Cézanne and the Steam Railway (1)
: A Transformation of Visual Perception in the 19th Century

Tomoki Akimaru (Art Historian)
Below is an abstract of my doctoral dissertation.



Fig. 1 Paul Cézanne Small Houses at Auvers-sur-Oise 1873–1874

 What did Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) try to “realize” in his paintings?
 The above question has many possible answers. However, one perspective that has not yet been explored is the transformation of visual perception caused by the introduction of the steam railway in the nineteenth century.
 In fact, the life of Cézanne and the development of the French railway are contemporaneous.
 In 1837, the steam railway for passengers was introduced in France; Cézanne was born two years later. Railways developed rapidly in the 1840s, and all the main railway lines that now connect Paris to France’s principal cities were constructed during the Second French Empire (1852–1870).
 On the other hand, in 1861, when Cézanne was 22 years old, he took a long-distance train trip for the first time―his first journey to Paris from his hometown, Aix-en-Provence. Thereafter, Cézanne frequently traveled to various areas of France using the railway network. As a railway traveler, Cézanne is a modern traveler, and although he is generally known as a painter who loves nature, he is also a painter of modern life.
 Dependent on the power and stamina of horses, the carriage was usually able to run at only about 16 km/h on average. Compared to this, the maximum speed of the steam locomotives operating in 1845 was about 64 km/h, that is, quadruple the speed of the carriage.
 Such movement at high speeds caused giddiness when looking at the scenery through the window of the wagon. This was disliked by the older generation, which was used to the natural perception of the landscape, as they thought that the view from the trains made the scenery look ugly. On the contrary, the new generation adapted to the mechanized perception induced by the speed of the train, and the feeling that such train-window views were beautiful gradually appeared.
 Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Railway Journey (1977) notes the following two examples.
 First, in a letter dated August 22, 1837, Victor Hugo wrote to his wife that he liked the passing scenery viewed from a moving train. Further, he mentioned that the speeding train made the scenery appear deformed, spotted, and striped.

I am reconciled with the railway; it is decidedly very beautiful. (...) The movement is magnificent, and it is necessary to experience it in order to feel so. The speed is extraordinary. The flowers by the side of the road are no longer flowers but flecks, or rather streaks, of red or white; there are no longer any points, everything becomes a streak; the grainfields are great shocks of yellow hair; fields of alfalfa, long green tresses; the towns, the steeples, and the trees perform a crazy mingling dance on the horizon (1).

 In English Items; or, Microcosmic Views of England and Englishmen (1853), Matthew E. Ward also expressed his love for the fleeting scenery viewed from a running railcar. He also explained that when seen from an accelerating train, things that are near appear to move quickly and things that are at a distance appear to move slowly.

The beauties of England being those of a dream, should be as fleeting. (...) They never appear so charming as when dashing on after a locomotive at forty miles (about 64km) an hour. Nothing by the way requires study, or demands meditation, and though objects immediately at hand seem tearing wildly by, yet the distant fields and scattered trees, are not so bent on eluding observation, but dwell long enough in the eye to leave their undying impression. Every thing is so quiet, so fresh, so full of home, and destitute of prominent objects to detain the eye, or distract the attention from the charming whole, that I love to dream through these placid beauties whilst sailing in the air, quick, as if astride a tornado (2).

 Cézanne belongs to the first generation to perceive such a new form of visual perception as lovely, and it can be seem that he created new artistic expressions influenced by the perception of the moving scenery induced by the steam railway, whether consciously or unconsciously.
 Actually, in many of Cézanne’s paintings, his strokes are repeated in the transverse direction, while the ridgelines are emphasized in a horizontal direction, and the images of things that are nearer appear rougher (Fig. 1, Fig. 2).



Fig. 2 Paul Cézanne The Mont Sainte-Victoire and Large Pine c. 1887

 The most interesting point is that in a letter to Émile Zola, written on April 14, 1878, Cézanne also praised the scenery seen through the window of a moving train.

En allant à Marseille, je me suis accompagné avec Monsieur Gibert. Ces gens-là voient bien, mais ils ont des yeux de professeurs. En passant par le chemin de fer près la campagne d’Alexis, un motif étourdissant se développe du côté du levant : Ste-Victoire et les rochers qui dominent Beaurecueil. J’ai dit : « quel beau motif »; il a répondu : « les lignes se balancent trop ». ―A propos de l’Assommoir dont d'ailleurs il a été le premier à me parler, il a dit des choses très sensées et laudatives, mais toujours au point de vue du faire!

