The transformations were so rapid and radical that they erased all traces of the past. No more than 15 years ago, goats and cows grazed in the lean pastures where today the streets of the European Quarter run. Laundresses hung out their laundry on the site where the Église Saint-Augustin now rises, and soldiers practiced their drills on the terrain where the Boulevard Malesherbes passes. The requirements of the population are not slowing down -- what has become of the great gardens that one saw at the beginning of Louis-Philippe's reign? Those that still remain are in their final days. By the turn of the century, Paris will be an immense housing block.
-- Maxime du Camp, Paris
Does that theoretical thing called "modernism" have an actual geographical point of origin? Paris, of course, but can we be more specific? The answer is a definite yes, at least according to "Manet, Monet and the Gare Saint-Lazare," a new exhibition currently on view at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and slated to appear this summer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Guest curator Juliet Wilson-Bareau persuasively argues that the construction of the Saint-Lazare railway station and the massive Pont de l'Europe spanning the tracks, an engineering marvel in the center of the new Quartier de l'Europe, served as a catalytic event for Impressionism in the 1870s. To make her case, she has assembled works depicting the station and its environs by Manet, Monet, Caillebotte and lesser Impressionists. The show also includes maps, postcards, and illustrative engravings documenting the rapidly changing face of the quarter with the station at its center.
The viewer readily sees that this small, newly renovated patch of Paris (less than a square kilometer), though only a small sector of Baron Haussmann's overall redevelopment scheme, was a site of unparalleled importance for representing the changing face of modern life.
Artistic interest in this new urban stage set was widespread. The exhibition features Manet's famous The Railway (1872), which poses a young woman and a girl by an iron fence overlooking the rail yard, as well as nine of Monet's 11 paintings of the station from 1877. It includes several works by Gustav Caillebotte done in the second half of the 1870s and set on the iron bridge over the tracks.
Among the less familiar names is Jean Beraud, whose painting The Place and Pont de l'Europe (1876-78) is populated by perhaps a dozen figures and two carriages that seem plopped down on a sterile, mud-colored space bordered by an ugly metal superstructure. The artist Norbert Goeneutte moved to a studio with a spectacular view of the bridge, a view that he painted several times in the late 1880s. Despite its association with parks and picnics, Impressionism was grounded in the technology of the industrial revolution.
In light of these many topographically concentrated paintings, critic Ernest Fillonneau's moniker for the Impressionists --- "School of the Place de l'Europe. . . in the neighborhood of Manet" -- rings true, if a bit too local to last.
The exhibition first places us in this renovated neighborhood in 1872, when Manet moved his studio to the rue de Saint-Petersbourg just near the station. Manet's first major work after the move, and his only painting of the Gare Saint-Lazare, is The Railway (1872-73). The young girl turns her back to the spectator and peers through the fence, presumably at a passing locomotive below -- a pose that was way too casual for the conventions of the time. On the right of the picture is a white pillar, part of the Place de l'Europe. And to the left, over the shoulder of the young woman -- at least, according to Wilson-Bareau's art-historical sleuthing -- can be made out the door and window of Manet's studio.
Manet's chronic combat with Salon juries as well as the public is an amusing subtext of the exhibition. Accompanying The Railway, Manet's only work accepted for the Salon of 1874, are caricatures by "Stop" and "Cham." In these barbs, the woman and her younger companion are ridiculed as if they were posed before the window of their insane asylum cell, imprisoned for lack of public respect, and, finally, as unwilling captives of a painter with foresight enough to know they'd want to run away from him!
The exhibition also features several portraits by Manet dating from the mid-1860s to the latter 1870s. The full-length portrait of Victorine Meurent, Young Woman in 1866, is arguably an allegory of the five senses (the model stands dressed in satin, next to a parrot on a perch with a peeled orange at its base, and holds a monocle in one hand and a spray of violets in the other). Meurent posed for most of Manet's major pictures of the 1860s, including his scandalous Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863) and the Olympia (1865), both of which conflate traditional nudity with very contemporary nakedness.
A decade later, however, the versatile studio actor makes her last appearance in The Railway. No longer embodying references to Painting's past, Victorine is now simply a contemporary Parisian woman, a typology that would henceforth increasingly interest the artist.
Paintings such as La Parisienne (1874-75) or Nana (1876) demonstrate Manet's continuing, and compelling, interest in the modern woman as the essential subject of modern painting. La Parisienne, a full-length portrait of a fashionable young woman, was "real . . . like life itself," according to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Manet's close friend and champion. The model was Ellen Andrée, a well known artist's model who later became a successful actress.
