'The key to Caillebotte's painting is the cyclopean metalwork, embodiment of industrial power, aggressive symbol of the transformation of Paris. Caillebotte's frank use of its unembellished geometry brings this raw power out into the open' (R.L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 24).
Painted in 1876, Le Pont de l’Europe – Étude partielle is one of a small number of highly finished oil studies, created in preparation for Gustave Caillebotte’s iconic street scene, Le Pont de l’Europe, now at the Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva. At the time of its creation, the painting was the largest and most visually complex composition Caillebotte had ever attempted, and he spent months observing his subject, calculating viewpoints and perspectives, carefully planning every aspect of the design in order to create a direct, unfettered representation of modernity. Illustrating the physical and social transformation of Paris into a modern city, Caillebotte’s compositions capture the essence of daily life in the metropolis, the casual interactions of the classes that occurred on the newly laid boulevards, the array of sweeping new vistas and unusual vantage points which characterised the cityscape. Caillebotte was just twenty-eight years old when he painted Le Pont de l’Europe, and at a transformative juncture in his personal history. Born into an affluent, highly traditional family, he had recently dedicated himself to the radical, avant-garde Impressionist cause and was living a life marked by sharply contrasting principles. As such, his paintings of modern Paris offer a rare insight into the everyday experiences of the affluent lives of the bourgeoisie, captured in a thoroughly modern idiom.
In the final version of Caillebotte’s painting, which he showed at the Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, a top-hatted man is seen strolling alongside an equally fashionable woman across the Pont de l’Europe, while a man of a similar age dressed in a casual smock leans over the edge of the bridge’s railing, lost in his own thoughts as he watches the trains arrive and depart from the Gare Saint-Lazare below. Unlike his contemporaries, Manet and Monet, Caillebotte depicted the structure of the bridge in sharp focus, using the stark lines and unembellished geometry of the giant structure to organize his composition. He also exploited the steep uphill slant of the road at this point of the bridge to exaggerate the sharp convergence of perspective in the painting. While at first glance, the well-dressed man and woman appear aligned, suggesting they are a couple, upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the man in the top-hat is walking slightly ahead of the woman, and that they are most likely strangers, momentarily brought together by the flow of traffic along the bridge. In truth, the man’s attention is caught by the young worker at the railing. Their contrasting attire, from the sharp tailoring of the gentleman’s suit to the loose smock and trousers of the worker, indicate that the two men come from very different social classes: these garments are the mark of a Parisian labourer rather than a member of the haut bourgeoisie. Distinct in costume and demeanour, and separated by a broad section of pavement, these two social types are nonetheless connected through the subtle play of gazes that defines the modern urban experience.
During the late 1870s, Caillebotte was primarily concerned with depicting the modernity of the Parisian metropolis, illustrating the new experience of the city following its wholesale transformation during the Second Empire. The radical redesign of the essentially medieval cityscape was the brainchild of Baron Georges Haussmann, Napoleon III’s powerful Prefect of the Seine, who launched a sweeping programme of public works projects in an effort to improve sanitation, water supply and traffic circulation in the city. The population of Paris had almost doubled in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and the city was visibly struggling under the burden of its inhabitants. Under Haussmann’s aegis, the narrow, winding streets of the old city were transformed into wide, straight boulevards, lined with elegantly imposing shops, homes and municipal buildings, while hundreds of kilometres of piping was laid to bring water to all corners of the rapidly expanding city. Imposing a unifying aesthetic order on the new developments, Haussmann was responsible for imbuing the city with its unique visual character. The street, meanwhile, became the most visible and important social space of the new French capital, a place to see and be seen, where members of all classes rubbed shoulders. The sheer scale of destruction and reconstruction that occurred as a result of Haussmann’s interventions proved extraordinarily stimulating and disorienting for the city’s population, and Caillebotte sought to capture a sense of this atmosphere in his compositions, using innovative visual strategies such as plunging perspectives and dramatic cropping to convey his own experiences of traversing Haussmann’s cityscape.
