Bridges in paintings: Before Impressionism

Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Pichincha (detail) (1867), oil on canvas, 78.8 x 122.5 cm,, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

For several millenia, the largest human civil engineering projects have been palaces, temples and other places of worship, fortifications, harbours, and bridges. The Romans were inveterate builders of bridges, either carrying roads or water, and many still stand across the far-flung reaches of their former empire.

Whilst artists have long found well-designed buildings worth painting, and the depiction of places of worship has been deemed particularly appropriate, more prosaic constructions like harbours and bridges were only rarely the true subject of paintings until the Age of Enlightenment started to celebrate science and technology. In this article and the next two parts, I’m going to take a very quick look at some of my favourite paintings of bridges to see what they tell us about the history of painting, and more.

Bridges have had huge impact on man. A great many towns and cities only really exist because of the bridge(s) at their centre. This was most commonly at the lowest bridging of a major river, where that bridge saved traders and travellers additional journeys of hours or even days to reach a crossing point further upstream. Suddenly, two communities which had previously only communicated by boat were only a short walk away from one another. The bridge brought trade, commerce, travellers, industry, inevitably crime. But – unless you’re a civil engineer – most bridges aren’t normally considered to be aesthetically attractive.

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435) oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).
Jan van Eyck (before 1390–1441), The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c 1435), oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).

In Jan van Eyck’s The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin from about 1435, you have to look way past its figures, deep into the painting to see crowds crossing an elegant bridge (detail below).

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail) (c 1435) oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).
Jan van Eyck (before 1390–1441), The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail) (c 1435), oil on panel, 66 x 62 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (WikiArt).
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Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), Horatius Cocles Defending the Bridge (c 1642-43), oil on canvas, 121.9 x 171.8 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Bridges were painted for their part in legendary history. Charles Le Brun’s Horatius Cocles Defending the Bridge (c 1642-43) tells the story of the fearless Roman who single-handedly fought off the attack of Lars Porsena’s troops as they tried to capture Rome.

Horatius is putting up his spirited fight on a stone pier on the side of the bridge opposite the city, as Romans are hastily removing the wooden bridge behind him. Above and behind Horatius, Minerva, goddess of battle, grasping her characteristic staff, holds a laurel wreath over Horatius’ head. In the foreground, the god of the River Tiber lounges on the bank, pouring water from his large flagon (which never becomes empty). It can only be a matter of minutes before the bridge is adequately broken, and Horatius can abandon its defence.

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Unknown artist, Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the Distance (c 1685), oil on canvas, 81.9 x 92.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

A few very old paintings are more topographic: Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the Distance painted by an unknown artist in about 1685 shows the first London Bridge in 1683-4, during a winter when the ice here reached a thickness of nearly thirty centimetres (12 inches). This was built as a penance by King Henry II for his murder of Thomas Becket, between 1176-1209, and soon became crowded with shops. It repeatedly caught fire, and its southern gatehouse was used to display the severed heads of traitors following their execution. It was finally replaced and demolished in 1831.

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Francesco Guardi (1712–93) Regatta at the Rialto Bridge (1770-9), oil on canvas, 125.7 x 77.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Another world-famous bridge which has found its place in paintings is the Rialto in Venice, shown here in Francesco Guardi’s view of a Regatta at the Rialto Bridge from 1770-9. This stone bridge replaced a wooden version in 1591, and like the old London Bridge bears rows of shops. It’s considered one of the top tourist attractions in modern Venice, despite the prediction at the time of its construction that it would collapse under its own weight.

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Caspar Wolf (1735–1783), Devil’s Bridge (1777), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Caspar Wolf’s most popular paintings is this view of the Devil’s Bridge in the Saint Gothard Pass, from 1777. This pass connects northern and southern Switzerland, and this section has been of great strategic importance. This bridge across the Schöllenen Gorge was first built in wood in around 1220, and was a key section of the route. It probably wasn’t replaced by a stone bridge until the seventeenth century, and by 1775 it had developed into that shown here, which was wide enough to allow passage of the first carriage, and to carry the increasing flow of tourists crossing the Alps.

In the late eighteenth century, as interest in topographic painting increased, it attracted some of the brightest and best, including the young JMW Turner and his tragically short-lived rival Thomas Girtin.

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Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Durham Cathedral and Castle (c 1800), watercolour over pencil heightened with gum arabic, 37.5 x 48.9 cm, Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Girtin’s wonderful view of Durham Cathedral and Castle (c 1800) strikes an interesting balance between the fine bridge over the River Wear in the foreground and the castle and cathedral behind. This is Framwellgate Bridge, built after 1400 as a replacement for an original which had been built in around 1110. It served as the main traffic route from the west of Durham into the centre of the city until that burden was taken over by Milburngate Bridge in 1969, and now only carries pedestrians.

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Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Ripon Minster, Yorkshire (1800), watercolour with pen in black and brown ink, with scraping over graphite on medium, slightly textured, beige, laid paper, 31.4 x 47.6 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Girtin used a similar compositional approach in his watercolour of Ripon Minster, Yorkshire from 1800, putting the features of the river including its fine bridge in front, to steal the gaze from the bulk of the minster behind.

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Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Ouse Bridge, York (1800), watercolour with pen and brown ink over graphite, with scratching out on medium, beige, rough wove paper, 32.9 x 52.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

When Girtin campaigned in Yorkshire, he concentrated not on cathedrals and other prominent buildings, but made the River Wharfe the centre of his attention, including the Ouse Bridge, York (1800).

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Bridge at Narni (1826), oil on paper, 34 x 48 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), The Bridge at Narni (1826), oil on paper, 34 x 48 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.

In the early nineteenth century, another young landscape painter was out painting en plein air, this time Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot in the countryside around Rome. During his first stay in Italy, between 1825-28, he painted one of his finest oil sketches showing The Bridge at Narni (1826).

This shows the Ponte d’Augusto, constructed under the Roman emperor Augustus in about 27 BCE using large blocks of marble. It carries the Flaminian Way over the river Nera near what is now the city of Narni in Umbria, Italy. At the time of its construction, it was one of the largest bridges in Europe, crossing 160 metres (520 feet) in four spans at a height of up to 30 metres (100 feet).

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Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Pichincha (1867), oil on canvas, 78.8 x 122.5 cm,, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

On the other side of the Atlantic, adventurous artists like Frederic Edwin Church found rather more tenuous bridges to paint. His Pichincha from 1867 shows a suspended bridge in Ecuador, one end glowing in the early morning light. Just over half way across (detail below), a woman wearing a brilliant red blouse is riding side-saddle on a mule, which is picking its way slowly across the thin logs which form the walkway of the bridge. At the left end is another mounted figure, who has just completed that frightening crossing.

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Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Pichincha (detail) (1867), oil on canvas, 78.8 x 122.5 cm,, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.
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Johan Jongkind (1819–1891), Le Pont de la Tournelle, Paris (1859), oil on canvas, 143.5 x 219.1 cm, The Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

By this time, in northern France, the move towards Impressionism was well under way. The landscape painter Johan Jongkind returned to Paris in 1859, where he painted this view of Le Pont de la Tournelle, Paris (1859), with a small group of washerwomen at work by the water’s edge.

The bridge shown here had been built in 1654, to replace a series of predecessors from the first in 1620. It connects the city to the south with the Île Saint-Louis, which had originally been two smaller islands close to the Île Notre Dame, on which the cathedral stands. Jongkind isn’t interested in the market for topographic paintings, though, and his attention is on the washerwomen and the old bridge.

In the next article, I’ll look at how the Impressionists progressed the painting of bridges in Paris and beyond.