The Comité Caillebotte has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
The present canvas is the sole oil study, highly finished and well over half-scale, that Caillebotte painted for his monumental Le Pont de l’Europe, an iconic representation of modern, industrialized Paris by the Impressionist group’s most uncompromising interpreter of the newly transformed city (Berhaut, no. 51; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth). The painting depicts one of the engineering marvels of Caillebotte’s day, an immense bridge spanning the rail yards of the Gare Saint-Lazare. Two men gaze through the massive iron trellises of the bridge toward the depot, the roof of which is glimpsed between the X-shaped girders at the right. Rather than cloaking the latticework of the bridge in vapor, as Monet did in his contemporaneous views of the station, Caillebotte audaciously exploited its unembellished geometry—the embodiment of brute industrial architecture—to organize his composition. The structural elements of the Le Pont de l’Europe, esquisse, flattened against the plane of the canvas and cut off by its edges, press the figures into the very foreground, inviting the viewer to occupy the notably empty space to their right and to join them in contemplating the spectacle of modernity below.
The construction of the Pont de l’Europe in 1865-1868 was part of a wholesale transformation of the physical fabric of Paris that took place following the establishment of the Second Empire. 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, which became the most visible and important social space of the new French capital. The Pont de l’Europe consisted of six intersecting spans, each carrying a different avenue over the Gare Saint-Lazare, which was expanded during this period to accommodate an upsurge in train traffic. The bridge was therefore a vivid emblem not only of the contemporary metropolis and its new network of movement, but also of the exponential growth of the railway system, one of the nation’s primary agents of change and advancement.
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; from his family home, he had to cross the Pont de l’Europe to reach the Café Guerbois and the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes, where the Impressionist circle gathered. “Every street here was pierced, and every building built, during the artist’s lifetime,” Kirk 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., 1988, p. 88).
The Kimbell Le Pont de l’Europe is one of two Salon-sized views of the bridge that Caillebotte painted in 1876-1877. The other (Berhaut, no. 49; Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva) was part of a triptych of Parisian street scenes that he showed at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, which established the young painter as a leader of the group. Although both variants of the Le Pont de l’Europe celebrate the industrial severity of the iron structure, they are dramatically different in composition. The Geneva painting depicts a more conventional, plunging vista along one of the bridge’s six slanting spans, while the giant latticework in the Kimbell version and the present study is rendered parallel to the picture plane, simultaneously framing and denying the view into depth. In place of the lateral expanse of the Geneva picture, the composition is now boldly cropped on all sides, with no figure complete and neither the top of the trellis nor the ground line visible. The image thus reads as an instantaneous “slice-of-life” caught by a camera, the technological modernity of the chosen site matched by that of Caillebotte’s artistic effects.
Taken together, the two paintings suggest an unfolding narrative. In the Geneva canvas, the top-hatted man—by contemporary account, a portrait of Caillebotte himself—strolls along the bridge, the quintessential urban flâneur. He turns his head slightly to the right, as if something had momentarily caught his attention. The present composition renders the next chapter in the sequence, as the smartly attired protagonist stops in his tracks beside a figure in a blue worker’s smock to observe the activity in the railyard. Their eyes and ours are drawn toward the train shed by a puff of white steam that stands out against the dominant blue-gray tonality of the image. The screen of metalwork, however, blocks our view of the locomotives themselves, evoking the fractured and fugitive essence of the modern experience.
“This acknowledgment and refusal of the trains—symbols of progress, forward movement, and modern life—render them an absent presence,” Alexandra Wettlaufer has written, “in ways that allow viewers to experience the radical disconnection between human subjectivities in the urban landscape” (Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2015, p. 76).
The two central figures in the present composition differ in class but share a view of modern Paris at work, emblematic of the way that industrialization blurred long-standing patterns of association. The man in the blue smock wears a stylish bowler that implies a certain upward mobility, suggesting that he is both a laborer and a businessman, maybe a shopkeeper. The top-hatted man, in contrast, is a true bourgeois, with grey frock coat and gloved hands. “They are transfixed by the spectacle of modern technology,” Julia Sargraves has written, “as if held firmly by the crossed and bolted iron girders of the Pont de l’Europe itself” (Gustave Caillebotte, Urban Impressionist, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, p. 107). Despite their joint attention, however, the men do not interact, each apparently lost in thought. Perhaps Caillebotte had in mind the powerful oppositions that marked his own life at this transformative juncture—born into an affluent, highly traditional family, yet newly dedicated to the radical Impressionist cause.
Caillebotte was not the first of his avant-garde colleagues to locate his exploration of modern Paris in the area of the Pont de l’Europe. In the Salon of 1874, Manet had shown a now-iconic scene of his model Victorine seated before an iron fence above the rail yards, with one of the bridge’s piers and a bit of its latticework visible at the far right (Rouart and Wildenstein, no. 207; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). In both paintings, figures and cityscape are abruptly demarcated by an iron structure that takes the place of a true middle ground. The fence in Manet’s image, however, functions like a cage enclosing the female figures, excluding them from the urban milieu in the background, which is almost wholly subsumed in steam and smoke. In Caillebotte’s composition, by contrast, the X-shaped girders appear to facilitate and structure the view of the city—now, a determinedly male one.
The third modern painter, of course, to tackle this site was Monet, who began his Gare Saint-Lazare sequence in January 1877, working from an apartment on which Caillebotte paid the rent. Seven paintings from Monet’s ensemble were shown at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in May of that year, which Caillebotte took the lead in orchestrating and financing. In the present Le Pont de l’Europe, esquisse, Caillebotte’s protagonists look toward the main shed of the train station, with its enormous iron-and-glass roof—exactly the motif with which Monet began his own serial exploration of the site (Wildenstein, nos. 438-441). Through the frame of the bridge’s trellis, the pair of onlookers gaze upon the depot as if the scene were a painting—Caillebotte, in effect, having created a second picture within his picture—just as visitors to the Third Impressionist Exhibition would have admired Monet’s painted representations of the very same spectacle of industrialization.
“If Le Pont de l’Europe is placed in conversation with Monet’s pictures, the visual gesture across the rail yard is reciprocated by the Monets,” Michael Marrinan has written. “They link in a secret dialogue—experientially and across space—that yields a complex, time-bound, physical understanding of the Gare Saint-Lazare” (Gustave Caillebotte: Painting the Paris of Naturalism, Los Angeles, 2016, p. 102).