Painted in 1881, Le pont et le barrage à Pontoise is among the earliest securely dated examples of Cézanne's pioneering "constructive stroke", one of the hallmarks of his mature work. Joseph Rishel has explained, "In the years around 1880, Cézanne developed ways of looking and painting--especially in his landscapes--that he was to spend the rest of his life refining. The key to this breakthrough was a novel approach to facture, the way pigment was applied to canvas. In this new technique, pictorial space is constructed through repeated parallel brushstrokes that produce a patterned, woven effect" (in Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1996, p. 193). The present painting is also a valuable document of the artistic interaction between Cézanne and Pissarro, which Rishel has called "one of the great chapters in the history of nineteenth-century painting" (in ibid., p. 229). The canvas was painted during the last extended trip that Cézanne took to Pontoise, a lively rural town about twenty-five miles northwest of Paris where Pissarro had settled in 1866. According to Pissarro, it was at Pontoise that "Cézanne came under my influence and I his" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 2005, p. 123); Rishel has described the town as "the place where [Cézanne] painted some of his most beautiful pictures and, it is often maintained, reached artistic maturity" (in op. cit., p. 229).
Cézanne first lived in the Oise valley from 1872 to 1874, working en plein air alongside Pissarro both at Pontoise and at the neighboring hamlet of Auvers. During this period, Cézanne abandoned the dark tonalities and rough facture of his earlier canvases and adopted the luminous palette and fleet brushwork of his Impressionist mentor. When Cézanne returned to Pontoise in May 1881, he took up residence at 31, quai du Pothuis, just a few blocks away from Pissarro. Within a few days of his arrival, Cézanne reported to Emile Zola, "I see Pissarro fairly often" (quoted in J. Rewald, op. cit., p. 327). Although the two artists do not seem to have painted side-by-side in 1881, as they had in the previous decade, Pissarro's work was very much on Cézanne's mind during his final sojourn at Pontoise. The present canvas, for example, depicts a motif that Pissarro had painted from a very similar vantage point nearly a decade earlier: the railway and highway bridges at Pontoise (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 305; fig. 1). In another painting from 1881, L'Hermitage à Pontoise (Rewald, no. 484; fig. 2), Cézanne again selected almost the exact same motif that Pissarro had in an earlier canvas (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 115; fig. 3). Joachim Pissarro has written, "Cézanne's deference toward Pissarro's early works is evident in 1881. Every work produced by Cézanne at that point appears to refer to an earlier painting by Pissarro. At the end of their relationship, Cézanne bows to nostalgia and turns back to re-explore the beginnings of this extraordinary interrelationship" (in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 2005, p. 187).
Both Cézanne and Pissarro painted the bridges at Pontoise from a spot just south of the town, looking upstream along the Oise. Visible at the left side of each canvas is the path to Pontoise on the right bank of the river. In the center of each composition--readily discerned in Pissarro's version, almost wholly obscured in Cézanne's--is the railway bridge that had been constructed in 1862-1863 to connect Pontoise with Saint-Ouen-l'Aumne, previously the end of the train line from Paris. Built from poured concrete and cast-iron, the railway bridge had a stripped-down, industrial design, with slender, cylindrical supports and a straight, unadorned trestle. Behind the railway bridge is the older highway bridge, which served pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. Destroyed during World War II, this bridge was constructed from wood and cut stone, with a traditional elevation based on a series of graceful, rounded arches springing from carved pilings. The burgeoning suburban enclave of Argenteuil, where Monet lived from 1871 to 1878, boasted two bridges of closely comparable construction and design. Monet painted the bridges no fewer than fourteen times during his first two years at Argenteuil (fig. 4). As a pair, they provided him with a potent visual analogue for the contrasts of modern life: industry and nature, work and pleasure, town and country, new and old.
Although both Cézanne and Pissarro placed the bridges at Pontoise in the middle ground of their composition, they each chose a slightly different vantage point on the scene. Pissarro set up his easel further to the left than Cézanne, including a larger portion of the path that runs beside the Oise. Cézanne opted instead for a central view along the waterway, creating a more symmetrical composition. The village in Cézanne's version is higher on the canvas, closing the vista at the back, while the bushes in the foreground function as a repoussoir device, drawing the viewer into the scene. The result is a landscape of great compositional rigor, heavily influenced by the classical tradition of Poussin. Cézanne would employ a similar composition in the mid-1880s for his first views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, among the most celebrated motifs of his career (fig. 5). Painted from Bellevue, a hill to the southwest of Aix where his sister owned a farm, the paintings depict a panoramic view over the verdant valley of the River Arc, with a repoussoir-like cluster of pine trees in the foreground and the mountain itself rising up at the rear. An arched viaduct in the middle distance creates a strong horizontal that anchors the composition, just as the pair of bridges does in the present painting.
In addition to their compositional differences, Pissarro and Cézanne's views of the bridges at Pontoise also differ markedly in their execution. Painted in the early 1870s, a period that Christopher Lloyd and Anne Distel have described as "the most purely Impressionist in Pissarro's entire oeuvre," Pissarro's canvas exhibits the loose, irregular brushwork that is one of the hallmarks of Impressionism (in Pissarro, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1980, p. 79). Cézanne's landscape, in contrast, exemplifies the system of densely packed, parallel touches (the so-called "constructive stroke") that the artist developed around 1880 (fig. 6). This systematic, structured approach to facture, once again, was a breakthrough for Cézanne, helping him to react against the ephemeral character of Impressionism. Rishel has explained, "As Seurat was to do some five years later, Cézanne developed a technique that liberated him from Impressionism. It allowed him to render landscape with remarkable sensuality and specificity, but, unlike the ambitious plein-air paintings of his contemporaries, it transformed the transient into something classical, structured, and serene, in keeping with his desire to transform Impressionism into 'something solid and durable like the art of the museums'" (in op. cit., p. 217). Cézanne himself was well aware of the novelty and power of this new technique. When Gauguin asked him in 1881 for his formula "for compressing the intense expression of all his sensations into a single and unique procedure," Cézanne reacted with extreme suspicion (quoted in P. Machotka, Cézanne: Landscape into Art, New Haven, 1996, p. 49). More than a decade later, he remained unforgiving, telling the critic Gustave Geffroy, "I only had a little sensation, and Gauguin stole it" (quoted in ibid., p. 49).
