Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) was the first painter to depict the steam railway among impressionist painters.
This is an important fact, which shows that he had the most acute sensibility
with regard to “modernité” (modernity), as referred to by Charles Baudelaire.
In France, the impressionist painters were the first ones to ardently
portray the steam railway. It has been said that Claude Monet’s A Train in the Country (1870) (Fig. 1) is the earliest impressionist railway painting.
In the France of the 1870s, it was not conventional to paint the steam
locomotive because it was technologically modern and was considered an
ugly monster that would advance forward at an extraordinary speed with
roaring sounds. Railroads were also considered intruders in the natural
Therefore, painters avoided painting sceneries in which the steam railway
would be prominent. If a train had to be depicted, it was usually drawn
small and from a distant view and was never the main player but a by-player.
Even in such cases, the work was usually a drawing or a print and never
an oil painting. The former were considered inferior to the latter.
Thus, members of the impressionist group lead by Claude Monet (1840–1926)
were considered innovators in the sense that they were the first ones in
France to topicalize the steam railway through oil paintings. (Nevertheless,
I would like to point out that, in A Train in the Country (Fig. 1), the steam locomotive was kept hidden behind trees.)
Fig. 2 Paul Cézanne The Ferry at Bonnières summer of 1866
Interestingly, Cézanne, a painter of modern life as well as a well known
nature lover, topicalized the steam railway about four years before Monet
did. In fact, Cézanne painted The Ferry at Bonnières (Fig. 2) in the summer of 1866.
If one actually stands at the spot from which the scene is viewed, one
will notice that the Bonnières station on the Paris to Le Havre line is
near the telegraph pole, which is to the left, and the train passes from
the right to the left (Fig. 3–Fig.8). Cézanne who took this spot to sketch
must have recognized this specific scene.
Moreover, according to Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1977), in the nineteenth century, the telegraph network developed along
with the railway network to facilitate the smooth operation of the train
system (1). When the Bonnières station was established on May 9, 1843,
“the telegraph pole and electric wires,” which Cezanne depicts (Fig. 2),
were a definite part of the railway system; Cézanne depicted two railway
subjects: “a station” and “a telegraph pole and electric wires” in his
Fig. 3 A train passing through Bonnières station
（filmed by the author on August 28, 2006）
Fig. 4 A train leaving Bonnières station
（filmed by the author on August 28, 2006）
The scenery around Bonnières station
(photographed by the author on August 28, 2006)
Here, it is very important to note that novelist Émile Zola, Cézanne’s
best friend since junior high school, mentioned “the railway and the telegraph”
three times in My Hatreds (1866) published just before Cézanne’s first railway painting (Fig. 2).
Actually, Zola, in the preface, said, “We are in an age in which, through
the railway and the telegraph, we can transport our bodies and thoughts absolutely and infinitely, and in which the human mind suffers tremendous pain and is serious and restless” (2). In “Literature and Gymnastics” Zola wrote, “We are in an age in which the railway often elicits uneasy bitter smiles like those elicited by a bad comedy,
and in which, the telegraph, in the most extreme cases, conveys merciless realities” (3). Moreover,
in “Mr. H. Taine, Artist” Zola insisted, “I believe that the new scientific
method of critiquing literature and art is contemporaneous with the telegraph and the railway” (4).
Thus, through mentions of “the railway and the telegraph,” Zola objected
to the former generation’s old aesthetic sense. The members of this generation
avoided involving themselves in the contemporary society that was developing
rapidly and only wanted to pursue the idealized and fantastical notion
For example, in Claude’s Confession (1865) that was dedicated to “my friend P. Cézanne” (5), Zola proclaimed
that “No more lies! The brutal truth is strangely sweet for those who are
tormented by the problems of life” (6). In Two Definitions of the Novel (1866), Zola explained that “the novel method of observation and analysis”
was produced under the “scientific and mathematical tendency of modern
times” (7). In My Hatreds (1866), Zola discussed the new trend of “scientific” study in literature
and argued, “Modern society is here and is waiting for the historians”
(8), and, in My Salon (1866), which he dedicated to “my friend Paul Cézanne” (9), Zola claimed
that under the “scientific” trend of the times, “To paint dreams is child’s
and woman’s play; men have to paint realities” (10).
