Thanks to Monet and his water lilies, Impressionist painters have gained a reputation for being a bit splodgy, brightly coloured, and concerned with trying to capture the fleeting nature of the quality of light, permanently on canvas. But they were so much more than that. They were recorders of the real world, rather than the sanitised and romanticised version the art establishment of the time believed ought to be depicted. More importantly, they were recorders of the beginnings of the modern world, a world that was increasingly being shaped by the rapid development of industrial-scale transport.
J M W Turner (sometimes seen as a sort of proto-Impressionist, and an influence on the Impressionists) was less concerned with factual detail than mood and light, and depicted the new-fangled steam train as a gloomy, scary, thundering beast intent on mowing down an innocent hare, in “Rain, Steam and Speed” (which we looked at some months ago). The Impressionists had rather a different view of the world.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) would eventually come to be seen as one Impressionism’s leading lights, and was referred to in his later years as “The Master” by Cézanne and Gaugin (which I understand is high praise). Before that, he bequeathed the world some wonderful depictions of contemporary transport. Like this.
Pissarro, born in the Carribean, studied his craft in Paris in the mid 1800s. After a fairly conventional start, he became increasingly attracted to the idea of painting real life landscapes, rather than idealised scenes, capturing his feelings about what he saw in a new, more spontaneous style. In other words, Impressionism (though it didn’t have that name at the time). It got him into all sorts of trouble with the French art establishment, along with his friends, artists like Claude Monet and Armand Guillaumin, who shared the same views.
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 saw Pissarro move to Norwood in the UK, which was then a leafy town south of London. Here (amongst other works), he documented the developing railway network connecting towns like Norwood to other small towns and villages south of London, in “Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich” (above). Unlike Turner’s near-apocalyptic vision of the steam train, painted 27 years before, Pissarro is much more accepting of the railway. It simply exists, doing its job, unthreateningly sending a thin column of pale smoke into the sky. The station itself is rendered in clean, warm tones. His later painting, “The Train, Bedford Park” again shows the railway as unthreatening, and the train as modest and friendly. In fact, the railway is probably depicted as far cleaner than it would have been in practice (it’s highly unlikely that the ballasted track would have been a honey colour), which shows that Pissarro’s ‘impression’ of the railway must have been positive.
Ironically, it was the self-same railways that Pissarro depicted which would eventually lead to the southward urban sprawl of London, and the loss of the quiet green countryside in his paintings.
“Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich” has another claim to fame. London has lost relatively few of its railways, but one of the lines which has closed is the branch to Crystal Palace High Level station. After the Palace burnt down, it lost most of its reason for existing, and was closed in the 1950s. Lordship Lane station was on that line, so not only is Pissaro’s painting a reasoned representation of one of his local railways, but it is also a historical record of a line which no longer exists.
Pissarro’s subsequent return to Paris saw him take part in all the major Impressionist exhibitions which followed; exhibitions which suffered a degree of critical mauling at the time. The Impressionists didn’t see anything wrong with painting modern industrial or technological landscapes. To them, industry and technology were simply part of the world. They wanted to show an honest view in their paintings, and that meant showing whatever was in their line of sight, natural or artificial. It was an attitude which was incredibly shocking at the time. Painters (according to the Paris Salon, a sort of trade body which decided what was, and wasn’t, good taste in art) were supposed to create images of pastoral landscapes, or theological scenes. Not peasants, or bridges or boats or trains. But Pissaro painted them all.
They weren’t even pretty boats, you understand. Just regular old working cargo boats, grey-brown and plying their trade along the Seine in Rouen and in other places.
I can’t imagine the Turner Prize-winning artists of today being interested in representing transport as part of their work. It’s hard to conceive of Damien Hirst cutting a car in half and preserving it in formaldehyde, or covering a railway insulator pot in diamonds (oh, wait, hang on a minute…I’ve just had the best idea for a piece of transport-inspired artwork, provided someone could give me several million pounds worth of gemstones. Any takers?) There is still transport art being created, but it’s become more of a specialist or niche activity, often tied up either with advertising, or art programmes like the London Underground’s Art on the Underground. And I mustn’t overlook the Guild of Railway Artists, whose members do such splendid work (my favourite is Mike Turner – a story for another time). But this is a guild of artists specialising in railway art. Pissarro painted trains simply as part of his wider work, on a par with and just as valid as his other landscapes and portraits.
Pissarro’s legacy extended even further than his paintings. His eldest son, Lucien (1863-1944), also became a noted landscape painter. And once again, he painted railways amongst his range of subjects (and boats again, too).
Lucien Pissarro’s “Wells Farm Railway Bridge, Acton, London” of 1907 (see it here) is perhaps more realistic in its style than his father’s work (Wikipedia classifies Lucien Pissarro as both an Impressionist and a Neo-Impressionist; I’m getting a bit out of my depth here so I’m refraining from further explanations). It is certainly a recognisably more modern railway, with more tracks, more signals, and a very impressive array of telegraph poles. His “Great Western Railway, Acton”, of the same year (see it here), is similar but arguably the more attractive of the two. Its railway tracks appear positively roller-coaster-like (which I attribute to artistic licence) but the quality of light Lucien Pissarro captures is mesmerising; a shimmering violet redolent of summer heat.
Which brings us right back to what most of us think the Impressionists were all about, anyway. I certainly did before I wrote this week’s entry.
The current transport secretary (they don’t last very long in the UK) has “Great Western Railway, Acton” in his office, according to a recent newspaper interview. It would be nice to think that he has found the beauty of transport (the real thing, not this blog, but one lives in hope) himself.
How to find the Pissarros’ paintings
Of the paintings featured or mentioned in this entry:
“Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich” is at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, The Strand, London (more details here)
“The Train, Bedford Park” is in a private collection
“The Port of Rouen 2” is in a private collection
“Wells Farm Railway Bridge, Acton, London” is at the Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds (more details here)
“Great Western Railway, Acton” is in the UK Government’s art collection and currently hangs at the Department for Transport, Great Minster House, Marsham Street, London (more details here)
Bibliography, further reading
The Guggenheim Foundation’s biography of Camille Pissarro, here
“Pissarro, Lucien” A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art by Ian Chilvers and John Glaves-Smith. Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press
Poet Michael Rosen gives his personal response to “Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich” on the Courtauld Institute’s Art and Architecture website, here