Buried in the painting of one of Impressionism’s lesser known artists stands a lonely street sweeper oblivious to the scenes of rapid urban transformation unfolding around him in 19th century Paris.
In this tell-all painting titled, “Place de la Trinite,” by Jean-François Raffaëlli, a Parisian artist born in 1850 the subject chronicles the strains of modernity on the locals. The split-second framed shot shows the towering backdrop of the Saint Trinite Church rising above the mayhem below. There’s a horse and buggy galloping in a frenzy through the streets of fashionable Paris. A teetering street lamplighter stands on a ladder. Pedestrians and dogs scuttle past. Raffaëlli has been called the “Zola de la peinture” for good reason.
“Place de la Trinite” highlights three of the fastest evolutionary changes facing 19th century Paris: urban design, invention, and mass transportation all of which are uncannily portrayed in this sober urban portrait. You see new jobs, the lamplighter and the omnibus driver. Paris’ first gas street lights appeared in 1829. A year earlier omnibuses, the first mass transit system to hit the streets of Paris filled the streetscape with a new rowdy soundtrack. One of Paris’ gentrified neighbourhoods, the Opera District is the chosen location.
“Raffaëlli was careful to include in his painting workers lighting street lamps, sweeping the streets,and driving the omnibus,” explains Dr. Caroline Shields, a 19th century European art specialist and the curator behind the new Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition: Impressionism: In the Age of Industry.
Shields who worked with global institutions like the Musée D’Orsay, Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Museum of Art, and the J. Paul Getty Museum among others as well as private collectors lassoed a thought provoking exhibition in 14 months to showcase a story that was often left out from the charmed circles of the bourgeois society who preferred idleness and entertainment over toil and dirt.
The Faces behind Industry
It’s the story of the everyman – the invisible class that gets the spotlight in this pre-Downton Abbey look at what labourers, farmers, and servants did in their daily grind often under harsh conditions with little pay and no vacay in a changing world that frequently left them squeezed out.
The Impressionists used the same brush strokes and careful detail as in Monet’s water lilies or Degas’ ballerinas to feature a cadre of unnamed blue-collar folks in their environments.
In “The Steelworks” (1895) by Parisian artist Maximilien Luce, the blood red paint flecks roar from a furnace onto the shadowed figures in a pre-Kafkaesque monologue.
In Vincent Van Gogh’s “Factories at Clichy” (1887) billowing smokestacks hover over a couple standing in a meadow with their backs to us. Van Gogh, we learn in Impressionism: In the Age Of Industry, lived at the top of the hill in Montmartre about halfway between downtown Paris and Clichy and used to travel to see these factories up close. It was the age of urban sprawl.
“When you see all these arts brought together it’s not about machine and infrastructure but the people behind the machines, who live among them,” she says and adds for the first time these works of art have been brought together in this theme.
Over 120 works from renowned artists to those lesser known are featured through paintings, prints, photographs, period film which was a new medium invented by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, sculpture and guidebooks, another new phenomenon that predated Frommer’s and Fodor’s.
Gallery goers get a sense of the prodigious scale of the AGO’s own collection in such displayed works as James Tissot’s La Demoiselle de Magasin “The Shop Girl”(1883-1885) seen early in the exhibition as well as photographs, prints, sculpture, and the entire antique guidebook exhibit thoughtfully displayed between Lumiere’s footage, “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1895) and an oil painting, “A Suburban Railway Station,” (1896-1897) by French artist Georges D’Espagnat who was likely inspired by the movie clip to paint this mother and daughter on the train platform. This motion picture is one of the first films ever shown in the world’s first movie theatre which in typical French fashion was in the back of a Parisian cafe.
The Impressionist artists of the day, we learn in this groundbreaking exhibition wanted to keep up with the times in which they lived. It was cutting edge, new territory. “They rode the trains, they crossed the bridges and got to know the individual workers,” adds Dr. Shields on the artists who dove into the new subject with alacrity but somehow felt the city was ebbing into a foreign, alien place.
Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the urban planner behind the wide thoroughfares, uniformed palatial buildings and exquisite public squares that are now quintessential Parisian hallmarks was tasked by Emperor Napoleon III in re-imagining the capital. Over 30,000 buildings were destroyed causing the removal of 300,000 people who were displaced many with nowhere to go. Camille Pissarro’s Avenue de L’Opera (1898) showcases the wide boulevard of Haussmann’s new builds with the Opera house, a mirage of a speck viewed in the distance.