Relevantly, in his letter to Camille Pissarro on March 15, 1865, Cézanne
said that he intended to send his aggressive painting to a salon that did
not accept its new aesthetic sense and “make the Institute blush with rage
and despair” (11). Zola also commented in Téophile Gautier (1879) that “Romanticists abominated the spirit of the century. They abhorred
the great scientific and industrial movement. According to them, the railway and the telegraph ruined the best of sceneries” (12).
Moreover, Cézanne enjoyed the vacation with Zola around Bonnières in the
summer of 1866 and painted The Ferry at Bonnières (Fig. 2) during that period; Zola owned the painting until his death.
In short, it can be interpreted that this painting commemorates Cézanne
and Zola’s youthful summer. Undoubtedly, Cézanne and Zola, who were aware
of the actual spot, understood that this picture topicalized the steam
railway. This is indicative of the intimate relationship between them. It
is certain that to solidify his friendship with Zola, Cézanne included
“the railway and the telegraph,” which was then disliked by people.
Interestingly, in The Masterpiece (1886) whose protagonist is modeled on Cézanne, Zola wrote about a train
trip from Paris to Bonnières as trendy new custom and described the exact
same place that is depicted in The Ferry at Bonnières (Fig. 2).
Claude was delighted to have her with him for a whole day and suggested
taking her to the country, feeling he wanted her all to himself, far away
from everything, in the sunshine. Christine was thrilled by the idea, so
they rushed out like a pair of mad things and reached the Saint-Lazare
Station just in time to jump into the train for Le Havre. He knew a small
village just on the other side of Mantes, Bennecourt, where there was an
artists’ inn on which he had descended more than once with his friends,
and, without a thought for the two-hour journey, he took her there for
lunch with as little fuss as if he had been taking her no farther afield
than Asnières. She thought the long journey was great fun; the longer the
better! It seemed impossible that the day itself could ever come to an
end. By ten o’clock they were at Bonnières. There they took the ramshackle
old ferry boat, worked by a chain, across the Seine to Bennecourt (13).
Therefore, it can be said that The Ferry at Bonnières (Fig. 2), which depicts the same place as this text describes, expresses
the same feeling of freedom induced by the high-speed of the steam railway
(Fig. 9, Fig. 10). It can be concluded that The Ferry at Bonnières (summer of 1866) (Fig. 2) by Cézanne is the earliest impressionist railway
Fig. 9 A Train Window Scenery from Saint-Lazare Station to Bonnières Station.
(filmed by Tomoki Akimaru on August 28, 2006)
Fig. 10 The scenery around Bonnières Station and the Seine River
(photographed by the author on August 28, 2006)
(1) 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, pp.
（2） Émile Zola, Mes Haines (1866), in Œuvres complètes, tome I, Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2002, p. 723.
（3） Ibid., p. 750.
（4） Ibid., p. 835.
（5） Émile Zola, La Confession de Claude (1865), in Œuvres complètes, tome I, Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2002, p. 407.
（6） Ibid., p. 439.
（7） Émile Zola,“ Deux définitions du roman” (1866), in Œuvres complètes, tome II, Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2002, p. 510.
（8） Émile Zola, Mes Haines (1866), in Œuvres complètes, tome I, Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2002, p. 820.
（9） Émile Zola, Mon Salon (1866), in Œuvres complètes, tome II, Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2002, p. 617.
（10） Ibid., p. 642.
（11） Paul Cézanne, Correspondance, recueillie, annotée et préfacée par John Rewald, Paris: Bernard Grasset,
1937; nouvelle édition révisée et augmentée, Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1978,
p. 113. (Paul Cezanne, Letters, edited by John Rewald, translated from the French by Marguerite Kay,
New York: Da Capo Press, 1995, p. 102.)
（12） Émile Zola, “Téophile Gautier” (1879), in Œuvres complètes, tome X, Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2004, p. 710.
（13） Émile Zola, The Masterpiece, translated by Thomas Walton, translation revised and introduced by Roger
Pearson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 155-156.