In November 1900 Pissarro moved his family back to Paris for the winter, renting an apartment on the Île de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine. From here, he had sweeping views of both sides of the river. Straight in front of him was a small plaza with a statue of Henri IV, king of France in the 16th century who issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, establishing freedom of religion.
By the end of February 1901, Pissarro wrote his son Lucien that he had “practically finished my winter series” and described 20 paintings he had completed. “As you can see, I haven’t wasted my time altogether, thanks to my regular working hours.” (2005, Pissarro, Durand-Ruel).
From his window, Pissarro looked across the long section of Pont Neuf, the two-part bridge that crosses the island. Throngs of pedestrians are crossing the bridge, many of them with raised umbrellas. Horse and buggy traffic maneuvers around the large omnibus, pulled by three horses. At the end of the bridge, the buildings with red flags signal the large Samaritaine department store.
This small painting (approximately 18 x 15 inches) challenges us to appreciate the subtle quality of Pissarro’s painting. If we take a quick look and move on to another painting, we miss its brilliance. Most of Pissarro’s works offer brighter colors with more contrast. This one appears to be an exquisite study in tones of gray.
The sky looks completely gray, until we look closely and see blue behind the gray and white puffs of clouds. Except for its white railings, the bridge and water look completely gray. But the pilings supporting the bridge get their form from a warm color that is almost a dusty creme. What little light there is shines on the water in strokes of white, but in between are strokes of fern green, and farther back light pink. We see more color on the bridge where the reddish-brown horses and buggies create a sense of movement. The brightest spot on the painting is one of the store fronts which is rose-colored. The buildings across the bridge which seem to be a drab gray are actually a light cream color. Their gray windows and slate blue roofs give them a damp, cold appearance.
Pissarro made several other paintings of this same view, and all are more colorful than this one. So why did Pissarro make a painting that at first glance appears to be drab and gray? We know that he worked on many paintings at the same time and changed from one to the other as the weather changed. But perhaps, he was using the shapes and forms of this scene to experiment with colors and brushstrokes. On the surface of the bridge, we see patches of slate blue beside dabs of light rose. On the gray bridge pilings, the colors are actually slate blue and a light creme. On the fourth support is a small dab of light rose which almost turns the slate blue into lavendar. The buildings in the background look like toy blocks except for the slate dabs which our eyes translate as windows.
On a wall with other Impressionist paintings full of color and movement, we might be tempted to dismiss this one as less interesting. But, as with most of Pissarro’s paintings, a closer look makes all the difference and we realize that this painting is a small treasure that deserves our attention.