In the mid-1880s, Cézanne's "constructive stroke" provided a key source of inspiration for the Neo-Impressionists, most notably Seurat and Signac, who also rejected the spontaneity and irregular brushwork of the Impressionists in favor of a more precise, methodical application of pigment. Signac, the most vocal adherent of Neo-Impressionism, explicitly acknowledged Cézanne's importance: "In juxtaposing by clear square touches, without regard for imitation or virtuosity, the various elements of the decomposed colors, he approached more closely the methodical divisionism of the Neo-Impressionists" (quoted in T. Reff, op. cit., p. 214). Pissarro, Cézanne's old Impressionist mentor, began to experiment with Neo-Impressionism in 1885 and fully embraced the movement the following year, describing it as "a new phase in the logical march of Impressionism" (quoted in J. Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, p. 212). Although the immediate impetus for Pissarro's artistic transformation was the work of Seurat and Signac, both of whom he met in 1885, the influence of Cézanne is evident as well in works such as Gisors, quartier neuf (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 797; fig. 7), with its distinctive pattern of uniformly spaced, parallel strokes. Rishel has noted Cézanne's importance for Pissarro during these years: "At [the] beginning, the sage Pissarro endeavored to calm the ferocious young Cézanne, but, as time passed, the pupil progressively found himself in the lead, encouraging the older artist to follow his example in testing the limits of Impressionist landscape painting" (in op. cit., p. 229).
Although there is no evidence that Cézanne and Pissarro worked together after the early 1880s, they never forgot one another. As late as the 1900s, Cézanne acknowledged his artistic debt to the older painter, listing himself in an exhibition catalogue as "Paul Cézanne, pupil of Pissarro" (quoted in B.E. White, op. cit., p. 109). He described Monet and Pissarro as "the two great masters, the only two," and elsewhere wrote, "As for old Pissarro, he was a father to me; someone to turn to for advice, somebody like the good Lord Himself" (quoted in ibid., p. 109). Pissarro, in turn, tirelessly promoted Cézanne's work to critics and collectors, as well as amassing a collection of his own of more than forty paintings by the younger artist. Pissarro was also instrumental in persuading the dealer Ambroise Vollard to mount the first retrospective of Cézanne's work in 1895. In a letter that he wrote to his son Lucien after visiting the Vollard show, Pissarro recalled the significance of his time with Cézanne at Pontoise: "What is curious in that Cézanne exhibition at Vollard's is that you can see the kinship there between some works he did at Auvers or Pontoise, and mine. What do you expect! We were always together!" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 2005, p. 113).
The first owner of the present painting was Julien Tanguy, a Parisian color-grinder whom Cézanne met through Pissarro in 1873. By exchanging paint and canvases for completed works, Tanguy was able to assemble a sizable collection of pictures by Cézanne and his colleagues. During the 1880s and early 1890s, Tanguy's small shop on the rue Clauzel was one of the only places in Paris to see Cézanne's work. Degas, Gauguin, and Signac all purchased paintings by Cézanne there, and younger artists like Denis, Bernard, Bonnard, and Vuillard gathered at the rue Clauzel to study Cézanne's compositions. An American critic who visited Tanguy in 1892 left the following recollections: "Le père Tanguy is a short, thick-set, elderly man, with a grizzled beard and large beaming dark blue eyes. He had a curious way of first looking down at his picture with all the fond love of a mother, and then looking up at you over his glasses, as if begging you to admire his beloved children" (C. Waern, "Some Notes on French Impressionism," Atlantic Monthly, April 1892; quoted in J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1961, pp. 556-557).
The present painting was one of six works by Cézanne that were included in an auction held at the Hôtel Drouot in June 1894 to benefit Père Tanguy's widow. The sale also included canvases by Pissarro, Sisley, Guillaumin, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Signac, all of which had formed part of the late dealer's stock, as well as works donated by artists such as Monet, Morisot, Cassatt, Renoir, Rodin, and Puvis de Chavannes. Le pont et le barrage à Pontoise was purchased for 170 francs by Ambroise Vollard, whose records indicate that he sold it the following year to a Parisian collector named Bourdin in exchange for a marine scene by Manet. Since Cézanne himself kept neither an inventory nor any notes on his paintings, the entries in Vollard's ledger following the Tanguy auction constitute the very first written records of the artist's work.
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, Le pont du chemin de fer, Pontoise, circa 1873. Sold, Christie's New York, 14 May 1997, lot 17. BARCODE 26016115
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, L'Hermitage à Pontoise, 1881. Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal. BARCODE 25994711
(fig. 3) Camille Pissarro, Les jardins de l'Hermitage, Pontoise, 1867-1869. National Gallery, Prague. BARCODE 25994704
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Le pont routier, Argenteuil, 1874. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 26016023
(fig. 5) Paul Cézanne, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1886-1887. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 25994742
(fig. 6) Paul Cézanne, Château de Médan, 1880. Glasgow Museums. BARCODE 25994735
(fig. 7) Camille Pissarro, Gisors, quartier neuf, 1885. Private collection. BARCODE 25994728