Painted in 1901, Le Pont-Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mère shows Pissarro as a painter of the modern age. The bustle of the street is perfectly conveyed in this scene of cosmopolitan life. The bridge is crowded with people; some are walking, whereas others are leaning over the edge, looking at a source of novelty and interest: the wreck of the Bonne Mère. Pissarro only painted two views of this wreck among the pictures showing the Pont-Neuf, the other having been sold at Christie's New York in 1992. Of the six views of Pont-Neuf that Pissarro painted during the winter of 1901, only these two and one other are not in museum collections. In looking at Le Pont-Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mère, one can well see why Gustave Geffroy declared of Pissarro: 'He then became finally what he had been only intermittently: a landscape painter of towns' (Geffroy, quoted in R.R. Brettell & J. Pissarro, The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro's Series Paintings, exh.cat., Dallas, Philadelphia & London, 1993, p. 51).
As he progressed in his career, Pissarro paid more and more attention to the cityscape, increasingly focussing on modernity and modern living as a theme. Paris at the turn of the century provided plenty of material for his canvases and plenty of food for thought. Even now, as a relatively old man, he was seen to enjoy aspects of the night life, cabarets and other revels and entertainments, yet was able also to capture the elegance of the city in his oils. Paris had an extra pull for the artist because of its beauty, its sweeping boulevards and well-planned cityscapes providing a wealth of compositionally attractive views. This was all the more the case in the apartment he rented in 28 place Dauphine, on the Ile-de-la-Cité, which had a window facing the square du Vert Galant, which resulted in another series of works showing the statue of Henri IV, and another overlooking the Pont-Neuf. Pissarro himself was clearly excited about the potential of this apartment when he first rented it, having exhausted, to his mind, the potential of the views from his former abode. 'I've found a flat on the embankment of the Pont-Neuf with a very fine view; I shall give notice here so that I can move in July,' he wrote. 'I'm afraid of missing this opportunity to paint another picturesque aspect of Paris' (Pissarro, quoted in J. Pissarro & C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, Pissarro: Catalogue critique des peintures, Vol. III, Paris, 2005, p. 826). In the end, it was from the winter, not the summer, of 1900 that he rented his new apartment. The location of this apartment may have appealed to the ever-political Pissarro, as it was in a house that had formerly been the home of Madame Roland, a famous figure of Revolutionary France whose celebrated last words, as she went to the guillotine, were, 'O liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!' ('Oh liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!').
None of the other Impressionists focussed on the theme of the cityscape to the same extent as Pissarro, possibly preferring to capture images of change in nature. Pissarro retained a fascination for rural themes, but increasingly turned towards the city as his theme, possibly another reflection of his political tendencies. For the countryside, in the age of industry, was of decreasing relevance to the lives of many people. Urbanisation meant that more and more people were living city life, and it may have been in part in order to retain a sense of currency that Pissarro decided to paint pictures such as Le Pont-Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mère. At the same time, one wonders whether perhaps the movements of the people were not to Pissarro as the wind rustling the leaves was to other Impressionists. In his Paris pictures, it is in the sky, the leaves on the occasional tree, and also in the clothing on display that the season is judged. The people themselves give a sense of a captured moment and of passing time, a factor that is increased by the contrast between their scale and the monumentality and sense of weight of the bridge itself. This in turn is emphasised by the fact that, against one of the bastions of this bridge, the boat has crashed, another indication of the fleeting nature of human movements as compared to the enduring bridge, the sense of permanence of bricks and mortar. The contrast in scale is also underlined by the bird-like vantage-point from which Pissarro has chosen to render this scene. He is high above street level, as he was in many of his cityscapes over the years, deliberately selecting apartments to rent that benefited from an elevated position. This adds both a dynamism and a sense of scale, of the ant-like movements of the people below, to Le Pont-Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mère. The viewer is not a flâneur embedded within the crowd, but instead is given a chance to appreciate the mood of the world as it is written on the face of the French capital.
