But where should we meet? The Gare St Lazare is the most historic station in Paris, but certainly not the easiest to navigate around. Perhaps by the Hotel Concorde St Lazare (Terminus), the street-facing extension of the station, and the first such hotel to be part of a railway building. Maybe a more atmospheric starting point would be under the disused passerelle which previously connected the two buildings. However, beside this great, stone muse, an artistic meeting place would be best, so why not next to one of the artist Arman’s twin statues, the clocks of ‘L’heure pour tous’ (above), or the piled up luggage of ‘Consigne à Vie’, positioned on the station concourse.
As we head north up the Rue d’Amsterdam past the grafted on 60s and 70s office blocks, we can reflect on how trains and train stations have inspired generations of writers, photographers and painters since they first started appearing in the city landscape. Emile Zola was amongst the first to notice this switch from naturalism and modernism, writing that "artists have to find the poetry in train stations, the way their fathers found the poetry in forests and rivers". He was writing in 1877 about the series of paintings the artist Claude Monet had produced in and around the Gare St Lazare.
It is easy to see why 19th and early 20th century artists were inspired by the train station. We can look at the Gare St Lazare from the Rue de Londres, across the 27 lines, towards the zig-zagging roof canopy and central clock tower, and we will see an almost unchanged vision of the iron and steel revolution that cut into the heart of the city. The vista is perhaps unaltered, but today’s quiet diesel and electric trains are certainly less romantic. Edouard Manet, who had his studio within earshot of the station (4, rue St Petersbourg) famously captured the age of steam, in his ‘Chemin de fer/Gare St Lazare’ painting, a portrait of woman, child and dog positioned before iron railings at the end of a friend’s garden above the rail lines near this spot. Behind them, steam from unseen trains rises skywards. This symbol of a naissant industrialisation was roundly criticised at the time, but Manet knew that he had captured a new reality. “Faire Vrai Laisser Dire” (Be truthful, let people say what they will) he wrote when later inviting sceptical critics to his studio.
Walking onto the Pont de l’Europe, we’ll arrive at the heart of our trip. It was Gustave Caillebotte who best captured this scene with perhaps his most famous painting being situated here (Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876). Living nearby on the Rue de Miromesnil, Caillebotte saw and painted the changing face of this Europe district from his studio window, defining the new city order and man’s interaction with his changed surroundings. On this bridge Caillebotte painted a couple of flaneurs walking alongside the vast iron structure, but also more tellingly, a man in working clothes looking down towards the revolution beneath him. Caillebotte had transported the peasant away from his traditional agricultural environment and placed him in his new, radically changed situation.
Zola himself later captured the schizophrenic sentiments that existed around the subject of trains in his novel, ‘La Bête Humaine’ (1890). Set largely in this part of Paris, particularly at the Gare St Lazare, his machines are murderous, as they had been in Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ 10 years previously. Perhaps it was this sense of impending danger coupled with a fear of the creeping dehumanising industrialisation that attracted large quantities of walkers and flaneurs to the Pont de l’Europe. The city pedestrians were clearly fascinated by the new sights and sounds, but perhaps secretly terrified of the great, noisy iron beasts.
The Pont de l’Europe next cropped up in a 1932 photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘Derière la Gare St Lazare’. He captured a moment when the bridge was being transformed from an imposing iron structure into a smoother concrete form. The station backdrop is identical, but the narrower bars give a softer view. A puff of smoke is just visible, and workmen still feature in a scene which finally is not far removed from Caillebotte’s vision.
It is a bridge that is indeed worthy of celebration. Captured from above in a Google maps satellite image, it is easy to appreciate the elegant X design, and see how it is in fact the meeting point of six different roads (or European cities). It also manages to house several elegant buildings each with tree lined, lawn gardens and the Europe Metro station.
Step across to the Rue de Vienne and we see the station as it finally became in 1889. The site saw several major developments from 1837, when it was a simple wooden structure and the first station in Paris, to 1889, when it was celebrated as the largest and busiest in the country. On this western side it incorporated brick, today housing train company offices, and curiously some interesting decorative touches. The most prominent is a miniature lighthouse which is tagged on to the end of the roof canopy, and which seems to serve no purpose other then perhaps to recall the sights seen at the seaside destinations of many of the trains that leave from this station.
What is left to inspire artists today? It may now be the age of the train, a cleaner, slower form of transport, but their powerful symbology has diminished over time. Outside though in the Rue de Rome, there is a sight that could well inspire surrealists or absurdists – a staircase and pair of handrails descending into solid set concrete. This is surely a blocked up under-road passageway, but the visual aspect is surprising.
Finally, turn the corner and I'll return you back to 21st century Paris and the station concourse. If you have some more free time, I’ll take you inside the station. There’s plenty more to see!