Cézanne and the Steam Railway (2)
: The Earliest Railway Painting among Impressionist Painters

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



Fig. 1 Claude Monet A Train in the Country 1870

 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 landscapes.
 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 painting.



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)


Fig. 5


Fig. 6


Fig. 7

Fig. 8
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 of beauty.
 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 painting.



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. 29-32.
 (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.

 This is a revised edition of “New Viewpoint on Art: Cézanne and Steam Railway (2)” published in Nihon Art Journal, March/April, 2012.


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

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