The present painting is a highly finished preparatory painting for one of Caillebotte's most important pictures of the mid-1870s, Le Pont de l'Europe in the Kimbell Art Museum (fig. 1). The painting depicts one of the engineering marvels of the Second Empire, an immense bridge spanning the yards of the Saint-Lazare train station (fig. 2). Two men, their backs to the viewer, gaze intently through the massive iron trellises of the bridge toward the station, the roof of which is visible in the background at the right. With its ruthlessly modern subject matter and audaciously inventive composition, Le Pont de l'Europe is a masterful representation of industrialized Paris, unparalleled in its time.
The Pont de l'Europe was built in 1865-1868 to supplant two stone tunnels that had provided the only access, increasingly insufficient, to the rapidly expanding Gare Saint-Lazare, the largest and most important of six railroad stations serving Paris at the time. The bridge consisted of six spans supported by masonry piers and huge iron trellises, each carrying a different street over the train tracks to an intersection at the Place de l'Europe. Although the structure had its detractors (one critic called it "more odd than handsome, astonishing in its bizarre form and immense size," and the poet Mallarmé confessed the frequent desire to leap from the bridge onto the train tracks), most writers praised it as an emblem of modern engineering. The bridge quickly became a favorite subject for Salon artists like Giuseppe de Nittis and Jean Béraud, as well as for Impressionist painters such as Edouard Manet and Claude Monet. In 1872-1873, Manet depicted one of the bridge's piers and a bit of its ironwork, almost wholly obscured by steam from the rail yards, at the right edge of La Gare Saint-Lazare (fig. 3). Shortly thereafter, Monet painted a series of canvases exploring the bridge and the station from different angles, seven of which were included in the 1877 Impressionist Exhibition.
The Kimbell Pont de l'Europe is one of two finished paintings of the bridge that Caillebotte made in 1876-1877. The other, which hangs in the Petit Palais in Geneva, was part of a trio of large Parisian street scenes that the artist showed at the 1877 Impressionist exhibition. The Geneva version is preceded by at least six oil sketches (Berhaut, 1994, nos. 43-48), while the present picture is the only known study for the example in the Kimbell. The two canvases represent different points on the bridge, and are dramatically dissimilar in terms of composition and coloration. The Geneva painting depicts a deep, plunging view along one of the bridge's six slanting spans, while the version in the Kimbell is painted from the center of the bridge, its giant steel latticework parallel to the picture plane. In place of the lateral stretch of the Geneva picture, the Kimbell canvas is severely cropped on all sides, with no figure complete and neither the top of the trellis nor the ground line visible. Finally, the Kimbell view is rendered in a near uniformity of grey and blue, in contrast to the golden palette of the Geneva painting. The latter seems to represent the bridge in brilliant summer sunlight and the former in the midst of a wintry afternoon--recalling that Caillebotte chose to work from a windowed carriage on the Pont de l'Europe so that he could continue in all weather.
What the two paintings share, however, is an unabashed focus on the Pont de l'Europe's modernity. Whereas Manet and Monet had chosen to temper the industrial severity of the bridge's iron trellises by cloaking them in vapor, Caillebotte instead depicts the structure in sharp focus, exploiting its ruthless geometry to organize his composition. The insistent regularity of the latticework in the present version contrasts with the boldly random placement of the figures, all three spectators crowded into less than half of the picture surface. As Robert Herbert has written, "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).
This image of man in an urban-industrial milieu certainly had personal resonance for Caillebotte. He had grown up at 77 rue de Miromesnil in the eastern sector of the Quartier de l'Europe, a ten-minute walk from the huge iron bridge. The neighborhood was hardly developed before 1848, the year of the artist's birth. As he matured, he saw it radically altered as part of Baron Haussmann's plan to transform Paris into Europe's first modern metropolis. All three of the paintings that Caillebotte showed at the 1877 Impressionist exhibition depict vistas indebted to the massive demolitions and wholesale new construction that Haussmann sponsored in his role as Napoleon III's Prefect of the Seine. Simply put, these paintings are both a celebration and a critique of the new Paris; as one critic has explained:
It requires an act of the imagination to appreciate the extraordinary effect of raw modernity [these scenes] had for Caillebotte... Every street here was pierced, and every building built, during the artist's lifetime. The whole ensemble was an exceptionally unified and undiluted microcosm of the new look that Haussmann's boulevards had imposed throughout Paris--an environment that represented a complete, drastic change from the semi-medieval scale and crooked, irregular variety of Paris as it had been. The new look was impressive in size, elegant in an anodyne way, impeccably clean and regular. All of these qualities of modernity Caillebotte captures... (K. Varnedoe and T.P. Lee, op. cit., exh. cat., 1976-1977, p. 111).
Another key issue that Caillebotte's paintings of the Pont de l'Europe address is class difference. In the present scene, the figure at the left, leaning on the railing of the bridge, is clad in the blue smock and cap of the Parisian working class; indicating that he is probably a laborer, maybe a shopkeeper. The man at the right, in contrast, is a true bourgeois, identified by his grey frock coat, fashionable top hat, and gloved hand. The placement of these two figures on the Pont de l'Europe--side-by-side but not interacting, both gazing at the railway beyond--is emblematic of the way that industrialization had brought together the lower and middle classes. As Julia Sagraves has written:
The Kimbell Pont de l'Europe...is an image about two city men who differ in class but share a view: of the railroad, of the city in motion, and of modern Paris at work. They are transfixed by the spectacle of modern technology, as if held firmly by the crossed and bolted iron girders of the Pont de l'Europe itself. In the 1870s the futures of both classes depended on their harnessing the power of industrialization for their mutual progress. If technology, industrialization, and the railroad had brought the...classes closer together, then they also had to be the means of ensuring their peaceful coexistence (J. Sagraves, op. cit., p. 107).
The juxtaposition of worker and bourgeois may also be autobiographical. Caillebotte was born to a wealthy upper-class family, and continued to live at home until the death of his mother in 1878. At the same time, he chose to align himself not with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but with the avant-garde democratic milieu of the Impressionists. The top-hatted figure at the center of the Pont de l'Europe is traditionally said to represent Caillebotte himself, and his placement alongside a member of the working class may be intended to evoke the artist's own dual social identification. As Kirk Varnedoe has commented, "The Pont de l'Europe lies in a tradition of self-portraits of the artist in his milieu, rather than his studio... Caillebotte shows himself caught at the crux of powerful oppositions...uniting in his head the confrontations he has staged, between appearance and reality, man and the modern city, and leisure and working classes..." (K. Varnedoe, op. cit., 2002, p. 17).
On the basis of its spatial structure and predominantly blue palette, Varnedoe has proposed that the present picture and the one in the Kimbell may have been painted circa 1880, somewhat later than the Geneva Pont de l'Europe (K. Varnedoe, op. cit., 1987, p. 80). In her 1994 catalogue raisonné of Caillebotte's work, however, Marie Berhaut accepts a date of 1877 for the present picture, as do the curators of Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist, an important recent exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago. It has even been suggested that Caillebotte intended the Kimbell picture for the 1877 Impressionist exhibition, but in the end decided not to include it (J. Sagraves, op. cit., p. 107).
(fig. 2) Engraving by Auguste Lamy of the Pont de l'Europe and the Gare Saint-Lazare. From L'Illustration, 11 April 1868.
Musée Carnavalet, Paris.
(fig. 1) Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Europe, 1876-1880.
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.
(fig. 3) Edouard Manet, La Gare Saint-Lazare, 1872-1873.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.