At first glance Gustave Caillebotte’s Le Pont de l’Europe 1876 (a highlight from our exhibition Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more) appears to be an everyday urban scene of people strolling across a bridge in 1870s Paris. However, someone standing on this same bridge in 1876 might notice something amiss in the artist’s depiction. Now, thanks to intensive research and innovative technology, visitors to the exhibition can see for themselves just how much artistic license Caillebotte really took.
The product of eight years of tireless research and effort by Claude Ghez, President of the Musée du Petit Palais in Geneva and the owner and lender of this incredible painting, an augmented reality (AR) experience inside the exhibition illuminates Caillebotte’s artistic choices.
To uncover the secrets behind Le Pont de l’Europe, Ghez and his team compiled documentation about the original architecture of the bridge and used it to construct a physical 3D model. It showed that the painting does not in fact depict what one would see standing on the bridge, but rather is the combination of three different viewpoints that together work to make the bridge look larger and more monumental than it would in real life.
So why would Caillebotte have changed the view across the bridge so dramatically? Well, according to Ghez’s research, the traumatic legacy of the disastrous and bloody Franco-Prussian War is deeply embedded in the artwork. Only 28 years old when he created this masterwork, Caillebotte served in the National Guard during the war and would have remembered the fighting that occurred on this very bridge. At the time this work was created, images of that war remained heavily censored by the French Government, forcing Caillebotte and other artists to use symbolism and atmosphere to give voice to their anxiety and memories.
Examples of this, according to Ghez, include the metal latticework of the bridge looming over the sunny sidewalk, and the man on the right who is looking down over the rail yard. Dressed in a ‘blouson’, people of the era would have recognized this immediately as the uniform of munitions factory workers. Infra-red photography and a close read of Caillebotte’s early sketches also suggest that he reworked the painting to put a few steps between the man in the top hat and the fashionably dressed woman, adding to the viewer’s sense of uncertainty.
Visitors can see all this for themselves inside the exhibition by watching the video and picking up one of the iPads located near the painting. By aiming the iPad at the reproduction, they can see all three of the views that Caillebotte would have pulled from as he painted his masterpiece.
Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more is on view until May 5. To offer up a few more chances to explore this incredible exhibition of over 120 works, the AGO is staying open until 9 p.m. from May 1 to May 4. For more details, be sure to visit www.ago.ca.
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