In 1866, Gustave Caillebotte was a law student and was living in Paris on the corner of rue de Lisbonne and rue de Miromesnil, not far from the Gare Saint-Lazare. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, he chose to devote his time to a career in art after being recruited by Degas and Monet. Caillebotte participated in the 2nd impressionist exhibition where he showed two views of the quartier de l’Europe surrounding the Gare Saint-Lazare with Le Pont de l’Europe (1876, Museé des Beaux-Arts, Rennes and Rue de Paris; temps de pluie, 1877 Art Institute of Chicago). From his home, Caillebotte was a 10 minute walk from the pont de l’Europe, passing by the rue de Lisbonne and la rue de Madrid, but he chose to represent the bridge on rue de Vienne which had the most spectacular view. From this place, he could highlight this imposing metallic structure of the bridge and his view of the place de l’Europe towards the rue de Saint-Petersbourg. This point, in which six streets converge, was an important center of activity for all the social classes.
Caillebotte was fascinated by light and space and included these elements in his paintings. He also coordinated a “réaliste” vision in Le Pont de l’Europe where a jeune femme is walking with her impeccably dressed bourgeois escort towards the viewer as an “ouvrier” (worker) leans on the parapet, looking at the voies of the station. Neither flaneur addresses the other. Each is a symbol of the modernity of Paris, going about their daily routines.
The pont de l’Europe is also represented in his painting Sur le pont de l’Europe (1876-80 Kimbell Art Museum, Ft Worth Tx) which I recently viewed with my Dad, Jack, over the Christmas holidays. This is one of my favorite paintings of Caillebotte’s. The composition shows a small section of the pont where the metal girders lead the eye of the viewer towards the Gare Saint-Lazare. On the left, one can see the newly built opera house by Charles Garnier (where Phantom of the Opera took place). This blue-gray monochrome tableau creates a fusion of man and metal, representing the world of commerce and industrialization. Caillebotte also uses the anonymous characters in this painting to represent the different social classes who frequent this new area of Paris. Even though each man is separately involved in his own life of work, leisure, or social engagements, two of them are transfixed by these symbols of progress. I imagine the man in the top hat to start up a conversation with the ouvrier at any minute, perhaps about a trip he plans to take by train to Normandy to see his family. The Gare Saint-Lazare has now made that a real possibility!
Copyright 2014 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)