Monet’s Impressive Bridges at Argenteuil

 

Claude Monet, The Port at Argenteuil (c. 1872), oil on canvas, 60 x 80.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Anabelle Kienle Poňka is seated in her office at the National Gallery, surrounded by bridges. On her walls, photocopied reproductions of Claude Monet’s bridge paintings show the busy town of Argenteuil, with its pedestrians and workers, pleasure boats and steamboats, against a treed landscape. Through the window behind her, cars and trucks can be seen cross-crossing the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge that spans the Ottawa River, the Gatineau hills gently rolling in the distance. It is a scene of pure poetry.

As the Gallery’s Associate Curator of European and American Art, Kienle Poňka is responsible for organizing Monet: A Bridge to Modernity, an exhibition that looks at 12 paintings by the French Impressionist painter, most of them made over a three-year period, from 1872 to 1874, when Monet had just moved to Argenteuil on the river Seine. The town was in the midst of rebuilding its two bridges, which had been destroyed during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to 1871, and which were important connectors to nearby Paris. Monet took an interest in the bridges as subject matter for a series of innovative visual experiments in which he played with form, composition, perspective and light to render a wide variety of scenes. In Monet’s hands, the bridges become not only interesting visual structures, but also symbols of Argenteuil’s postwar return to order and prosperity, and of the equilibrium between the manmade and nature.

As many people associate Monet primarily with his gardens at Giverny, water lilies and sunlight, the bridge as subject, in all its engineering modernity, may come as a surprise. As Kienle Poňka said, “We all have an image of Monet in our mind. But he was not simply responding to nature as he saw it; it’s not just the light effects and the flickering on the water. This exhibition shows how methodically he approached this motif of the bridge – whether from the water, from on top or from the other bank of the Seine – and how he was constantly inspired.”

 

Claude Monet, Le pont de bois (1872), oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm. VKS Art Inc., Ottawa. Photo © NGC, Ottawa

The centrepiece for the exhibition is the intriguing Le pont de bois (1872). With muted tones of brown, grey and mauve, the artist has carefully constructed the painting so that a single span of the Argenteuil highway bridge frames the scene: sailboats moored near the banks of the river Seine, a church spire in the distance, a steam boat puffing and a calm river basin, all beneath an overcast sky. Silhouetted figures scuttling across the bridge at the top of the frame illustrate a town that is once again a hive of activity.

It was Le pont de bois, in fact, that inspired the entire exhibition, when it came to the Gallery in 2013 as a long-term loan. Kienle Poňka, also the co-curator for the hugely successful exhibition Van Gogh: Up Close, began researching Monet in depth. “I started looking at his Argenteuil oeuvre and realized that there were all these other related bridge paintings.” Indeed, over the two years of planning for this exhibition, she was able to secure loans of 10 Argenteuil bridge paintings from public and private collections.

Claude Monet, Argenteuil, The Bridge Under Repair (1872), oil on canvas, 59.8 x 80.4 cm. Photo © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Private collection, on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum

Other canvases in the exhibition depict a variety of views of the two bridges, from different perspectives and angles, and under different conditions. Argenteuil, The Bridge Under Repair (1872), the first painting Monet made after settling in the town, is full of atmosphere, with its soft palette of greys, blues and mauves and the intricate texture of the scaffolding contrasting with the still water. The Port at Argenteuil (c. 1872) presents a bucolic scene with people strolling on the banks of the river, sailboats and bridge in the distance, all dominated by a big sky with billowy clouds. The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil (1874) takes the rather unattractive concrete supports of the reconstructed railway bridge and turns them into splendid columns, glowing like marble in the late afternoon sun and reflected in the shimmering water.


Claude Monet, The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil (1873), oil on canvas, 54.3 x 73.3 cm. The John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The exhibition also includes period photographs, postcards and tourist guidebooks, as well as four Japanese prints that demonstrate how Monet was influenced by the work of artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. Monet owned a version of Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge (1859), on view here, and drew inspiration from the Japanese artist’s ability to simplify his subject matter and to use unusual angles, viewpoints and croppings. Those who saw Kienle Poňka’s last exhibition will remember that Van Gogh too was inspired by Japanese prints.

Born in 1840 in Paris, Oscar-Claude Monet spent most of his childhood in Le Havre, where the Seine meets the English Channel. There he developed a lifelong love of the water, sunshine and Normandy’s dramatic cliffs. He was first introduced to plein-air painting by Eugène Boudin, and by the 1860s was exploring the effects of light on water. Like many French artists, during the Franco-Prussian war he lived in exile in London. It was in 1872 – while simultaneously making these bridge paintings – that Monet painted his famous Impression, Sunrise, which is said to have given rise to the term “Impressionism.” It was not until 1889 that he began making his extended series of paintings of water lilies, poplars, Rouen Cathedral and the Thames River. 

Claude Monet, The Thames Below Westminster (1871), oil on canvas, 47 x 53 cm. The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Lord Astor of Hever, 1971. Photo © The National Gallery, London

A Bridge to Modernity is nicely bookended by two paintings of London. The Thames Below Westminster (1871) is presented as a precursor to Monet’s later depictions of Argenteuil’s bridges. While misty water and sky dominate the canvas, it is also dotted with boats, the cathedral spires and, in the right foreground, the grid-like structure of the wooden pier. The closing painting is the National Gallery’s own Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Sunlight in the Fog (1903), made during a period at the turn of the century when Monet returned to the bridge motif in three prolific painting trips to London. Endeavouring to capture the transient effects of the famous London fog, Monet laboriously reworked his compositions back in his studio. Indeed, recent x-rays of this painting have revealed that he initially included towers and smokestacks, but later painted over them in order to focus on light and atmosphere. “It’s a sunlight-in-the-fog painting,” says Kienle Poňka. “The bridge itself is completely subdued.”

Anabelle Kienle Poňka has a knack for choosing original takes on popular artists, focusing in on an intriguing yet little known aspect of their work. With Monet, she offers a highly navigable bridge to understanding. 

Monet: A Bridge to Modernity is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 29, 2015, to February 15, 2016. An exhibition catalogue is available from the National Gallery of Canada Bookstore.

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