An Active Infinity: Impressionism in the Age of Industry

Published May 31, 2019 on Degree Critical.

Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877), Claude Monet. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. Courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago.

Camille Pissarro looked out of his window on a rainy day in 1896. The painter was staying in yet another hotel in Rouen. He chose a different one every time he visited, but always on the shore overlooking the bridges Boieldieu and Grand Pont, and the flowing, fast-paced waterside of the Seine. He was now 66 years old, and a chronic eye infection didn’t allow him to paint outside in fresh air anymore. Since seeing for the first time Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series (1892-1894) that had “the superb unity which [he had] been seeking for a long time,”[1] Pissarro craved something similar from the port city, but something of his own. A certain, modern quality of this city captivated him.

Rather than Monet’s studies of the cathedral, Pissarro was much more interested in the transforming atmosphere of Northern France, reporting excitedly in letters to his son the “movement, the life, the atmosphere of the harbor thronged with smoking ships, bridges, chimneys, sections of the city in the fog and mist, under the setting sun.”[2] A new, industrial era was in the making as the blue hues of the European sky Pissarro knew all his life began turning gray with mists of smoke and steam. He was aware that he was witnessing an unprecedented reality reveal itself, one day after the other and one factory after another. Making paintings by the dozen at his window over the Seine as he contemplated Rouen’s flourishing industry, he painted Le pont Boieldieu à Rouen, temps mouillé (1896). It was a cityscape painted with warm but muted pinks and deep, green-hued blues. It depicted the iron Boieldieu Bridge and its wonderful crowd over the Seine, with the “motif of the iron bridge on a rainy day, with much traffic, carriages, pedestrians, workers on the quays, boats, smoke, mist in the distance, the whole scene fraught with animation and life.”[3] The steam from a docked ship, a thick, shiny coat of dirty white oil color dominated the upper right corner of the canvas, just as the feeling of modern times, of industrial progress dominated its whole. He was aware of something alluring, and he wasn’t alone––everything around him was changing, including the art he and his contemporaries were making.

The Beach at Saint-Mammès (1884), Alfred Sisley. Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum.

This painting of Rouen hung recently in “Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more” at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, along with over 120 other artworks gathered around an oft-neglected theme that was nonetheless of great interest to the Impressionist painters: industrializing France in rapid transformation. The works in “Impressionism in the Age of Industry” stripped away the established focus on nature and light of Impressionism and instead centralized the newfound world of machinery and steam power in and around the cities of France in the nineteenth century. It’s also, quite surprisingly, the first show ever to present this overlooked aspect of Impressionist works, which captured this incredible historic era as part of an art movement. The exhibition opened with a timeline that compiled historical information about life in Paris at the time, French politics, and art history in a simple, illuminating format that helped situate the viewer within the Impressionists’ era. Considering the visual arts and technological history jointly can be tricky because their relativity to each other is not often superficially obvious. This introduction and thematic arrangement of the show, curated by Assistant Curator of European Art Dr. Caroline Shields, made this connection clear by highlighting easy-to-miss details and categorizing works coherently.

And therein lied the most fascinating part of the show: it crystallized the fact that even though this connective tissue isn’t visually evident from what we perceive as traditional works of Impressionism—be it Monet’s impressions of morning sun or Jacques Renoir’s grand luncheons—they became what they are exactly as a result of industrialism’s impact on artists. “Before the creation of the railroad, nature did not throb; it was a Sleeping Beauty,” read a quote by French writer and historian Benjamin Gastineau, on the walls of the AGO. “The railroad animated everything, mobilized everything. The sky became an active infinity, nature an energized beauty.” What fascinated Pissarro as an old man in Rouen was kept out of view in popular Impressionist works. Yet the smoke, dust, and all the ‘uglier’ signs of the new century lingered and served the artists on the backstage, as laborers and the trains they made work did, slightly off the spotlight.

Factories at Clichy (1887), Vincent Van Gogh. Courtesy of St. Louis Art Museum. 

“Impressionism in the Age of Industry” opened with an iconic painting by Monet that summarized the whole idea of the show: Arrival of the Normandy Train: Gare Saint-Lazare (1877), a small, dark painting of a train station with cold values of blue and black and gray, and an incredible feeling of industrial atmosphere. Elsewhere, Alfred Sisley’s The Beach at Saint Mammès (1884) showed not much of the new industrial world of smoke and exhaust, and instead looked much more like a traditional Impressionist painting with its serene, pastel views of tall, naked trees and the shore. The decision to include these two seemingly dissimilar paintings effectively highlighted an underlying relationship. The speedy expansion of railway tracks in the 1870s, which stretched across almost 15,000 miles of French land, was not only a visual inspiration that inspired Monet to paint Arrival of the Normandy Train, but was also connected to views of beaches of coastal France, which became a much celebrated subject for Impressionist painters. The trains made travel to the seaside easy and accessible for artists, as Sisley’s Saint Mammès attests. The factories that sprung up throughout the nation inspired Vincent van Gogh to paint Factories at Clichy (1887), a small, colorful sketch from the final years of his life, but also gave birth to many other paintings by masters such as Edgar Degas, Georges Seurat, and Mary Cassatt, who were all represented here by paintings of cities, factory workers, and female laborers. Seurat’s two studies for his famous Bathers at Asnières (both 1883) show his compassion for those workers, depicting them washing on their day off. Cassatt, a critical, under-represented woman artist, portrayed female labor with Children in a Garden (The Nurse)(1878). These paintings, hung together across the AGO with articulated, informative captions, presented a document of the changing face of labor and expanding industry in late nineteenth-century France.

Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien about Boieldieu Bridge, on October 3, 1896: “You should see all this in the morning when the light is misty and delicate. […] It is as beautiful as Venice, my dear, it has an extraordinary character and is really beautiful!”[4] As the dawn of a new century approached, the Lumière brothers screened Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) the first moving image in history, also poignantly included. The artists of this transforming world embraced the smoke and dust, the steam and steel, and they made beautiful things––water lilies, distant skies, and sometimes even iron bridges.

[1] Camille Pissarro, Letter to Lucien Pissarro. [Published and translated in John Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien, (London, 1980) p. 270].                               

[2] Camille Pissarro, Letter to Lucien Pissarro. [Ibid. p. 299].

[3] Camille Pissarro, Letter to Lucien Pissarro. [Ibid. p. 282-83].

[4] Camille Pissarro, Letter to Lucien Pissarro. [Ibid. p. 297].

Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more was on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, between February 16–May 5, 2019.