Le Pont de l’Europe (The Bridge of Europe), 1876
Oil on canvas
49 1/4 x 71 in.
Petit Palais Musée d’Art Moderne, Geneva, Switzerland
The Bridge of Europe and two other Paris scenes exhibited at the third Impressionist exhibition established Caillebotte as a painter of modern city life. He depicted a more sober, realist Paris than his fellow Impressionists, exposing the social ten- sions that underlay the industrial city and its new society. Six boulevards converged at the famous Bridge of Europe, a wonder of technology that straddled the rail yards of the Gare Saint-Lazare, one of Paris’s major train stations. Here on the bridge is a moment from everyday life, juxtaposing two social classes that frequented the streets of the city. Leaning on the rail at the right is an artisan/laborer, while on the left, a man and woman of higher social stature walk toward us and gaze at each other.
The gentleman, who is rendered as a flâneur, or man-about-town and observer of modern life, may be a self-portrait of the artist.
He is separated symbolically and physically from the laborer but looks toward him. Simultaneously, the bridge rail creates a line of perspective from the laborer back to the couple. Perhaps this visual link reflects Caillebotte’s personal struggle to bridge two worlds, those of wealthy gentleman and democratic Impressionist. The couple and even the dog in the foreground walk at the fast pace typical of city dwellers. Is the elegant gentleman trying to leave the lady with the parasol behind? Notice, too, how the immense steel girders of the bridge, the very essence of modern, industrial Paris, dominate the picture. This realist’s viewpoint, in all its brute strength, dwarfs the Paris of strollers, tree-lined boule- vards, and shimmering light.
The elements of perspective in this painting are remarkably deep.
The lines created by the railroad bridge, row of buildings, curb, and dog, which repeat the "X" shape of the bridge girder, draw us into the scene. Before he began to paint, Caillebotte made meticulous sketches on this bridge and in his studio, arranging and re-arranging the elements to achieve this intriguing composition. The painting’s cool, stark lighting and crisp forms underscore this flâneur-artist’s assessment of Paris’s transformation.
The great realist writer Emile Zola was so taken by the "beautiful truth" in Gustave Caillebotte’s work that he wrote, "When his talent becomes a little more broken in, Monsieur Caillebotte will certainly be one of the boldest of the group."
But the wealthy Caillebotte is probably better known for buying up the works of fellow Impressionists and, in 1894, bequeathing them to the French government for display at Paris’s Musée de Luxembourg. Of sixty-seven works, the museum accepted only thirty-eight, citing lack of space and the still-controversial image of Impressionist art. Included in the final bequest were two works by Cézanne, seven by Degas, eight by Monet, seven by Pissarro, two by Manet, six by Sisley, and six by Renoir. Caillebotte’s gift made up the first museum exhibition of Impressionist art at the Musée de Luxembourg in 1897. Not until the 1950s did Caillebotte’s own paintings win the attention they deserved.
- This is a painting of Paris. What does the artist include to show you that this is a city rather than a country scene?
- Describe the clothing each person is wearing.
- Is there anything that represents nature in this painting? Notice the sky and bits of green.
- What geometric shapes do you see? Where do you see "X" shapes? Where do you see ovals? What shapes are the shadows? What shapes repeat to create patterns?
- Notice the steam from the train and the clouds. Why do you think the artist chose to include these elements?
- What colors are the shadows?
- Do you see any red in the painting? Where?
Create a lesson about one-point linear perspective. Put an overleaf of Mylar on this transparency and draw the receding lines of the bridge, street, and buildings. Show and explain the vanishing points and horizon line
Math or Science
The following terms are often used in science and/or math: growth, life forms, direction, rhythm, balance, repetition, weight, angles, light, shapes, triangle, rectangle, circle, square, curves, movement, direction, motion, size, pattern.
Have your students circle any of these words that they could use to talk about a part of this work of art.
Ask them to write at least three sentences using the circled words to describe this painting. For example: "I see several cut-out shapes with curves on the bridge."
Did you notice the dog in the painting? Why do you think the artist chose to include the dog? Have your students develop a short explanation of what the dog is thinking. Is the dog a stray or does he/she belong to someone in the painting? Where is he going? Why? Where does the dog sleep? What does the dog eat? Notice the dog’s tail. What feeling does the tail convey?
Look closely at the painting. Discuss how clothing describes a person’s place in society or reflects a certain occasion. Look at this painting and discuss each person’s role. Have the students look through magazines and cut out images of fashion that describe a profession, an occasion, or even a class of society. Ask them to create a costume collage using the images.
Continue reading on to the next page, #4: Morisot, Summer's Day.