Saturated with the brilliant blue, green and steely gray tones of the river at mid-day, Le Pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine is a stunning example of Impressionist landscape painting at its most visually dynamic. Caillebotte's landscapes of the 1870s and 1880s consistently evoked the rapid modernization of the Seine valley through the development of iron bridges, railroad stations and new boulevards, and Le Pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine is considered to be one of his most profound testaments to these bold structural transformations. When Le Pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine was featured in the Caillebotte exhibition in Paris and Los Angeles, Anne Distel singled out this picture as "incontestably one of the most successful works executed by Caillebotte on the banks of the Seine" (A. Distel, Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist, op. cit., p. 283).
The focus of the artist's painting here is the highway bridge that connects Argenteuil and Petit Gennevilliers (fig. 1). Constructed of wood and cut-stone in the 1830s, the bridge was rebuilt after its destruction during the Franco-Prussian War and was one of the best-known landmarks of the area, as it had provided the only route to Paris prior to the railroad reaching Argenteuil. Through the bridge's archway at the right, we can see the horizontal expanse of the railway bridge off in the distance, which was a more modern construction of pre-fabricated iron and poured concrete, created in the 1860s and also rebuilt after destruction during the war. This picture, like so many of Caillebotte's best paintings of this era, defined the changing architectural phenomena in the Third Republic under the leadership of Napoleon III. For France at large, the years of 1870-71 encompassed the war with Prussia, the Siege of Paris, and the establishment and subsequent repression of the revolutionary Commune government. In the present composition, both bridges served as visual confirmations of the nation's recovery from the civil conflicts and political struggles of the day.
Caillebotte established himself as a member of the original Impressionist group in 1876, when he was asked to participate in the second Impressionist exhibition in Paris. Having been a student of Léon Bonnat, Caillebotte had been exposed to the works of the Realists, such as Courbet and Millet, and was categorized as being a painter of that movement. At the time, the novelist and critic Edmond Duranty, who reviewed the 1876 Impressionist exhibition, pointedly making reference to his Le Pont de l'Europe, yet another bridge scene that would dramatically influence the tenor of the present work nearly a decade later. That picture, like the present work, exalted the architectural bravura of the titular subject, assigning it equal importance with the activities of the figures who traversed it. For the next several years, this novel and largely unprecedented focus would become hallmark of Caillebotte's artistic style.
When he painted Le Pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine in 1885, Caillebotte was living with his brother Martial in Petit Gennevilliers, a tranquil town on the left back of the Seine, directly across the river from the more lively Argenteuil. Located eleven kilometers west of Paris, Argenteuil had come into prominence over the second half of the nineteenth century as a boater's paradise. Its elegant yachting club was renowned in the area, and its annual regattas and other nautical events lured crowds from the city during the summer months. Monet famously painted several scenes in this area from his bateau-atelier and along the verdant banks of the river in the 1870s, before moving with his family in 1881. That same year, Caillebotte and his brother purchased their house, and for the next decade scenes of Argenteuil would become the primary subject of his paintings (fig. 4).
Unlike Monet, Caillebotte's focus in Argenteuil is razor-sharp, honing in on the details that often melted into the haze of Monet's Impressionist canvases. Here, for example, his focus is on the plunging perspective beneath the arch of the bridge, where the surface of the water reflects the heavy shadow of the stone overpass. The clarity and specificity of the view and the angle from which it is depicted lends a near-photographic quality to the composition. Caillebotte's stunning composition documented the rapidly changing environment and the structural elements that sustained modern life. Indeed, the revolution of the Impressionists lies not just with the subject matter, but also in the incredible spontaneity of their brushwork and the formal rigor of their compositions. In Le Pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine, the palette, brushwork, figure scale and spatial closure resonate with a mood and excitement of modernity literally developing before Caillebotte's eyes.
The harmonies between nature and architecture, between the currents of the river and the flux of industry, all come to the fore in Caillebotte's picture. "The concurrence of these parts suggests Caillebotte's belief in the essential harmonies of the world, just as their dynamics underscore his embrace of the fundamentals of change that ruled his day," Paul Tucker writes about this picture. "Nothing is entirely stable here; forms are cropped or moving through space, which itself is both open and confined, continuous and restricted. Everything in the picture is subject to the flickering light that Caillebotte so sensitively renders with his broken brushwork and lively palette, just as everything is vulnerable to the possibilities of transformation, whether through the powers of modern art or those of modern life" (in L'impressionnisme et le paysage français, op. cit., 116).
The first owner of this picture was Caillebotte's friend Eugène Lamy, a fellow yachting enthusiast who knew the artist from his activity in Petit Gennevilliers. Lamy sold the picture during the exhibition of Caillebotte's work in 1894 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, just four months after the artist's death. It then entered the collection of Edmond Decap, a successful Parisian merchant and collector of Impressionist paintings, and remained with his family until the 1920s.
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Rétrospective Gustave Caillebotte, 1894, no. 21
25 3/4 by 32 1/4 in. 65.5 by 81.6 cm
Marie Berhaut, Caillebotte, sa vie et son oeuvre: Catalogue raisonné des peintures et pastels, Paris, 1978, no. 310, illustrated p. 186
Marie-Josephe de Balanda, Gustave Caillebotte, Lausanne, 1988, illustrated pp. 132-33
Kirk Varnedoe, Gustave Caillebotte, Paris, 1988, no. 55, illustrated
J.-L. Ferrier, L'Aventure de l'art au XIXeme siècle, Paris, 1991, illustrated p. 724
Eric Darragon, Caillebotte, Paris, 1994, illustrated pp. 110-11
Anne Distel & Rodolphe Rapetti, "Exposer Caillebotte" in Connaissance des arts, 1994, no. 26, illustrated p. 27
Jean-Marie Baron, Caillebotte Impressionniste, Paris, 1994, illustrated p. 2
Marie Berhaut, Gustave Caillebotte: Catalogue raisonné des peintures et pastels, Paris, 1994, no. 334, illustrated p. 198
Stéphane Guégan, Laurence Madeline & Gilles Gentry, l'ABCdaire de Caillebotte, Paris, 1994, illustrated pp. 16-17
"Paysages de banlieue: un thème moderne," in Le petit journal des grandes expositions, Paris, 1994-95, illustrated pp. 11-12
Eugène Lamy, Paris (circa 1885)
Edmond Decap, Paris (1894)
Depeux-Decap, Paris (inherited from the above)
Maurice Barret-Decap, Paris (sold: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, December 12, 1929, lot 2)
Miran Eknayan, Paris
Galerie Brame & Lorenceau, Paris
Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above on July 10, 1963 and sold: Christie's, New York, November 6, 2008, lot 36)
Acquired at the above sale