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Monet’s “Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare”

Claude Monet is one of the most revered painters of modern times. During his long life between the nineteenth and twentieth century, Monet has extensively contributed to shaping Impressionism. The movement spanned from 1830 to 1926 and influenced many significant avant-gardes of the twentieth century, including Fauvism and Cubism (Hanafy 80). Impressionism thrived outside the traditional art movements that stemmed from the Royal Academy and represented a reaction to Realism and Neoclassicism. The favorite subjects of impressionist painters were landscapes, everyday life, and modernity. At the same time, the artist was at the center of the creative process, and the focus was on the single moment (Paull 9-10). Monet’s Plein air painting and his fascination with depicting the evanescent light on various surfaces are the main contributions to the movement’s development. The influence of Monet is still sizeable in the works of many artists. For example, he strongly influenced David Hockney’s recent work (Hanna par. 2 theseenjournal.org). After a brief biography of Monet, this paper will focus on analyzing the Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (Fig. 1), painted in 1877 and displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. Composition, color, and brush technique will be thoroughly discussed. Some personal considerations on the artwork will conclude the text.

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Born in 1840, Claude Monet was a prominent exponent of the French impressionist painting movement. One of his artworks, Impression: Soleil Levant, gave the name to the artistic current and Monet’s death in 1926 marked the end of the movement. Throughout his long painting career, Monet embodied the movement’s idea of catching the artist’s ephemeral impression in front of nature’s magnificence or the wonders brought by modern life. Monet spent his early life in Le Havre, Normandy, where his talent started to thrive. He became known for his charcoal caricatures and took drawing lessons (Seitz, par. 1 britannica.com). Most remarkably, Monet met Eugène Boudin, who taught him to paint in Plein air, a technique that would have become a pillar in Impressionism’s philosophy.

After his mother died in 1857, Monet lived with an aunt before moving to Paris, where he attended the Académie Suisse, the avant-garde alternative to École des Beaux-Arts. During this period, he came into contact with artists of the caliber of Renoir, Manet, Sisley, and Bazille. Also, he met his muse and future wife, Camille Donieux. However, Monet’s life was precarious, and the excellent reviews of his paintings at exhibitions were not matched by consistent incomes. He even threw himself into the Seine in a desperate attempt to commit suicide. Monet and Camille married around 1870 and moved to Trouville, where Camille gave birth to their first son. However, they lived in abject poverty, and when the Franco-German war arose, Monet escaped to London, living in England and the Netherlands before returning to France at the end of the conflict. His style became more defined, and Monet’s focus on expressing the artist’s impressions of nature and modern life led to Impressionism’s highest peaks (Seitz, par. 5 britannica.com). The iconic painting Impression: Soleil Levant is from this period.

By the end of the 1870s, Camille was dead, and Monet lived with Alice Hoschedé in Vétheuil. The painter was more and more fascinated by the fleeting nature of light and began to draw the same subject in different lighting conditions. The series of the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris (1876-77) and the façade of the Rouen Cathedral (1892-94) are representative of the artist’s evolution. The two series show the painter’s interest in architecture and scientific research into color theory (Hanafy, 79). In the meantime, the impressionist movement was evolving towards Neo-Impressionism. In 1883, Monet and Alice moved to Giverny, where they lived the rest of their lives. From the 1890s, Monet focused on producing various series, including several paintings of subjects both in London and Venice. However, the artist’s search for a more subjective approach to art and the aim at including spatiality lead to creating his well-known and impressive series of water lilies (Seitz, par. 12 britannica.com). When in 1926, at the age of 86, Monet died of lung cancer, was famous and wealthy.

Analysis of the painting “Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare”

Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare was painted in 1877. The artwork, exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, is a part of a series of 12 views of the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, both inside and outside the terminal. At that time, the artist was based in Argenteuil but rented a small studio between Montmartre and the church of the Sainte-Trinité, in rue de Money. The studio was near the Gare Saint-Lazare, the arrival station for the trains coming from Normandy and Argenteuil. The terminal was one of the largest and busiest stations in Paris and represented the quintessential of modernity with both the advanced architectural structures and the steam trains (“Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare” par. 2 khanacademy.org). It looks natural that Monet was attracted by the Gare Saint-Lazare, a sort of modern landscape always offering new perspectives and light games.

