Le pont de chemin de fer comes from a series of works which Pissarro painted around 1873 of the railroad at Pontoise, a small town to the northwest of Paris which marks the border of the Vexin and Ile-de-France regions, and overlooking the valley of Montmorency. Other works in the series include La route au bord du chemin de fer, effet de neige (fig. 1) and La barrière du chemin de fer, aux pâtis près Pontoise (fig. 2).
In August 1872 Pissarro left Louveciennes, where he had been staying since his departure from London at the beginning of the decade. He returned with his family to Pontoise, where they had lived between 1866 and 1868; and they remained there this time for more than ten years. With the help of Dr. Paul-Fernand Gachet, their homeopathic physicianm the family initially found rented accomodations in Pontoise. In October 1873 they moved into a newly constructed house on the rue de l'Hermitage, a peaceful country lane which ran from the Oise until it merged with the road at Ennery, a small village about eight kilometers from Pontoise. "The road was particularly beautiful and tranquil because it was a secondary route without much traffic and because it wound through a picturesque and forested valley before climbing the hill to the plains of the Vexin on which Ennery was situated" (exh. cat., A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape, County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1984, p. 184).
It was during this second stay in Pontoise that Pissarro fully developed his Impressionist technique. His Pontoise pictures were to have a profound influence upon a whole new generation of painters, notably Cézanne and Gauguin, who came to Pontoise to paint alongside the older painter.
Stylistically, the first half of the 1870s is perhaps Pissarro's best known creative period, and the canvases painted in England and shortly afterwards in France have been more readily appreciated than those painted at any other time in his whole career. The artist retains a firmly controlled geometric structure as the framework for his compositions, but he employs a lighter touch in his brushwork and a brighter palette, both of which show the influence of Monet, whose technique of freely applying broken, separate patches of pure pigment Pissarro approached closely at this time. The paintings dating from the opening years of the 1870s therefore may, like those of Monet and Renoir, with good reason be described as the most purely impressionist in Pissarro's entire oeuvre. (C. Lloyd and A. Distel, exh. cat., Pissarro, Hayward Gallery, London, 1980-1981, p. 79)
Although Pissarro is reported to have lacked confidence in his work at this time, his doubts were not shared by his friends and colleagues. As Antoine Guillemet wrote from Paris to Pissarro:
I have done the Rue Laffitte and have visited the galleries, including Durand-Ruel's. What I wanted to say is that everywhere I saw charming and really perfect things of yours and that I felt anxious to tell you this immediately... Thus I saw especially at Durand-Ruel bright and lively pictures, varied in a word, which gave me the greatest pleasure. (Quoted in K. Adler, Camille Pissarro: A Biography, London, 1978, p. 51)
The association of railways and Impressionist painting illustrated by the present work is renowned, and Pissarro, along with Daubigny, was among the first to explore the theme. To many, the railway symbolized the progress of modern life and industry, but Pissarro chose to depict the subject fully integrated into its rural surroundings, as evident in the present work and in contemporaneous pictures (figs. 1 and 2). Le pont de chemin de fer, Pontoise in particular recalls Pissarro's Environs de Sydenham Hill (avec Lower Norwood au fond) (fig. 3), painted in England two years earlier, where the train is again viewed from a distance and employed as an almost incidental motif within the landscape.
The railway in Pontoise was opened in 1846 and ran from Paris to St. Ouen l'Aumône. The bridge itself was built across the river Oise to carry the line on to Pontoise and beyond in 1863-1864. The present work is particularly interesting as it is Pissarro's only painted representation of the railroad bridge. The modern cast-iron structure is viewed from afar, set in the midst of tranquil rural surroundings. A train is suggested by a small, quiet column of smoke reaching up from the right-hand side of the bridge.
As Richard Brettell points out, Pissarro's approach can be seen in direct contrast to Monet's glorification of the railway in his celebrated Gare Saint-Lazare series of 1876-1877 (Wildenstein, nos. 438-448) and more specifically in his paintings of the railroad bridge in Argenteuil (e.g. fig. 4).
It seems likely from pictorial evidence alone that Pissarro and Monet had decidedly different attitudes toward the railroad and modern technology. Pissarro always placed his trains in the midst of landscapes that contain rather than feature them. They are not the glorious motifs...that are such an evident feature of Monet's landscape... Monet's train speaks of the capital city, whose population inundated the town of Argenteuil at weekends and throughout the summer months. Pissarro's landscape is seen from a local point of view. It is the movement of the local "peasants" that Pissarro notes with such care, and not the momentary arrival of the train." (R.R. Brettell, op. cit., pp. 70-71)
Paul Tucker has noted the similarity in design between the bridges built at Pontoise and Argenteuil around this time. (The bridge at Argenteuil which Monet painted was rebuilt in 1871 following damage during the Franco-Prussian War.) Both bridges were based upon a poured concrete structure; the novelty of their design, along with their self-consciously industrial appearance, is likely to have provoked the same reaction among the local residents of Pontoise, including Pissarro himself, as it did at Argenteuil. The editor of the Journal d'Argenteuil, for example, wrote:
Instead of an elegant construction of grandiose or bold forms, there is only a heavy and primitive work which is not at the level of the progress of science. Instead of those gracious constructions on which wagons and machines slide onward to discovery, they made a wall of iron that is impenetrable to the eye... It is a tunnel without a roof. (Quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., p. 72)
And another writer declared that the piers of the bridge at Argenteuil "should have been surmounted by carved capitals instead of the bulging blocks that sit there now [and] the bridge itself should have been adorned with some cast-iron decorations, which would have broken up this relentless straight line" (quoted in ibid., p. 72).
In Le pont de chemin de fer, Pontoise Pissarro not only integrated the new railroad bridge subtly into its surroundings, but also chose to depict a view in which it is directly juxtaposed with the older, arched bridge glimpsed behind it. Pissarro skillfully acknowledges the encroachment of modern technology on Pontoise while celebrating the town's enduring beauty and serenity.
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, La route au bord du chemin de fer, effet de neige, 1873
National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, La barrière du chemin de fer, aux pâtis près Pontoise, 1873-1874
Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 3) Camille Pissarro, Environs de Sydenham Hill (avec Lower Norwood au fond), 1871
Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Le pont du chemin de fer, Argenteuil, 1874
Museum of Art, Philadelphia