Innovations in 19th Century France

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Throughout history, there has been notable periods of expeditious growth and radical change, but the 19th century is among the most revolutionary. It was an era comprised of both the first and second industrial revolution, and characterized by international cross-disciplinary evolution. Cities were making advancements at a faster pace than they could keep up with and countless new inventions extensively transformed everyday life. Among the most notable were gas lighting, batteries, bicycles, typewriters and the first revolver. The emergence of sewing machines along with the jacquard loom completely remodeled the textile industry (Bellis 2018). The invention of the steam locomotive in 1814 facilitated the growth of factories and enabled the transportation of goods, improving trade (Bellis 2018). Inventions in photography such as the camera obscura eliminated the need for realist portrait and landscape painting, allowing artists to experiment with a more expressive portrayal of subjects. Evidence of the current cultural climate became more apparent through their works, as artists were equally given more freedom regarding expression of subject matter. Although many artworks successfully portray this brisk transition in time, Claude Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train epitomizes the rapid modern progression of France in the 19th century.

Arrival of the Normandy Train

Arrival of the Normandy Train is an oil on canvas painting by Claude Monet, painted in 1877. The painting is a component of a twelve part series all portraying similar themes that capture the essence of the Gare St-Lazare, Paris’s busiest railway terminal (Khan Academy). Monet rented an apartment on the neighbouring rue Moncey to begin his completion of the first canvas. In Arrival of the Normandy Train, several trains are depicted approaching the viewer through what seems to be the main tunnel of the station. A cloud of blue and grey steamy smoke overwhelms the composition, losing itself in a crowd of dispersed passengers waiting to embark on the next ride. In fact, it is said that Monet had arranged for the trains to be stuffed with additional coal, in order to improve his depiction of belching steam (google). When trapped inside the station, the clouds appear to be a dull gray, and a cloudy white when seen against the sky. The steam is seen as an analogy for the characteristics of modernity ; shifting, forward moving, dispersing and powerful (Berson 2008). The painting directly represents innovations of the 19th century and has often been referred to as an icon of modernity in its time (google).

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Paris Redesigned

One of the largest transformations of the 19th century was the monumental renovation and redesign of Paris led by civic planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann. He and his team embarked on an immense project regarding public works, setting a standard for urban planning in the 20th century (Young 2019). 19,730 historic buildings were demolished and replaced with 34,000 new ones all following a set of regulations (Glancey 2016). Wide, tree-lined boulevards emerged replacing the previously narrow, populous streets ; new water supply and drainage systems were implemented, and large luxury apartment buildings sprouted. These building can be seen in the background plan of Arrival of the Normandy Train, their size and scale directly representing this transformation. Haussmann's goal was to create a harmonious cityscape and a defined style for the bourgeois apartment building of the end of the nineteenth century (Horn 2012). These so-called “Haussmann style” creamy sandstone buildings were generally comprised of five to seven floors, accomodating families of various social classes including the aristocracy, workers, and bourgeoisie. The introduction of multi class living accomodations represented the birth of a new civil society.

The Development of Railway stations

Although these additions remodeled the way in which Paris functioned, the utmost influential change was the city’s newly constructed railway stations. More specifically, the years 1873-86 have been referred to as one of the most inventive periods in railway history (Caron 2005). France began by acquiring approximately 320 kilometers of line with the sole purpose of industrial use, changing the system of trade. In 1837, the first locomotive-powered railway transporting passengers, came into apparition with its first 20 kilometer ride from Paris to St Germain (Brooke 1997). However, it was almost immediately followed by a collapse in the railway funding by the haute banque.

The French had been carefully evaluating foreseeable complications associated with the construction of a national railway network, but concerns seemingly came to a halt when The Railway Law of July 1842 was implemented (Brooke 1997). This rationally conceived plan arrived with incredible state support, instructing that lines were to disperse from Paris to all major cities and frontiers of the country. Funding was reinstated when solutions such as simultaneous transportation of passengers and goods were introduced (Brooke 1997). This allowed for further construction of stations and lines, rapidly emerging across the country. The Gare St-Lazare, gracefully illustrated in Arrival of the Normandy train is the oldest railway station in France, opening in 1837 (Gorce 2012). Expansions to the station were made gradually with the addition of new lines and distinct nearby buildings. Because these improvements were made so quickly, many shortcomings have presented themselves in later years of development. It is said that the station today no longer meets the acceptable standards for clarity, accessibility and functionality (Gorce 2012). This could indicate a lack in tedious planning and demonstrates that the speed at which innovations were arising was too quick for proper assessments.

Impressionism, a symbol of evolution

Furthermore, the emergence and evolution of Impressionism symbolised a distinct change in artistic style and added to the continuous questioning of meaning in art. Impressionism is a movement emerging in France in the 1860s where artists sought to portray the visual “impression” of a moment rather than the achievement of an accurate depiction. Claude Monet was one of its founding members, along with Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, unified by their rejection from the annual Salon (Samu 2000). This style marks a significant break from tradition in European painting, as artists abandoned linear perspective, idealized forms, and perfect symmetry (Wolf 2012). For this reason, many critics labelled their works as unfinished, sketch-like or amateurish. Their subjects ranged from various landscapes and scenes of everyday life, often accentuating the passage of time. Representation of industrial activity was also a frequent theme in Impressionism (Berson 2008). In fact, Monet’s series of paintings along with Manet’s The railway and Caillebotte’s Le Pont de L’Europe were all showcased at the third Impressionist exhibition of 1877.


In conclusion, 19th century innovations in Europe tremendously transformed the way in which people lived and travelled. The implementation of new railway systems in France is a founding element of its core responsible for what it is today. It is no surprise that Monet fascination with the function of these new stations led him to paint a full series of their inner works. The 1800s in France is one of the most influential periods in time regarding all that is new and Claude Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train serves as a visual representation of these rapidly emerging technological advancements. The trains, apartment buildings and wide side streets along with the impressionist style are all elements that exemplify this passage through time.

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