Nana, too, is an up-to-the-minute picture of contemporary commercial culture, with it's coquettish portrayal of a half-clothed woman in her dressing room, in the company of a patiently waiting, top-hatted gentleman. Nana was Manet's last great scandal, unanimously rejected by the Salon jury of 1877. This particular "nana" -- a slang term that can be translated into English as "chick" -- was a well-known courtesan, and the picture ended up in a fashionable shop window on the Boulevard des Capucines, displayed like any other modern commodity.
A later section of the exhibition is dedicated to Manet's 1876 studio exhibition, undertaken after his submissions to the Salon were rejected. The small portraits of Berthe Morisot and Mallarmé, along with Manet's illustrations for Mallarmé's translations of Poe, suggest the importance of Manet's intimate social circle as a bulwark against the larger public's incessant ridicule. Also included here is Lady with Fans. Portrait of Nina Callias (1873-74), a full-scale, dress-up painting of the literary and artistic salon diva, set against a Japoniste background that seems more typical of Monet than its author.
The exhibition takes one final excursion, this one down the Rue Mosnier, a new street that was visible from the window of Manet's studio and which he painted several times. The exhibition features Manet's notoriously anti-war Rue Mosnier Decorated with Flags, with a Man on Crutches (1878). It pictures a one-legged veteran hobbling down a street decked out with patriotic flags for the "Festival of Peace" which was France's first celebration since its defeat in the Franco-Prusssian War and the murderous Commune of 1870 (both of which are dealt with far too briefly in an early section of this exhibition).
Interestingly, Monet's La Rue Montorgueil, 30 June 1870 -- all confetti colors showing a spectacularly flag-draped avenue, an unequivocal celebration of this moment of self-congratulatory national pride -- is not included, though it hangs upstairs at the Orsay. Such a revealing comparison between the two artists must have seemed too seditious. It is ironic, then, that the happy Monet painting is available in variously sized reproductions in the exhibition's gift shop while the darker Manet is no where to be found!
At the core of the exhibition are nine of Monet's paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare, reunited here for the first time since their initial exhibition at the third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. Also included are an earlier Monet station picture (of Argenteuil) and a pair of Saint-Lazare preparatory drawings. The curator suggests that these works are Monet's first "series," foreshadowing the famous poplars, haystacks and cathedral facades of the 1890s. In fact, Saint-Lazare paintings were begun in January 1877 and shown that April, a time span that wouldn't afford the seasonal variations that characterize the series proper. Furthermore, the variety of viewpoints and compositions would seem to precede the truly serial "factory" model of esthetic commodity production that Monet exploited in the '90s and that becomes a key mechanism of Modernist painting.
A picture like Arrival of the Normandy Train: Gare Saint-Lazare brings out the visual effects that seem to have most interested Monet -- that is, contrasting vaporous clouds of steam with the solid stone and iron of the modern world. In this picture, the indoor steam is a strikingly abstract flurry of brushstrokes that obliterates the station's roof. Considering passages like this, the group of paintings seems more a study in steam-cloud typologies and "the formless" than an examination of the cast iron station architecture. There is some irony, too, in the fact that Monet's greatest and most extended treatment of the urban landscape was itself the gateway to the countryside northwest of Paris that Monet always preferred.
Among the illustrations in the show is an engraving by Auguste Lamy of the monumental Place de l'Europe bridge at the moment of its inauguration in 1868. Similar engravings publicize the newly completed station. A few of Gare Saint-Lazare architect Eugène Flachant's early 1850s designs are included, but unfortunately these plans don't illustrate his vision of the lofty iron and glass interior (for comparison with Monet's, done decades later).
The documentary section includes several fascinating period maps. One graphically demonstrates the effects of Haussmann rebuilding campaign. Countless new streets were marked in red with their dates of completion noted. A "tourist" map by Hilaire Guesnu showed just how unbelievably green and un-built Paris remained in the early 1860s.
"Manet, Monet and the Gare Saint-Lazare" actually seems to combine two separate exhibitions, a survey of Manet's works from mid-career and a blockbuster-type gallery of Impressionist pictures by Monet. As a result, the exhibition is like a football game where the half-time act seems the raison d'etre for the whole event. Manet's work introduces, concludes and is seen throughout the show. Monet's painterly cheer-leading squad and brass band is the exciting, crowd-pleasing interlude. Even so, in this context, Monet's paintings regain some of their radicalism, and once again convey the dynamism and excitement of then-contemporary Paris and its latest technological wonders.
Finally, the exhibition has a special poignancy in its present venue. Though now a monument to the past, the Musée d'Orsay was also once a railway station, and like the Gare Saint-Lazare, it embodied the progress of modernity and signified the future.
J. MARTIN HILL is a Ph.D. fellow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts.