If you mention the name of Claude Monet in polite company, you’ll very likely be greeted by a chorus of appreciative oohs and ahs about waterlilies and haystacks. There’s even a reasonable chance that the placemats on your table, or the cushion upon which you recline will feature these motifs. Perhaps the Japanese bridge in Monet’s garden at Giverny in Normandy will even make an appearance on a lampshade.
These motifs of Monet’s are wildly popular and with good reason. In their masterfully crafted soft and serene fuzziness, they are undoubtedly soothing to the senses for many of us who live in hard-edged metropolitan worlds of steel and glass. Monet’s sensibilities as expressed through his gentle paintings offer a welcome respite from the frantic modern world.
There’s more to Monet than waterlilies
Monet doubtless adored his garden’s waterlilies, as did his public. Having tapped into a rich vein of popular sentiment, Monet painted the subject repeatedly from 1900. He produced at least 48 substantial waterlily cavasses in the subsequent decade with even more to follow. These paintings tour the world in the twenty-first century in sold-out “blockbuster” exhibitions that show no sign of abating. Given Monet’s popularity as a painter of nature, it might come as a surprise that he was also a painter of “modern” industrial scenes. And this was well before the era of his waterlily and haystack obsessions.
Back in 1877, Monet was determined to capture on canvas the industrial modernity of Paris. Notably with his paintings of the transport wonder of the age, the locomotive steam engine. Monet was a pioneer of a style of art that aspired to represent the world not in photo-realism, but as an “impression” of a fleeting moment of light, colour and texture, often painted quickly with stabs of visible paint strokes.
Monet’s painting of Gare St-Lazare
In his painting Gare St-Lazare (actually one of a series), Monet chose as his subject the second busiest railway station in Paris. The location was typically full of surging steam and sulphurous smoke that was in constant movement and interplayed with the natural light, whether outside or under the station’s vast glass canopies. The painting shows us an encased industrial scene. A mighty steel and glass roof above. Steel structures at both sides and steel rails under a latticework of hard shadows below. But within this inflexible framework, all else in the middle of the painting is relentless, clouded movement. This dramatic contrast between the hard periphery and the swirling centre creates a sense of mechanised awe in this magnificent canvas.
This is a painting that certainly challenges today’s popular perception of Monet as a rural haystack and plant painter. Here we see the Monet who embraces the modern industrial world. His celebration of a steel-framed and billowing coal-fired dynamism is a long way from his later dreamy scenes of gently floating waterlilies.
Gare St-Lazare can be viewed at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris – which, appropriately, was formerly a railway station.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…
More on Monet
Latour Marliac where Monet’s lilies were grown in the south of France