The Bridge at Grez was painted in the summer of 1883, a few months later than A Stranger (lot 18). As noted in the entry for that picture, Lavery had gone to Paris in November 1881 at the age of twenty-five to study at L'Académie Julian, the mecca for so many British art students at the time. His teachers were the doyen of pompier painters, W. A. Bouguereau, whom at this stage he greatly admired, and another pillar of the academic establishment, Tony Robert-Fleury. In the evenings he frequented another studio, Colarossi's, kept by a retired model. There the models posed in costume, and the resulting studies could be worked up into saleable pictures, providing the artist with a much-needed source of income.
Lavery's first period in Paris ended in the summer of 1882, when he returned briefly to his adopted city of Glasgow and exhibited recent works at the Glasgow Institute. He then went back to France, remaining there until the end of 1884. This second sojourn saw his style transformed. No longer content to paint picturesque genre subjects tailored to a conservative market, he embraced some of the most radical tendencies in modern French painting and proved himself capable of holding his own on the international stage.
The discovery of new sources of inspiration was crucial to this change. Increasingly, he saw the limitations of Julian's and the incompatibility of Bouguereau's linear style with his own instinctively more painterly approach. Meanwhile new idols were emerging in Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Jules Bastien-Lepage. Both these painters had been powerfully represented at the Salon of 1882, Puvis' painting Doux Pays gaining a medaille d'honneur, and Lavery's biographer, Walter Shaw-Sparrow, describes their impact on his circle of English-speaking artists in Paris, quoting Alexander Roche's reminiscence that 'ardour and tobacco were burned freely before [their] shrines' (op. cit., p. 41).
So far as Puvis was concerned, perhaps the artist most literally affected was the Anglo-Austrian Louis Welden Hawkins, who applied to become the master's studio assistant in 1887 and went on to develop an overtly symbolist style. But many artists in the circle, including the Englishman William Stott of Oldham, the Scots Alexander Roche and Thomas Millie Dow, Lavery's fellow Irishman Frank O'Meara and Lavery himself, were to betray Puvis' influence in their search for a rural arcadia and their endeavour to capture a mood of reverie, a sense of idyllic serenity and suspended time.
If they tended to express these values in less heroic terms than Puvis, the austere student of Giotto and Piero della Francesca, this was due to the even greater influence of their other hero, Bastien-Lepage. Since the late 1870s Bastien had established a formidable reputation as the leading exponent of naturalism and plein-air painting (fig. 1). A close friend of Zola, he was famous not only in France but in Britain for his startlingly realistic accounts of modern and historical themes, although it is significant in view of the synthesis that Lavery and his friends were seeking that even Bastien was susceptible to the charms of symbolism. At all events, his impact on Lavery and his circle was profound. 'Bastien-Lepage and plein air', Shaw-Sparrow continues, were their 'favourite topics' of conversation; and Lavery himself is on record as saying that 'when I saw Bastien's work, it took away my breath' (op. cit., p. 50). The fact that Bastien was a mere eight years his senior can only have enhanced his appeal.
The influence of the Impressionists was far less marked. It is true that Lavery seems to have looked at Manet's Bar au Folies Bergère (Courtauld Institute Collection), another notable contribution to the Salon of 1882, and he was to develop a style that has earned him a central place in the annals of British Impressionism. But as Kenneth McConkey has observed, 'it is doubtful whether (at this date) Lavery would have had anything other than the most general awareness of Impressionism, filtered through the broader category of plein-air painting' (Sir John Lavery, 1993, p. 30). Indeed Lavery himself suggests as much in his account of his time in Paris in his autobiography. Apologising for not saying more about 'French names which have since become famous, such as Monet, Pissarro and Cézanne,' he attributes this failure to his difficulty with the French language and the fact that he and his compatriots 'kept together so much by going to the same cafés and rarely meeting any of our French atelier friends except at exhibitions' (The Life of a Painter, p. 53).