Modernism was the new trend. France’s celebratory City of Light starts to take shape due to war and industry driving inventions. The Franco-Prussian War a six-month battle with Prussia over land and power which Prussia won left an indelible mark on the Impressionist artists as you see in the etchings from the AGO’s collection by James Tissot titled, “The First Slain Man that I Saw, Recollection of the Siege of Paris” (1876). James Tissot we learn through the exhibit’s informational panels stepped up to defend Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.
In “La Place Des Pyramides” (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis, the Italian Impressionist painter captures the rebuilding of Paris with the partially rebuilt north wing of the Louvre which was destroyed by fire in 1871. We see another city landmark statue, the French heroine Jean d’Arc, a new public commission as a testament to Parisians resilience. This painting was also exhibited at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair as a celebration of the country’s recovery.
Monet: The Show’s Signature Painting
At the core of the exhibition is the “Age of Industry” with its movement, light and sensations. Claude Monet’s “Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint Lazare” (1877) on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago epitomizes the mad rush to modernity and serves as the show’s signature piece. The bellowing smoke cloud from the black locomotive masks the triangular glass canopy of the Salle d’Echanges in the Gare St. Lazare, a station from which you could take a trip around Europe.
Monet it’s been said went to the station director and used flattery to relay this station had far more character so he would paint it. Monet got the green light. He propped up his easel on the platform in the middle of streaming passengers to create what has become part of his most famous painting series in his lifetime. He painted Gare St. Lazare 11 times.
“He frequented this station regularly,” says Dr. Shields remarking his most quintessential brush strokes are featured and captured in the energy of this station.
At the introduction of Impressionism: In the Age of Industry, Dr. Shields invites you to relive the bustle of the Gare St. Lazare that stood as a cathedral of innovation replacing the dour cathedrals from the Medieval Ages. Scores of people flocked to these new glass and iron temples of transportation prepared to leave behind a city under renewal for other places.
In the AGO there is a railway station homage complete with a repro facade that begins your gallery tour. You hear the thundering arrival of a steam train entering St. Lazare through a haunting audio loop of ghostly commuters offloading to the echoes of a train crew ushering commands.
But before your final departure leaving behind this extraordinary period of transformation a trio of Monet’s bridge paintings leads you in asking for more.
Looking at the sober tones, the muted shades that crescendo in the stylish Monet design I cannot help but consider the cycle of life that emerges in this one artist. When Monet painted the St. Lazare train station the artist was a new transplant to the neighbourhood. The Gare was considered the hub of Europe which connected Paris to London, Brussels and Vienna.
In a strange twist of fate, it would take Monet 23 years to return to the theme of gritty industrial life and it took a trip over the Big Pond to London to reignite inspiration.
“Now Monet starts to leave Paris to go to London –it’s the first time he returns to industrial subjects since he painted the Gare St. Lazare painting. He took a 23 year industrial break from this subjects. But he turns to it in London. I think that is poignant to be in London in a city that is so famous for the Industrial Revolution but also infamous for its smog,” Dr. Shields reflects of the oil painting, “Charing Cross Bridge, Brouillard,” he painted in 1902.
Fast Forward to Today
It’s hard not to consider how the 100+ year old dilemmas facing Old Europe share an alarming similarity to 21st century metropolises. Dr. Shields uses the global city of Toronto as a point of conversation. “Here in Toronto the change is thrilling and exciting but these changes come with a lot of challenges as well,” she explains highlighting urban issues from affordable housing to traffic. “We can feel that we can relate.”
For instance, in Toronto’s downtown core, paper-thin land plots have been converted into glass skyscrapers, city politicians endure a paralysis over expanding public transit networks and the issue of urban sprawl is no longer mentioned. Farm land disappears replaced by shopping malls packed with off-shored goods lining the shelves as citizens ingest GMO inventions.
Yes, we live in the enfant terrible bad boy age of Banksy and rap artist Drake. One street artist emulates graffiti now highly collectible while the latter whispers, “You used to call me on my cell phone,” exploding the music charts.
These days as modern creators revert to digital captures for Instagram uploads or stream music, gallery goers can hit pause and store their Iphones if only until the end of the show to consider how these remarkable foregone Impressionist artists would document today’s times.
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Admission: Adult General Admission, $19.50; Special Exhibition $25; Seniors (65+) General Admission, $16; Special Exhibition, $21.50; Students General Admission, $11; Special Exhibition, $16.50.
Impressionism in the Age of Industry runs now until May 5, 2019 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. For tickets and more information click here.