From the cauldron of change in the painting of Jongkind, Boudin, Delacroix, Manet and others came Impressionism. One of its strands was the depiction of modern life, smoking chimneys, factories, railways and bridges. As communications improved, railways spread and cities industrialised, many new bridges were built. Not only that, but these used new materials and assumed new forms: traditional stone arches were replaced by iron, steel and concrete in ever-widening spans.
Claude Monet was an early enthusiast for railway bridges, and seems to have fallen in love with The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil, shown here in 1873. At this time, Monet was a regular commuter by train: when he, Camille and his son moved out to Argenteuil at the end of 1871, he travelled the short distance into the centre of Paris by train.
Monet liked this bridge so much that he painted it again the following year, with another steam train crossing it.
Paul Cézanne’s bridges were more usually buried in the wooded countryside, like The Bridge at Maincy, which he painted in 1879-80. This is perhaps more notable not for this humble wooden pedestrian bridge, but for its early use of constructive strokes to form the foliage.
Although not as widely known as his figurative paintings, many of Renoir’s landscapes are superb, including The Bridge at Argenteuil in Autumn from 1882, which shows a different bridge from Monet’s.
Painted when Vincent van Gogh was at Arles, one of his best-known groups of works includes The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing (1888). This is one of four oil paintings, a watercolour, and at least four drawings which he made of this motif, with the aid of a perspective frame which he had made for himself.
This shows a traditional wooden drawbridge, one of several over the canal which runs from Arles to Bouc. Built in the early nineteenth century, it was sadly replaced by a concrete bridge in 1930. Langlois was apparently the name of its keeper.
Enthusiasm for painting bridges continued among the later Impressionists too. The American Theodore Robinson found this arched stone bridge not far from Monet’s home, and composed it among trees as Bridge near Giverny in about 1892.
Alfred Sisley liked his bridges with additional buildings, as in Moret Bridge in the Sunlight (1892), one of a series of over ten similar views of the town of Moret-sur-Loing, where he lived his later years.
Pierre-Georges Jeanniot’s unusual nocturne of Night on the Seine from 1892 combines the effects of darkness with fog. It shows the river running through central Paris on a slightly foggy night, and plays skilfully with effects on lights, and their reflections, as well as being thoroughly painterly.
When he fled from the Franco-Prussian War to London in 1870, Monet had concentrated on painting the Palace of Westminster. During his visits to the city in the early twentieth century, he returned to those views and painted a series of Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, here an example from 1903. These works are among the most quintessentially Impressionist paintings, exploring a range of conditions of light and visibility.
Of all those connected with the Impressionist movement, it was Gustave Caillebotte who explored the visual geometry of bridges the most.
The first and most remarkable of these works is The Pont de l’Europe from 1876, which doesn’t show one of the popular bridges over the River Seine in Paris, but a roadbridge over the railway yards at Gare Saint-Lazare, a large plaza formed at the confluence of six avenues. Although there are several readings of the figures present, the scene is highly contemporary and dominated by the heavy trusses forming the bridge, and steam from a passing train. Its perspective projection is unusual, to say the least, and potentially ‘photographic’.
In the mid-1880s he made several views of the modern bridges over the River Seine near Argenteuil. The Bridge at Argenteuil and the Seine (1885, above) is more Impressionist in style, with its broken water surface, and appears to show the bridge painted by Renoir three years earlier. The Seine and the Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil (1885-87, below) shows Monet’s favourite bridge from just over a decade before, and bears contrast with those paintings shown earlier.
The late Impressionist Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin had fallen in love with the deep countryside near the river Lot at Labastide-du-Vert, north of Toulouse in the southwest of France. When the First World War broke out in 1914, he moved there from Paris, and there he remained for the next several years. Among those local views is this of The Bridge at Labastide-du-Vert from 1920, its traditional stone arches shimmering in their near-Divisionist construction.
Over this same period, other artists outside the Impressionist movement also painted many views of bridges, and those will be the subject of the third and final article tomorrow.