Eager to put his new ideas into practice following his return to Paris late in 1882, Lavery ceased to work all day at Julian's, devoting the afternoons to working from nature at St Cloud or Nogent-sur-Marne. It was at Nogent he painted A Stranger (lot 18). By the summer of 1883, however, another retreat had claimed his attention, the most important and inspirational of all. Grez (or Gretz)-sur-Loing, situated a little to the south of Fontainebleau, had a well-established artistic community. Corot had painted there in the 1860s, but it was not until a decade later that it became popular with artists, writers and even musicians, much as Barbizon had been twenty years earlier. Robert Louis Stevenson, who left just before Lavery arrived, discussed it in one of the articles on 'Village Communities of Painters' which he contributed to the Magazine of Art. He lists its miriad charms - its ancient church, castle, and mill, its 'pellucid river, ... full of gentle attractions for the navigator', and the bridge, so popular as a subject with artists that he had seen it 'beaming ... from the walls of a hundred exhibitions', the Salon, the Royal Academy, the Exposition Universelle in Paris (Magazine of Art, 1884, pp. 341-2). In another article, published earlier in the Cornhill, he had waxed even more lyrical, describing how 'out of unknown thickets comes forth the soft, secret, aromatic odour of the woods, ... as though court ladies, who had known these paths in ages long gone by, still walked in the summer evenings, and shed, from their brocades, a breath of musk or bergamot upon the woodland winds' (Cornhill, vol. XXXIII, 1876, p. 552). Nor was Stevenson alone in singing the village's praises. The American artist Will H. Low testified at length to its 'obvious picturesqueness' in his book A Chronicle of Friendships (1908). Low was a member of the artistic community, which consisted mainly of British, Americans and Scandinavians. Scots who painted at Grez included William Kennedy, Alexander Roche, Arthur Melville and Thomas Millie Dow, and Lavery had a fellow Irishman in the short-lived Frank O'Meara, who became his closest associate. It was here, too, that he encountered Louis Welden Hawkins. The most established figures when he arrived were the Englishman William Stott of Oldham and the American Alexander Harrison, and it may have been Stott, whom he had known in Paris, who introduced him to the village. Stott's picture Le Passeur (The Ferry) (private collection; McConkey, op. cit., 1993, p. 28, pl. 21), which had been painted at Grez and encapsulated the place's distinctive charm and character, was yet another work to make a great impact at the Salon of 1882.
Lavery adored Grez, painting there in 1883 and returning for a second spell the following year. Living cheaply at Chevillon's Inn, where most of the English-speaking artists stayed, he was spared the financial worries that had dogged him in Paris, and later wrote that his 'happiest days in France' had been spent at the village in the company of kindred spirits (The Life of a Painter, p. 53). His mood is reflected in the large amount he accomplished, including two large exhibition pictures and many smaller works. The Bridge at Grez was the first of the exhibition pieces, and treats the theme that, as Stevenson noted, had inspired so many artists. Lavery later recorded that he painted the bridge over the river Loing 'on at least ten occasions' (The Life of a Painter, p. 55), but not all these works dated from this early period; he was to return to Grez in 1900 and paint almost exactly the same view as that seen in the present picture (McConkey, op. cit., 1993, p. 89, pl. 100). Apart from ours, the most important of the 'bridge' pictures executed in the early 1880s is the other exhibition piece, On the Loing: An Afternoon Chat (also known as Under the Cherry Tree) in the Ulster Museum, Belfast (fig. 2). It was painted a year later than The Bridge at Grez, on Lavery's return visit, and in spirit and composition it could hardly be more different. Showing a washerwoman, accompanied by a little girl, pausing from her labours to talk to a passing boatman, it represents the daily life of the local peasantry. Our picture, on the contrary, celebrates the carefree existence enjoyed by the community of artists and their friends, depicting a stretch of water with, as Lavery himself put it, 'a man in a skiff kissing his hand to a pair of happy girls in a distant boat' (Shaw-Sparrow, op. cit., p. 46).
