 Paris Salon. Three years later, Gustave Caillebotte presented two paintings with the same subject at the third exhibition of the Impressionists: Le Pont de l’Europe and On the Pont de l’Europe.
And, of course, there’s also Claude Monet’s Pont de l’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare, part of a series of twelve paintings depicting the interior and the exterior of the popular railway station. Through billowing clouds of smoke and steam, the painting shows us the modernity of 19th century Paris all in one glance. To the left we have a train departing, its motion and clattering suggested by the quick brushwork and the energetic dashes of yellow and blue. The two workers next to it are roughly rendered and simplified, their presence being merely acknowledged. What compels the eyes to take notice are instead the towering Haussmann buildings rising high and the massive iron structure of the Pont de l’Europe to the right. Seen through this ubiquitous, elusive and delicate curtain of steam, the urban architecture looks less menacing, more beautiful, and aptly grandiose.
Despite the fact that two thirds of Monet’s series depicted the Gare Saint-Lazare from the outside, a disproportionate amount of attention has been given to the four interior paintings, most notably to La Gare Saint-Lazare (Musée d’Orsay), Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (The Art Institute of Chicago) and Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train (Fogg Museum). There is no indication that Monet intended for his interior artworks to stand out in any way, and yet they’re the most popular of the series.
By March, 1877 four of these canvases had already been sold, including Pont de l’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare. A month later, Monet showed at least seven paintings of the train station during the third exhibition of the Impressionists, where they received mixed reactions. Many critics were disappointed with the subject he had chosen, and even more with the mistiness of the paintings. A. Descubes, one of the reviewers, bitterly remarked: “[Monet] wanted to show us the different aspects of the Gare Saint-Lazare, [including the] arrival and departure of trains. Unfortunately the thick smoke escaping from the canvas has prevented us from seeing the six paintings of this study.” Personally, I can’t imagine a better compliment than the description “the thick smoke escaping from the canvas”.
And perhaps this is precisely what Monet himself wanted. According to an anecdote shared by Jean Renoir, acclaimed film director and the son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, in Renoir, My Father, “the general lack of understanding gave Monet an irresistible desire to do a painting still more foggy [than ‘Impression, Sunrise’]. One day he said to [Pierre-Auguste] Renoir triumphantly: ‘I’ve got it! The Gare Saint-Lazare! I’ll show it just as the trains are starting, with smoke from the engines so thick you can hardly see a thing. It’s a fascinating sight, a regular dream-world.’”
Renoir then recounts how Monet went to see the director of the Western Railway, who had no idea who the painter was: “I have decided to paint your station. For some time I’ve been hesitating between your station and the Gare du Nord, but I think that yours has more character”, Monet told him. By appealing to the director’s competitive ego, the French artist got what he wanted. “The trains were all halted; the platforms were cleared; the engines were crammed with coal so as to give out all the smoke that Monet desired. Monet established himself in the station as a tyrant and painted amid respectful awe. He finally departed with a half-dozen or so pictures, while the entire personnel, the Director of the Company at their head, bowed him out.” While this anecdote is most likely just an exaggeration, somehow it’s not so difficult to imagine Monet pacing nervously around, flailing his arms to stop the trains, and shouting out orders like a director on a movie set: “More steam! More steam!”. And steam we got.