“Monet loves water, and it is his especial gift to portray its mobility and transparency, be it sea or river, grey or monotonous, or coloured by the sky.”[i]
The evanescence of colour and light has fascinated Monet throughout his career. Scintillating reflections on water are vital elements of this compositions, and appear in his views of La Grenouillère, which he painted as a young man, just as in his countless canvases of the water- lily ponds in Giverny, he produced towards the end of his life. Bridges are another recurring theme in Monets oeuvre: from the massive stone and steel structures of Paris and London, the lightweight draw-brides of Amsterdam to the gracefully curved Japanese footbridges in his Giverny gardens. During his years in Argenteuil, a small-town only a short train ride away from the French capital, where Monet settled with his young family from 1872-78, the subject rose to special prominence. The artist dedicated 18 works to the two bridges crossing the Seine between Argenteuil and Petit-Gennevilliers. The present canvas shows the highway bridge in 1872. Monet, who was 32 then, painted it in the same year that he created his famous work L’Impression, soleil levant, which he submitted to the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, and which gave the Impressionist movement its name.
Impression, soleil levant (English: Impression, Sunrise), 1872
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
In Le pont de bois Monet depicts a bridge under repair. The structure was destroyed in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Parts of the bridge are scaffolded, but, nonetheless, it is busy with traffic – people on foot and a horse-drawn public bus are crossing the river. Interestingly, the artist chose to not include the entire bridge in his painting, but only one arch, which is perfectly mirrored in the calm waters of the Seine. This rather extravagant composition was most likely inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, which Monet knew well and collected.
Under the Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa
From the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, 1830-32
Polychrome woodblock print on paper
Utagawa Hiroshige (Ando)
Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge,
No. 76 from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,
12th month of 1857
Polychrome woodblock print on paper
By focussing on only one fragment of the bridge and its reflection in the water, the artist created an octagonal frame around a view of the flat Argenteuil shoreline. We see a smokestack emitting a billowing cloud of white smoke against the pinkish-grey sky; what looks like a church steeple is actually the silhouette of a Louis XIII-style manor of a wealthy banker; in the middle ground to the left stands a yellow building, where Parisians came to rent rowboats on the weekends. Several sailboats are moored in the water. The scene is a perfectly modern landscape, showing a busy bridge under construction in its suburban, semi-industrial surroundings. The artist captured it during the short moments of wintry evening light, using sketchy brushstrokes in muted nuances of pink, yellow, greys and browns.
Monet created this painting at a critical point in French history, the bridge under reconstruction representing a new beginning after the devastation caused by the Franco-Prussian War. With this modern subject, unconventional composition and loose execution, Le pont de bois also marks a critical point in the history of art: the emergence of Impressionism in the early 1870s, a chapter of renewal that laid the foundations for Modern Art.
The significance of Le Pont de bois as a landmark painting was undoubtedly recognized by its first owner Edouard Manet, who acquired it from Monet in the year of its creation. The approval by the older artist, who was one of the most innovative painters of the era, was certainly perceived as a badge of honour by Monet. The prominent dealer of Impressionist art Paul Durand-Ruel purchased the painting from Manet’s widow in 1886. Subsequently it passed through several renowned collections, including the ones of the American Norton Simon, and the German Dr. Gustav Rau.
[i] Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted in Ruth Berson, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, San Francisco, 1996, vol. I, p. 95