It is a tribute to the inspiration that the view that 28 place Dauphine provided and to the energies of the artist, already seventy years old by the time Le Pont-Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mère was painted, that within a short time he had created a series of works showing various views of winter from his apartment. He himself was conscious of the fact that he had been more distracted than usual, in part because of family matters and concern over his son's health, in part also because of the variable condition of his own eyes, one of the factors that resulted in his painting from the safety and controlled conditions of an apartment, rather than en plein air. In January, then, Pissarro wrote explaining that while he had not painted a vast amount, he had nonetheless more than begun: 'one is so rushed off one's feet and disrupted by these holidays, and I also have some quite beautiful effects quite well done' (Pissarro, January 1901, quoted in Brettell & Pissarro, op.cit., 1993, p. 125). Only the next month, he was able to write that, 'I have practically finished my winter series... As you can see, I haven't wasted my time altogether, thanks to my regular working hours' (Pissarro, quoted in Pissarro & Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op.cit., p. 826).
These working hours were discussed in some detail by Robert de la Villehervé. Although his comments were made regarding Pissarro's paintings of Le Havre, they nonetheless provide an intriguing insight into the working methods and perfectionism of the Impressionist:
'Up at 5a.m., he would start off his day immediately... You would have seen in his bedroom which turned out to be his last studio two crates in which he would tightly pack his canvases. There he would keep half a dozen of his figure pictures; they soon were diligently sketched, and then he would resume each one, as long as the conditions, the time, the state of the sky, the light would allow it. Indeed, he resumed his works following these rules, never putting a brushstroke down at random, but striving to interpret nature, constantly observed, as accurately as he could, with his marvellous sensibility. And gradually his works were gaining completion... as they were constantly resumed with the most uncommon patience: this is the reason why he had to have prepared several canvases, sun or rain effects, morning or evening, windy or still weather. This way, his work could be carried out daily as he wished. The weather truly had to be gruesome, and all things had to look quite dull, colourless and discouraging before he would resign himself not to do anything... Nothing would then distract him. He would, however, smoke small cigars, but never in front of his easel. Meticulous as he was, he would frequently clear off his palette, scratching off the lumps of colours with his palette knife, before squeezing out the rainbow colours, neat and pure, from his pewter tubes, together, of course, with the silver white, which is light' (R. de la Villehervé, quoted in Brettell & Pissarro, op.cit., 1993, p. XLIX).
In comparing Le Pont-Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mère to the other picture showing the wreckage of the Bonne Mère, Le Pont-Neuf, après-midi de pluie, one can well imagine that the artist probably had at least two views on the go during the period of their execution. Indeed, he may even have darted from window to window in order to benefit from the right weather over the right view, swapping vantage point as well as canvas according to the weather. This deliberate decision to keep several canvases going at once meant that Pissarro was in a position that was all the better for capturing the impressions of the view before him. Fortunately, in Paris these were, one suspects, not as fleeting as those that Monet was trying to capture in London at precisely this time (Pissarro had in fact considered joining Monet on one of his 'campaigns' at the Savoy Hotel, explaining that he was still fascinated by London). The presence of the wreckage of the Bonne Mère in the present painting adds a sense of currency, of news, of passing events, one that is underscored by the presence of the hordes of people craning to catch a glimpse of it.
It is fascinating to note that Pissarro himself, in discussing his methods of painting with de la Villehervé, focussed on his interest not in the human content of his pictures, but rather in the more formal appearance of the shapes and forms. In this sense, it is implied, Le Pont-Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mère has been painted because of its formal qualities rather than the bustle of the people:
'His method was unwavering. He always started a painting by searching for a harmony between the sky on one hand, and earth and water on the other. Then only would he care for details. He himself used to say so: 'I can see only patches. When I start off a painting, the first thing I strive to catch, is its harmonic form [l'accord]. Between that sky and that ground and that water there is necessarily a link. It can only be a set of harmonics [relation d'accords], and this is the ultimate hardship with painting. What I find of less and less interest through my art, he also used to say, is the material side of painting, i.e. the lines. The great problem to resolve is to bring everything, including the tiniest details of the picture, within the harmony of the whole'' (R. de la Villehervé, quoted in Brettell & Pissarro, op.cit., 1993, p. XLIX).
In this context, it appears that the people are themselves components, a factor that is emphasised by the distant and raised viewpoint from which they are seen. Indeed, in many ways the cloud and smoke-flecked sky is a subject of far more import, rendered with far more subtlety, than anything on the ground or the river.
It is a tribute both to the cosmopolitan appearance of the scene in Le Pont-Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mère and to its quality that it was formerly in the collection of the German industrialist Harry Fuld, who owned works not only by the artists of his day, but also treasures from the Middle Ages.