The composition is dominated by the sizeable architectural structure that covers the train terminal. A lamppost perfectly aligned with the roof’s peak highlights the importance of this element and marks the painting’s visual center. The row of lampposts in the center, the train in the right foreground, and the railways on the left contribute to creating a perspective to add depth to the composition. The roofline acts as a frame, also underlined by the elegant iron columns on the right. The columns reflect Monet’s interest in architecture and shed light on the cutting-edge engineering that allowed the audacious structure. Between the lamppost and the columns, the train from Normandy has arrived, while passengers and workers swirl around the steaming engine. The left part of the art piece is relatively empty compared to the number of elements crowding the right side. A few men, probably workers, seem to wait for the train’s arrival to be seen in the distance. Several hints on the canvas suggest that Monet altered many details of the left side (“Cat. 16” par. 8 www.artic.edu). However, the element that seems to pervade the whole painting is the steam.

Thick and grayish, the steam fills the area immediately in front of the painter’s point of view. However, it thins out on the left to unveil the structure of the ceiling. In the distance, the steam coming from the train approaching the terminal is white, reflecting the natural light and contrasting the gray sky. Gray, white, and an undefined mix of gray, green, and light blue dominate the painting. Almost as to strengthen the idea that the artwork focuses on modernity, the locomotive is brilliant black while people are dark-colored and anonymous. However, a few strokes of color suggest a visage, a scarf, some red hair, and artificial light coming from the far right of the canvas. The brush strokes are vague and loaded with color, becoming even plastic in the steam clouds and contrasting with the leading lines’ rigor.

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At first sight, the painting Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, gives an impression of a familiar situation. Almost as one is looking at a well-known station/landscape with its usual activities yet without noticing the location, crowds, or trains. A station is made of shapes, structures, materials immutable and immovable. They provide the scenario for the dynamic, mutable, and almost impalpable flow of people, trains, lights, and shadows. However, a closer look reveals that the scene is real and alive. For example, a couple of red strokes and a whirling of black on the left of the Normandy train suggest the hurrying somewhere of a kid and a woman. The workers by the empty railways waiting to service the upcoming train are livelily sketched with just a few strokes, and their postures convey the idea of waiting. The viewer can feel the metropolis’ busy life at the turn of the twentieth century; however, while the charm of the steam locomotives is alive and capturing, the architectural wonder of the station’s roof has lost some of the original verve and is not immediately evident to the untrained eye.

Claude Monet is one of the most relevant exponents of Impressionism; the artistic movement spanned almost a hundred years over the nineteenth and the early twentieth century and influenced many following generations of artists. The artwork the Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, mirrors Monet’s fascination for modernity, symbolized by the audacious architectural structure of the roof and the steam locomotives. The composition stands out for the precise graphic scheme contrasting with the steam and the anonymous crowd. Overall, the painting is dominated by grayish colors to underline the nature of a large city at the end of the nineteenth century. However, Monet manages to make the scene alive through a few colored brushstrokes that give life to some of the characters.

Reference

“Cat. 16The arrivalal of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877: Tombstone,” in Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, edited by Gloria Groom and Jill Shaw. Art Institute of Chicago, 2014. Web.

Hanafy, Ihab Mahmoud. (2016). “The Impact of Era Features and Characteristics on Landscape Painting. A Critical Study of Joseph Turner and David Hockney.” International Journal of Art and Art History, vol. 4. no. 2, pp. 79–89. Web.

Hanna, Noah. “David Hockney: Time and More, space and More…” THE SEEN. 2018. Web.

Monet, Claude. The arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare. 1877. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, Web.

“Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare.” Kahn Academy, 2020. Web.

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Paull, Madeleine S. Moving in an Instant: The Paradox of Monet’s Motion Paintings. 2019. Doctoral Dissertation, Faculty of Wesleyan University. Web.

Seitz, William C. “Claude Monet.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020, Web.

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