In design, too, the pictures are in stark contrast. The painting in Belfast is square, and creates a vivid sense of depth by means of a series of interlocking diagonals and by reducing the amount of definition as the planes recede. The composition has been compared to that of Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the celebrated painting exhibited at the Salon of 1880, while a contemporary parallel has been found in Towards the Night and Winter by Lavery's friend Frank O'Meara (Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin), which was exhibited with On the Loing: An Afternoon Chat at the Glasgow Institute in 1885. In our picture, Lavery sets himself a very different compositional problem, opting for a narrow oblong format and a rudimentary plane system. It has been suggested that the picture's shape results from turning a standard full-length-portrait canvas on its side, but perhaps even this would not have given the artist the necessary panoramic scope. Certainly pictures of this format were popular in Lavery's circle. Stott had used it for his influential Le Passeur, and Lavery himself returned to it for another 'bridge' subject, On the Bridge at Grez (private collection; McConkey, 1993, p. 37, pl. 33), which he painted in 1884.
Different though our picture is to the one in Belfast, each is representative of the work of the Grez community, emphasising the note of nostalgia and reverie, and exhibiting an almost Whistlerian tonal control which does not, however, preclude either close observation of detail or the occasional enlivening touch of brilliant colour. Particularly remarkable in The Bridge at Grez are the evocation of summer indolence, the sense of space and dappled light, and the masterly handling of refections in water - those 'mirrored and inverted images of trees' that Robert Louis Stevenson had noted as so typical of the river at Grez. The influence of Bastien-Lepage and Puvis, though traceable, is thoroughly absorbed and integrated, more so, strangely enough, than in the later On the Loing: An Afternoon Chat.
Towards the end of 1883, the picture was exhibited at the Paisley Art Institute, and the following year it appeared at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. On both occasions it was called A Passing Salute, but Lavery abandoned this title when he found it had already been used by another artist. The picture went on to be shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, the Royal Academy, London, in 1890, and the Glasgow Institute in 1891. Lavery recorded that it was the subject of 'a good deal of talk' (The Life of a Painter, p. 55), and Shaw-Sparrow observed that 'painters liked the composition and the fresh handling, and noticed that the water and its reflections were liquid and deeply transparent ... To see in a picture some of the real magic of water is not a common experience' (op. cit., p. 46). Yet The Bridge at Grez was always more than a 'painters' picture'. It received a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle, and in 1898 the critic Gleeson White recalled it in glowing terms in his Master Painters of Britain. 'Those who know the original', he wrote, 'with its wonderful reach of water under the shadow of high trees, flecked by rays of sunlight trickling here and there through the branches, will readily admit that few more delightful impressions of summer in the open air have ever hung on the Academy walls'.
According to Lavery, a friend, 'wishing to help me', bought the picture in 1886 for £30, and three years later it was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, for $1,500 (Shaw-Sparrow, op. cit., p. 46). It subsequently became 'known in America', although the artist recalled with wry amusement how 'years later, an American dealer wishing to pay me a compliment and at the same time show himself familiar with my work, said, "I think, sir, you are perhaps the best-known British painter whose work has reached the States. There sure is no picture more talked about than the beautiful Irish girl's portrait, Bridget Gray"' (The Life of a Painter, pp. 55-6).
The picture remained in Pittsburgh until 1966, when it was de-accessioned and entered an American private collection. Its whereabouts were unknown, and as interest in British Impressionism grew, this proved increasingly irksome. It had not come to light when the Lavery Exhibition was held in 1984-5, and in the latter year Roger Billcliffe wrote: 'As one of Lavery's most significant works, the loss of this painting is particularly unfortunate' (loc. cit.). Happily, the picture re-appeared in London in 1991, and has since enjoyed a justified return to fame. Scholars and connoisseurs alike recognise it as a masterpiece and one of the most important - not to say beguiling - works of Lavery's career.