One of the pioneering features of Haussmann’s vision was the introduction of grand, public spaces, from grand parks and gardens, to large, open squares which acted as central meeting points for several radiating streets. The Pont de l’Europe was one such space, an immense bridge spanning the yards of the Saint-Lazare train station, atop which six streets came together to form the Place de l’Europe. One of the engineering marvels of the Second Empire, the bridge had been constructed in the 1860s to replace two small stone tunnels, which were unable to cope with the sharp increase in traffic around the Gare Saint-Lazare during the period. Consisting of six intersecting spans supported by huge iron trellises, each carrying a different street over the tracks, the Pont de l’Europe became an important thoroughfare, a symbol of the powerful impact of Haussmann’s remodelling of the city. There was no single point from which the harmoniously integrated, radial design of the bridge could be viewed, and so every view of the Pont de l’Europe was a partial one, framed and dissected by the imposing metal structure of the bridge. The site was intensely familiar to Caillebotte, having grown up at 77, rue de Miromesnil in the Quartier de l’Europe, just a short ten-minute walk from the huge iron bridge. This gave him an extraordinarily unique insight into the chance encounters and fleeting connections possible while strolling along the bridge’s expanse.
Born in Paris in 1848, Caillebotte had witnessed first-hand the massive demolitions and extensive new construction that Haussmann’s program entailed. ‘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’ (K. Varnedoe, Gustave Caillebotte, New Haven & London, 1987, p. 88). It is perhaps no surprise, then, that among all the Impressionists, Caillebotte was to become the most uncompromising interpreter of the transformed city, letting his gaze sweep unhesitatingly out toward the distant vanishing-point of the remorselessly incised boulevard. By setting his eye to the newly finished streetscapes of Paris, Caillebotte boldly proclaimed the modernity of his vision, and his paintings became inextricably linked to the experience of life in Haussmann-era Paris. The conception of Caillebotte as the perfect embodiment of the flâneur, or urban stroller, was driven by these keen observations of the bustle of life on the boulevards of Paris. The poet Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as ‘a passionate observer,’ a ‘man of the crowd’ who is able to be ‘at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world’ (C. Baudelaire, quoted in M. Morton & G. T. M. Shackelford, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 2015, p. 74). For Baudelaire the modernité of Paris was rooted in these ephemeral experiences of the city, in the fleeting encounters which occurred along the new boulevards, and in the exhilaration and alienation of the crowd. Caillebotte embraced this side of his persona, at once engaged and invisible in the play of life, seamlessly blending into the throngs that strolled through the city, contemplating and absorbing their ways and mannerisms.
The dynamism and sense of movement in Le Pont de l’Europe was the result of diligent research and preparation by the artist, with each aspect of the painting carefully planned for maximum visual impact. According to family legend, Caillebotte’s studies of the bridge were created from a carriage which he had stationed on the thoroughfare, so that he could observe the structure of the bridge and the activities of passers-by in all weathers. Caillebotte devoted a suite of three perspectival drawings to working out the distinctive ‘X-form’ construction of the picture, which repeats the form of the bridge itself, and the accelerating plunge into depth that it generates. He then analysed the various figures in separate pencil studies before integrating them within the pre-determined spatial design. A series of six oil studies followed, amongst which the current composition is unique, being the only one of the studies that the artist chose to sign his name to. Focusing on the form of the idle worker as he gazes at the trains below him, the painting charts the final stages of Caillebotte’s planning, as he fully defined the relationship between the architectural elements of the scene and the figures that populate it. The view through the large iron girders has solidified in comparison to previous studies, the metallic structure of the rue de Londres portion of the bridge clearly visible in the distance. The worker gazing over the edge of the iron girders, meanwhile, is imbued with a new sense of nonchalance, his legs crossed in a casual pose, his hand resting against his face. Apparently watching the activity of the station below, his relaxed stance suggests that he is an idler (badauds), distracting himself as he whiles away his time. Lacking the flâneur's enthusiastic observational skills, he turns his back to the street and the array of interactions and spontaneous meetings taking place along the bustling boulevard, instead becoming lost in his own thoughts and dreams.
As has been pointed out by many critics, the top-hatted gentleman strolling along the pavement in the completed Le Pont de l’Europe is a self-portrait of Caillebotte, an act which only emphasises the role of the artist as a direct observer of the life he paints. Considered in this context, the labourer becomes not only a social counterpoint to the artist, but also a psychological one. Distracted by the goings-on of the train yard, the worker remains oblivious to the world around him, while Caillebotte, in contrast, remains continuously aware, engaged in his surroundings, collecting impressions of contemporary Paris which he can then use in future compositions.