Impressionism in the Age of Industry I: Then and Now

On Monday I used my day off to visit a newly-opened exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Impressionism in the Age of Industry. I have long been a fan of Impressionist paintings, dating back to my high school French class where we studied the history of French art.  We tend to think first of Monet’s Water Lillies paintings, haystacks, and other depictions of nature when we picture Impressionist paintings, and then maybe, if we take it a little deeper, of depictions of Parisian bourgeoisie or ballet dancers, maybe a fog-enshrouded cathedral.  But depictions of industrial scenes, particularly in Paris and its suburbs, and the working classes were, as it turns out, one of the main themes of the Impressionists from their very first exhibition, and the AGO exhibit brings together a large collection of these paintings, along with contemporary photographs, sketches, sculptures, prints and posters, and some of the earliest motion pictures.

Why did the Impressionists paint industrial scenes?  Most of them lived in or around Paris, a city that was in the throes of rapid transformation.  In the 1850s Paris had been transformed from a medieval city to a modern one through a massive building project to clear the old, narrow streets and replace them with the wide, well-lit boulevards we tend to associate with the city.  Then, in 1870 the city was first besieged by the Prussians as part of the Franco-Prussian war, and then after the it fell in January 1871 (ending the Third Empire),  Paris actually seceded from France for three months. The Paris Commune, as it was called, was brutally suppressed in May, 1871.  More Frenchmen and women died in that one week in May than had died in the entire Franco-Prussian war.  Paris, when the first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874, was in a period of furious rebuilding.  The government’s view of the arts at that point was that they should emphasize the conservative, traditional values of France, not the radical, gritty politics of Paris and the Commune.  This meant what was in favour was traditional landscape paintings full of happy peasants.  The French Academy of Fine Arts traditionally held exhibits with government sanction that dictated which artists and which subjects would find official favour.  The Impressionists, by forming their own “union” and holding their own exhibition, radically bypassed this system. And by showing industrial scenes, particularly of Paris, they further showed their radicalism.  As the catalog from the exhibition mentions, “…Their scenes that celebrated Paris–especially the city’s working class and industrial activities–were understood as a form of defiance….Their aspirations to paint modern life ran counter to the conservative, nostalgic values that the Republic sought to engender.”

For me, this exhibition was a must-see, given my love for Impressionism in general as well as for industrial-based art and architecture  I had seen very few of the paintings displayed, other than a few of the Monets from his time in London at the turn of the century.  I’ll devote a second post to the exhibit as a whole, but I wanted to go down a particular rabbit hole first.  The first painting that greets the visitor at the exhibition is this one:

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Claude Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877

You can almost hear the train whistle as the train comes into Paris’ main train station.

And a little farther in, this huge piece commands a room focusing on the depictions of railways:

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Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876

This fascinating painting, with its play with perspective and mixing of the classes, depicts another part of the same area.  The tracks are down below where then man in white is looking.  There is a fascinating part of the display that shows, in 3D the environs of the Pont de l’Europe, or more properly, the Place de l’Europe, which is an enormous viaduct built over the train tracks of the Gare Saint-Lazare.  Six roads converge right over the tracks, with a huge hexagonal public square in the middle.

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Place de l’Europe and the Gare Saint-Lazare.

Monet painted other paintings of these structures, like this one:

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Another contemporary photo

So my first question, when seeing this rather intriguing structure, was, of course, “Is it still there?”  Well, here’s the Gare Saint-Lazare….

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And here’s what the Place de l’Europe looks like today from the air…

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Here are two more photos showing what the area looks like today.

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Caillebotte’s point of view, today

It seems that the heavy bridgework so prominent in Caillebotte’s work has not survived, but the station itself and many of the buildings in the area still seem to be standing.  It would be fascinating to know just how much depicted in the other paintings of factories, bridges, and other architecture still stands after nearly a century and a half. The City of Light may be eternal, but my guess is that the utilitarian is much more ephemeral.

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