Gare Sainte-Lazare (1877) by Claude Monet
Meaning and Interpretation of Impressionist Painting

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Gare St. Lazare
By Claude Monet.
Regarded as one of the
greatest Impressionist paintings
of the nineteenth century.

Gare Sainte-Lazare (1877)


Explanation of other Monet Paintings


Name: Gare Sainte-Lazare (1877)
Artist: Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Urban landscape
Movement/Style: See Characteristics of Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of pictures
by modern artists like
Claude Monet, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Gare Sainte-Lazare by Monet

In its purest form, French Impressionism was concerned with the accurate rendering of sunlight and its effect on the colour of its surroundings. Impressionist painters therefore had to concentrate on plein air painting - in the sunlight - rather than studio work. Impressionist landscape painting, in particular, necessitated spontaneous and rapid outdoor sketches, if not completed works. The leading advocates of open air painting included Monet, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), plus to a lesser extent Renoir (1839-1919). (For more, please see: Impressionist Claude Monet and Legacy of Claude Monet's Impressionism.)

Monet began his wonderful series of paintings of the Paris railway-station Gare Sainte-Lazare in 1876, and completed it in 1878. He had previously painted variations on a single theme but this was his first systematic effort to ring the changes of light and time of day on a chosen subject. At least four of about ten paintings were executed at about the same spot under the large angle of the station roof, others in the open outside. He was interested in the diverse colours of steam, at one time deep blue against warm sunlight as in this instance or at another light against dark, and of course also in all the associated contrasts between the covered space and the city beyond. The way in which he used thick paint, blending numerous small bright touches of colour, was especially forceful in accordance with the suggestion of mechanical power the subject demanded.

It is possible that some memory of Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed, which he had seen in the National Gallery in London six years earlier, crossed his mind and suggested the subject. So far did he become absorbed in what he painted that the spectator experiences all the sensation of being actually on the spot. Yet the fact that he could paint so many versions does not indicate a special interest in locomotives and steal power but rather in the changing effects of light in terms of colour that make each version so different from the others.

This was the beginning of the several series of paintings - overall a remarkable contribution to modern art, which included separate series on Rouen Cathedral west facade, Hay Stacks, Water Lilies - in which the subject matter became of decreasing importance and light/colour became their raison d'etre.



St-Lazare station was the Paris railway terminus which served what might now be called "Monet country". It was the station not only for Argenteuil but also for most of Monet's favourite locations in northern France, including Le Havre, Chatou, Bougival, Louveciennes, Ville d'Avray, Bouen and Vernon (for the branch line to Giverny).

The subject had an obvious fascination for a painter with his interests, and the fact that he made twelve paintings in such a short time is a testament to his enthusiasm. Another reason for his haste was that he wanted to include the paintings in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition and the closing date was in April. In the event he exhibited only eight of the twelve. Once he had completed the group he seems to have been creatively exhausted, and only produced four other paintings that year.

See: Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris (1874-86) for more details about the early shows.

Although they are a sequence of paintings, they are not, in Monet's terms of reference, a series, since they show a number of different views of the station rather than exploring the changing effect of light on the same view. The treatments vary from the oil-sketch to the studio-finished work, this painting having been done on the spot. He set up his painting stand centrally under the canopy, and the symmetrically of the composition is broken by both the large carriage shape on the left and the placing of the engine a little to the right of the centre of the canopy of iron girders. The directional movement in the composition is provided by the movement of the foreground figure towards the right. Again, complementary colours have been used to enhance one another, this time the mauvish smoke and the pale yellow glowing sunlight, and the carefully constructed smoke pattern is both the whole colour key and the element that gives life and rhythm to the work. The brushwork is no longer directional; it is a dense impasto laid on with such delicacy that even the harsh shape of the engine is softened into a steam-bathed form. The almost ethereal light makes the figures appear more as points of movement than as actual people going about their business. (For an idea of Monet's colours, see: 19th Century colour palette.)

Overall it is a carefully constructed composition which avoids too much symmetricality by simple devices of balance and placing. Although the canopy is exactly central (reflecting Monet's painting position), the engine is a little to the left, and the bulky shape of the carriage and the direction of the smoke from the engine continue the emphasis on the left side of the painting. The framework of the side of the shed extends this further, while the right side is left open, filled with light sharpened by the small dabs of sharp colour suggesting figures and objects. The general warmth of colour is emphasized by the floating areas of steam and smoke in white and cobalt violet tints - at once exciting and surprising. As Monet's painting developed it became increasingly high in key until the time of the later water garden series, when the deep blues and greens returned, used with an even greater mastery.

Explanation of other Monet Paintings

Women in the Garden (1866-7) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Monet's first real success.

La Grenouillere (1869) Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Exquisite plein-air painting.

Impression, Sunrise (1873) Musee Marmottan-Monet, Paris.
The painting that christened the greatest art movement.

The Beach at Trouville (1870) Wadsworth Atheneum, CT.
Rapid plein air painting of the artist's wife and Mrs Eugene Boudin.

Poppy Field (Argenteuil) (1873) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Masterly rendition of summer walk among poppies.

Water Lilies series (1897-1926) various art museums.
Monet created over 250 landscapes of his ponds and gardens at Giverny.

The Water Lily Pond: Green Harmony (1899) Musee d'Orsay.
One of 18 views of Monet's Japanese-style footbridge.

NOTE: For the story behind French Impressionism and the group of artists who created it, please see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from MONET (2002) by Trewin Copplestone, an essential source for anyone interested in Claude Monet and the Impressionist movement.


• For the meaning of other works of Impressionism, see: Homepage.

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