The Comité Caillebotte has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
The present painting is a highly finished oil study for the central protagonist in Caillebotte’s iconic Parisian street scene, Le Pont de l’Europe, a complex and carefully prepared visual emblem of the physical and social transformation of the modern city (Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva). This smartly attired man represents, by contemporary account, the figure of Caillebotte himself, portrayed as the quintessential upper-bourgeois flâneur and an astute observer of modern life. When he painted Le Pont de l’Europe, his largest and most important work to date, Caillebotte was twenty-eight years old and at a transformative juncture in his personal history. Born into an affluent, highly traditional family, he had recently dedicated himself to the radical, avant-garde Impressionist cause and was living a life marked by sharply contrasting principles. “The pressures and complexities of this moment in his personal experience,” Kirk Varnedoe has written, “may help to explain the dramatic concentration, as well as the underlying tensions, of this most unusual self-portrait,” which depicts the artist not in his studio but in his social milieu (op. cit., 1987, p. 76).
In the final version of Caillebotte’s painting, which he showed at the Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, this top-hatted man is seen strolling beside an equally fashionable woman across the Pont de l’Europe, an immense bridge spanning the yards of the Saint-Lazare train station. One of the engineering marvels of the Second Empire, the bridge had been built a decade earlier to supplant two cramped stone tunnels as traffic around the Gare Saint-Lazare sharply increased. The new bridge consisted of six intersecting spans supported by huge iron trellises, each carrying a different street over the tracks. Whereas Manet and Monet, who also painted the bridge in the 1870s, chose to cloak its industrial latticework in vapor, Caillebotte depicted the structure in sharp focus, exploiting its ruthless geometry to organize his composition. “The key to Caillebotte’s painting is the cyclopean metalwork, embodiment of industrial power, aggressive symbol of the transformation of Paris,” Robert Herbert has written. “Caillebotte’s frank use of its unembellished geometry brings this raw power out into the open” (Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 24).
The construction of the Pont de l’Europe was part of a wholesale transformation of the physical fabric of Paris that took place following the establishment of the Second Empire in 1851. Under the aegis of Baron Georges Haussmann, Napoleon III’s powerful Prefect of the Seine, the narrow, winding streets of the medieval city were largely razed and replaced by eighty-five miles of broad, straight boulevards with sweeping vistas, which became the hallmark of the contemporary metropolis. The look and feel of life in this rapidly modernizing city changed entirely. The street became the most visible and important social space of the new French capital, a place to see and be seen, where members of all classes rubbed shoulders.
Born in Paris in 1848, Caillebotte witnessed first-hand the massive demolitions and extensive new construction that Haussmann’s program entailed. He grew up at 77, rue de Miromesnil in the Quartier de l’Europe, a ten-minute walk from the huge iron bridge. “Every street here was pierced, and every building built, during the artist’s lifetime,” Varnedoe has written. “The whole ensemble was an exceptionally unified and undiluted microcosm of the new look that Haussmann’s boulevards had imposed throughout Paris” (op. cit., 1987, p. 88). It is perhaps no surprise, then, that among all the Impressionists, Caillebotte was to become the most uncompromising interpreter of the transformed city, unhesitatingly letting his gaze sweep out toward the distant vanishing-point of the remorselessly incised boulevard
In the case of Le Pont de l’Europe, Caillebotte devoted a suite of three perspectival drawings to working out the distinctive “X-form” construction of the picture, which repeats the form of the bridge itself, and the accelerating plunge into depth that it generates. He then analyzed the various figures in separate pencil studies before integrating them within the pre-determined spatial design. The present painting is one of just six oil studies for the definitive canvas (Berhaut, nos. 43-48) and the only one to focus on a single figure detached from the background, a clear indicator of the significance that this top-hatted man held for Caillebotte. The oil is based on a detailed tonal drawing and very likely began with the transfer of that drawing onto canvas using tracing paper, since the size of the figure is identical in both. Notably, both the pencil and oil studies show the figure exactly reversed relative to his position in the final painting, suggesting that Caillebotte may have used photographic negatives in the process of planning and creating this major composition.
The carefully calculated placement of this strolling figure in the final Pont de l’Europe confirms his thematic and compositional centrality to the scene. The plunging perspective of the painting leads the viewer’s eye straight to his top hat, the towering iron girders of the bridge receding toward his face with a powerful rush. Caillebotte thus made his own head the principal focus–the vortex–of this forcefully modern street scene. The sprightly dog in the foreground (most likely a sporting breed like Caillebotte’s own dog Bergère) further emphasizes this compositional vector, its body thrusting into space along the shadow line of the trellis, enhancing the illusion of accelerating movement toward the figure of the artist-flâneur.
The woman with a parasol who walks beside the man in the frock coat–though not close enough that we can be certain she accompanies him–turns to glance his way, mirroring our own line of vision. The man’s gaze, by contrast, points the viewer’s attention in a different direction–toward the figure who leans on the railing at the right, looking past the iron trellis onto the railway tracks below. Like the artist protagonist, this figure is also situated at the crux of an X, in this case part of the girder structure of the bridge, creating a secondary compositional focus within the canvas. His loose smock and trousers, however, indicate that the two men come from very different social classes: these garments are the mark of a Parisian laborer rather than an haut bourgeois. Distinct in costume and demeanor, and separated by a broad section of pavement, these two social types are nonetheless connected through the subtle play of gazes that defines the modern urban experience.
The viewer’s own attention oscillates between these two figures, producing a back-and-forth visual movement that reinforces the X-composition of the image as well as evoking the traffic of the trains below. Most centrally, though, this calculated pairing of flâneur and worker dramatizes Caillebotte’s own dual social identification, creating a compelling self-portrait of a man caught at the crux of powerful oppositions. “Relatively small and far off-center, he nonetheless is the focus for the entire image,” Varnedoe has concluded, “uniting in his head the confrontations he has staged, between appearance and reality, man and the modern city, and leisure and working classes. Instead of resolution Caillebotte gives us the unrelieved tension of perception, a telling image for this modest but deeply intellectual and sensitive personality” (in N. Broude, ed., Gustave Caillebotte and the Fashioning of Identity in Impressionist Paris, New Brunswick, 2002, p. 17).