Le Pont Neuf (1871)

Monet, Claude (1840-1926)

Le Pont Neuf (The Pont Neuf)
Oil on canvas, 53.34 × 73.03 cm
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas

Claude Monet returned to Paris in the fall of 1871 after more than a year of exile in England and Holland. He found a city ravaged from without by the Franco-Prussian War and from within by the Commune. Although his sympathies were with the Communards in the latter struggle, he arrived after they had been violently suppressed by the national government, and he found a city in deep despair. He painted only one work during that time, “The Pont Neuf,” and it can be contrasted in every way with the series of Parisian cityscapes that he made in 1866 and 1867, before the debacles that so wounded the French capital. Where the earlier paintings were made from the balconies and windows of the Louvre, looking out on a city alive with movement and color on sunny summer days, the Reves painting is essentially a grisaille study of inclement weather, probably painted from a rented room or the apartment of a friend. Gone are the monuments of Paris – the dome of the Panthéon or the Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois – that center his earlier paintings. The small houses of the famous place Dauphine are scarcely more important than the anonymous apartments across the river. Monet‘s intent is even clearer when we compare his work with Renoir‘s painting of the same bridge. [see “Pont Neuf, Paris, 1872.” National Gallery of ArtWashington, D.C.] For Renoir, all sparkles in the sun; shadows give form to the figures as they bustle over the bridge. The chief feature of Monet‘s painting is its featurelessness. The 19th-century equestrian statue of Henri IV, a model monarch for non-Royalist liberals such as Monet, is reduced almost to a toy in this painting. In reality, the sculpture is considerably nearer, and hence larger, than it appears here. In addition, Monet depicts the sky as a series of streaks of warm gray paint, evoking those fall days in Paris when the sky is deadened by a high blanket of characterless clouds. The wet pavement reflects the carriages and figures, who seem almost to glide along the surface. We can easily read this canvas as an embodiment in paint of the cultural grief felt by the French after the recent travails in their history. In this reading, the weather is depressing, and the motif one of human – specifically Parisian – continuity in the face of change. Neither rain nor history can deter the relentless movement of the great city. To pursue this reading further, even the name of the painting’s principal motif takes on a double irony: the Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, is in reality the oldest. In this painting about “passage,” monarchs, rulers, and governments come and go, but the city continues. Yet, this reading is dependent on the date of the picture, and that is precisely what Monet withholds from us. He elected to initial the painting, in a manner that he used for his fully resolved oil studies, but did not date it, as he would have had he “finished” the painting. If we did not know the date but were forced to guess it, we could easily put it a little later in his career, and thus disconnect it from this painful moment in the history of France. The painting could then be explained as a kind of Whistlerian exercise in monochrome or grisaille painting, and as a tour de force of brushwork held in check by its simple palette. Indeed, the painting can be read as a symphony in gray. We must remember that Monet had worked most recently in London and that the example of Whistler‘s oeuvre was therefore fresh in his mind. This painting, among all of Monet‘s cityscapes of the 1860s and 1870s, boldly points forward to the Parisian canvases of Albert Marquet that were so popular in Paris at the end of Monet‘s life and that had such a powerful effect on the urban vision of America‘s most important realist painter, Edward Hopper. “Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection,” pages 46-47. (DMA)


Renoir, Auguste (1841-1919)
Le Pont Neuf à Paris
National Gallery of ArtWashington



See also:

• Pont Neuf (Paris)