Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Monet, Zola and the Gare Saint-Lazare

Arrival of the Normandy train at Gare Saint-Lazare 
by Monet (1877)

Among the many inventions of the Industrial Revolution, the one which was destined to have the greatest impact on our lives was undoubtedly the railways. For the first time in human history people were able to rapidly travel large distances in comparative comfort. Thus in was that in The Boscombe Valley Mystery Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson could be ’flying westwards at fifty miles an hour’ to the scene of their investigation. If you had the time, and the money to go with it, the world had become your oyster.

To accompany the new innovation magnificent railway stations were built with their unique architectural design. Among them was the Gare St-Lazare in Paris, opened in 1837 by the wife of the unfortunate Louis-Philippe, and enlarged in 1854. It is sandwiched between Rue de Rome, Rue de Londres and Rue d’Amsterdam, with a viewpoint on the Pont de l’Europe. Observing the station from the bridge, Emile Zola wrote in his notes: 'The steam emitted from the locomotives is red and black, it rises and fills the air in large dark swirls'.

Gare Saint-Lazare in 1868 with Pont de l'Europe in the foreground

The 1870s was the age of the Impressionists and many of the artists of the movement were attracted by this cloud-like atmosphere of the steam of the locomotives and by the changes in light and colour. Most closely associated with the Gare St. Lazare was Monet, who rented a flat nearby, and who painted the station no fewer than 11 times. He became friends with the station master, so if he wanted steam he had only to ask and the chef de gare would instruct a train engineer to produce some. 

The artist exhibited some of his canvases at an impressionist exhibition in 1877 at which Zola attended. Zola wrote of Monet’s paintings of the station: ‘One can hear the surging rumble of the trains, see the rush of steam rolling under the vast hangars. There is where painting is today, inside these modern structures of such beautiful breadth’.

Pont de l'Europe by Monet (1877)

The railways had a great fascination for Zola, and in 1889 he began preparing his notes for La Bête humaine, his political crime thriller set against the background of the railways and the approaching Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He took photographs of the Gare Saint-Lazare and along the Paris-Le Havre line where the murder in the story takes place. As he wrote to a friend: ‘Throughout the winter I have frequented the Gare Saint-Lazare, I have travelled the Western line, observing, engaging people in conversation, filling my pockets with notes….’ In April 1889 he was permitted to ride in the cab of a locomotive from Paris to Mantes alongside the fireman and the driver.

Zola begins his novel on a grey afternoon in the middle of February 1869 at the Gare Saint-Lazare, where we see Roubaud, the deputy station master, leaning from a window and gazing out at the impasse d’Amsterdam. Thereafter the action revolves around the railway until the final dramatic dénouement of the driverless train carrying its cargo of drunken soldiers to the front line, for Zola a symbol both of death and of the future. As he wrote in his notes for the novel: 'War is declared, the trains perhaps transporting the troops......these trains going to the 20th century becoming the instrument of the terrible massacre'.

Early Livre de poche edition of Zola's novel

The Gare Saint-Lazare attracted other artists of the period, most notably Manet and his painting Le Chemin de fer, but it is always with Monet that it will be particularly associated, and with Zola's classic novel.

No comments:

Post a Comment