During the final decade of his career, beginning in the mid-1890s, Pissarro made the spectacle of contemporary urban life into his abiding, valedictory theme, transforming himself from a dedicated painter of rural France into the era’s foremost chronicler of the modern metropolis. Pissarro’s Impressionist colleagues by this time had retreated decisively from the boulevard and other public spaces, seeking their inspiration in more personal, subjective domains—Degas in his cloistered studio on the rue Victor Massé, Renoir in a timeless vision of the éternel féminin, Monet in the private horticultural fantasia that he cultivated on his property at Giverny. Pissarro charted a wholly opposite, individual course, leaving behind his home and familiar motifs in the hamlet of Éragny for up to six months each year to paint the kaleidoscopic energy and constant flux of Paris and the Norman port cities. “Not until Robert Delaunay became obsessed with Paris as a visual emblem of modernity,” Richard Brettell has written, “was Pissarro’s role as the primary painter of the modern dimensions of French cities challenged” (op. cit., 1993, p. xviii).
In the present painting, Pissarro depicted the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge over the Seine, carrying a bustling throng of pedestrians, wagons, and carriages between the Île de la Cité and the Right Bank. Individual figures with umbrellas are distinguishable in the immediate foreground, while behind them the crowd is rendered as a mobile mass of flickering paint touches, dissolving in the distance into the rue du Pont Neuf and the rue de la Monnaie. At the far end of the span, bedecked with red flags, is the Samaritaine department store, then newly opened and a potent emblem of capitalist, commercial Paris. The massive stone piers of the bridge, testament to its enduring strength, contrast with the ceaseless flow of the crowds, the diaphanous plumes of smoke in the sky, and the rippling motion of the river. “This juxtaposition of the new and the old, of tradition and modernity, of the transient and the eternal constitutes one of the principal connecting themes of Pissarro’s series,” Joachim Pissarro has written (ibid., p. xlv).
Pissarro painted this quintessentially urban vista in the opening months of 1901, from the window of a flat that he had recently occupied on the second floor of 28 place Dauphine, at the western tip of the Île de la Cité. He had begun the search for new lodgings in Paris the previous spring, after coming to feel that he had exhausted the motifs visible from the apartment at 204 rue de Rivoli where he had worked by then for two winter seasons. “I’ve found a flat on the embankment of the Pont-Neuf with a very fine view,” he reported to his son Lucien in March. “I shall give notice here so that I can move in July. I’m afraid of missing this opportunity to paint another picturesque aspect of Paris” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, p. 826). The artist in fact arrived on the place Dauphine in November 1900 and was hard at work by the new year. “One is so rushed off one’s feet and disrupted by these holidays,” he wrote in early January, “but I also have some quite beautiful effects quite well done” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1993, p. 125).
Of the three hotel rooms and three apartments that Pissarro rented in Paris between 1897 and 1903, each of which provided the basis for an extended series of cityscapes, none offered him a wider range of pictorial possibilities than the flat on the place Dauphine. From the corner windows, his gaze swept over the Hôtel de la Monnaie and the domed Institut de France on the Left Bank, the tranquil Square du Vert-Galant immediately downriver, the Pont des Arts and venerable façade of the Louvre on the Right Bank, and finally—looking due north—the spectacular panorama recorded in the present Pont Neuf. During three consecutive winter and spring campaigns here, Pissarro painted some five dozen interlocking vistas, multiplying his angles of vision and playing on the manifold variations of season, weather, and time of day to impart a unique character to each canvas. “An exquisite and captivating subject,” he described the view in a letter to the critic and collector Julius Elias. “Since I’ve been in Paris, I’ve been able to work from my window incessantly; I’ve had winter effects that charmed me in their finesse” (quoted in ibid., p. xxxviii).
During his inaugural stay on the place Dauphine in 1900-1901, Pissarro depicted the Pont Neuf in six canvases of varying sizes and formats, scenes of urban hustle and bustle that contrast with the more meditative, sparsely populated views of the Square du Vert-Galant that he undertook simultaneously. Another six Pont Neuf paintings followed the next year and a single version during the artist’s third and final campaign on the place Dauphine in the winter of 1902-1903. The present painting is the largest of four stately, vertically oriented canvases in this cohesive group, an unexpected format for a landscape subject that here lends the composition remarkable concentration and strength. Whereas the majority of the Pont Neuf paintings show the bridge receding on a diagonal toward the opposite bank, the span in the present version plunges almost directly into depth, conveying the viewer into the scene with an exceptional dynamism that conjures the energy and vitality of the modern urban experience.
The present Pont Neuf is noteworthy as well for its reference to a specific, contemporary event—the ill-fated crash of a barge against one of the piers of the bridge, perhaps in the wake of heavy rainfall that caused the level of the Seine to rise. The same event is documented in one other canvas from the series, which Pissarro subtitled Naufrage de la “Bonne-Mère”; no mention of this episode, however, has been found in contemporary newspaper reports (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 1350; sold, Christie’s London, 18 June 2007, lot 9). Here, the calamity has attracted the attention of pedestrians on the bridge, who have gathered in the niche immediately above the wreckage to observe.
Pissarro was a tireless worker, often alternating between several paintings in progress as the light and weather conditions changed. From his window on the place Dauphine, he depicted the city by turns under sun, clouds, rain, mist, hoarfrost, and snow. “The weather had to be truly gruesome, and all things had to look quite dull, colorless, and discouraging before he would resign himself not to do anything,” recounted the journalist Robert de la Villehervé, who visited the artist in the city during his late years. “Then he would go out” (quoted in ibid., p. xlix). In the present canvas, Pissarro captured the subtly luminous effect of a winter’s afternoon under soft rain. The silvery gray sky provides a neutral backdrop for the human and architectural spectacle of the city, which is rendered in a splendid panoply of warm tones—cream, taupe, gold, and sepia, with accents in brick red. “You know that the motifs are of secondary interest to me,” the artist wrote to his son Ludovic-Rodolphe in 1903. “What I consider first is the atmosphere and the effects” (quoted in ibid., p. xxxviii).
Pissarro completed the present canvas no later than 21 February 1901, when he wrote to Lucien with a detailed accounting of his recent production. “I have practically finished my winter series,” he announced proudly, citing 18 canvases in various sizes—nine large, exhibition-scaled works (sizes 25 and 30), among them the present Pont Neuf, and the same number of smaller oils, plus a pair of gouache studies. “As you can see, I haven’t wasted my time, thanks to my regular working hours” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, p. 826). On 17 May, Durand-Ruel visited the artist and selected eight new Paris pictures for purchase, including the canvas offered here and a contrasting, sunlit Pont Neuf, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 1351).