WHAT IS THAT SHINING OBJECT?

Quai de Paris and the Pont Corneille, Rouen, Sunshine

1883, Philadelphia Museum of Art, PDR 727

 Pissarro’s paintings often leave us with unanswered questions; that’s part of the allure of his artistry. We might not notice the shining arch on the left over the bridge if the sail of the red boat did not point to it. In reality, it is not what it seems or what we might imagine.

There’s plenty to look at in this sun-drenched painting made by Pissarro in the fall of 1883 during his first painting expedition to Rouen. During this visit, he walked to his locations on both sides of the Seine, carrying his easel on his back.  He wrote his son Lucien, “I began a motif on the edge of the river [actually the quai de Paris on the right bank] moving up towards the church of Saint-Paul; looking towards Rouen, you have on the right all the houses on the quays lit up by the morning sun, in the background the pont de Pierre (Pont Corneille), on the left the island [the Île Lacroix] with its houses, factories, boats, rowing-boats on the right, a cluster of big barges of all colours.”

The right lower quadrant of this painting is filled with heavy objects–buildings and barges. The rest of the painting is dominated by the lightness of sky and water. Yet the painting feels perfectly balanced. That’s the genius of Pissarro.

We are standing on the quai, along with two men at the canvas’s right edge.  Our eyes follow the sweeping curve of the riverside to the buildings and back across the bridge. Just before we reach the other side, this shining thing appears.  It’s not part of the clouds—its white is completely different from the darker clouds behind it. It looks like an apparition, but we know of Pissarro’s distaste for symbolism.

The truth became clear in 2010 at the superb exhibition, A City for Impressionism: Monet, Pissarro and Gauguin, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen that included this painting. The bridge Pissarro painted is Pont Corneille, which connected Rouen with Saint-Sever, the town across the river. At that time, there was a suspension bridge upriver from Pont Corneille. Built in 1836, it was called the “wire bridge” because of the fragile appearance of its cables. While the bridge itself was not visible from Pissarro’s location, the shiny arch that supported the bridge’s cables rose above the level of Pont Corneille. In this case, Pissarro was painting exactly what he saw.  The historic photograph below shows the “wire bridge” with its arch.

Pissarro made three more paintings from that location during this visit, but the shining arch is barely noticeable. Did he feel it was a distraction? He probably continued to paint what he saw. However, the skies in the other paintings are filled with clouds, allowing for little reflection on the shining object.

The shining arch disappeared before Pissarro’s next painting excursion to Rouen thirteen years later. The old suspension bridge was replaced by a new iron bridge, Pont Boieldieu in 1888.  Pissarro painted the new Pont Boieldieu as many as 16 times during his next three visits to Rouen. It stood until June 1940, when it was destroyed by the French Army to slow the advance of German troops. The current Pont Boieldieu was finally opened in 1955.

                 [Photo from collection of the author]

Resources: Pissarro: Critical Catalog (2005) Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Shoellaerts

A City for Impressionism: Monet, Pissarro and Gauguin (2010) Exhibition catalog

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