When I went to Marseille I was in the company of Monsieur Gibert. These people see correctly, but they have the eyes of Professors. Where the train passes close to Alexis’s country house, a stunning motif appears on the East side: Sainte-Victoire and the rocks that dominate Beaurecueil. I said: “What a beautiful motif”; he replied: “The lines shake too much.” ―With regard to the ‘Assommoir’ about which, by the way, he spoke to me first, he said some very sensible and laudatory things, but always from the point of view of the technique! (3)

 A few minutes from Aix-en-Provence Station, the view from the train going from Aix to Marseille is similar to the one described by Cézanne. More precisely, what Cézanne admires here as a “beautiful motif” is the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which can be seen from the train when it runs through the railway bridge at the Arc valley, painted in the center on the right side of his painting (Fig. 2–Fig. 11).




Fig. 3 The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from the train
while passing through the railway bridge at the Arc valley
(photographed by the author on August 26, 2006)


Fig. 4 The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from the train
while passing through the railway bridge at the Arc valley
(filmed by the author on August 26, 2006)


Fig. 5


Fig. 6


Fig. 7

Fig. 8
The railway bridge at the Arc valley
(photographed by the author on August 22, 2006)


Fig. 9 The railway bridge at the Arc valley and the Mont Sainte-Victoire
(filmed by the author on August 22, 2006)


Fig. 10 The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen over the railway bridge at the Arc valley
(filmed by the author on August 25, 2006)


Fig. 11 The railway bridge at the Arc valley around 1903 (Photographer unknown)


Fig. 12 A train in the late 19th century (photographed by Émile Zola)


 It is noteworthy that Cézanne’s letter was written only half a year after the opening of the railway line from Aix to Marseille, including this railway bridge, on October 15, 1877. Moreover, this letter is the first document wherein 39-year-old Cézanne refers to the Mont Sainte-Victoire as a “motif,” and Cézanne began painting the series of the Mont Sainte-Victoire around 1878.
 In short, it is highly possible that Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire sequences were influenced by the visual perception caused by the train passing over this railway bridge at the Arc valley. At a minimum, Cézanne himself declared that the scenery viewed from a speeding train is beautiful so that nobody could deny the possibility that such aesthetic experiences are reflected in Cézanne’s painted representations.
 Of course, Cézanne did not sketch the exact scenery through the window of a speeding train. But, from the perspective of the assimilation of the modernized vision into the products of artistic creativity, it is very important for us to recognize that Cézanne painted natural landscapes by applying the mechanized perception induced by the steam railway.
 It is a historical truth that the steam railway was popular in the nineteenth century and generated a visual revolution in people’s daily life. We would like to reappraise Cézanne, who reacted to an epoch-making change in seeing too obvious now for us to be conscious of and realized it in his art, based on the new modern sensation induced by the steam railway, making this artist a great aesthetic recorder of the transformation of vision in human history (Fig. 12).

 (1) Victor Hugo, Correspondance familiale et écrits intimes, tome II (1828-1839), Paris: Robert Laffont, 1991, p. 421. (Cited in Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1986, p. 55.)
 (2) Cited in Schivelbusch, Op. cit., p. 60.
 (3) Paul Cézanne, Correspondance, recueillie, annotée et préfacée par John Rewald, Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1937; nouvelle édition révisée et augmentée, Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1978, p. 165. (cf. Paul Cezanne, Letters, edited by John Rewald, translated from the French by Marguerite Kay, New York: Da Capo Press, 1995, pp. 158-159.)

 (Fig. 11 was quated from John Rewald, Cezanne: A Biography, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986. Fig. 12 was quated from Emile Zola, Photograph, Eine Autobiographie in 480 Bildern, herausgegeben und zusammengestellt von François-Emile Zola und Massin, München: Schirmer/Mosel, 1979.)

 This is a revised edition of “New Viewpoint on Art: Cézanne and Steam Railway (1)” published in Nihon Art Journal, January/February, 2012.


 Cézanne and the Steam Railway
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Copyright (C) Tomoki Akimaru.All rights reserved.


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