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Claude Monet, Le Pont de bois (1872), oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm. Private collection
Paul Lang remembers exactly when he first laid eyes on the Le Pont de bois more than a decade ago at an exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in December 2000. “I have to say it is a picture I never forgot,” says the National Gallery’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator. “It is of such striking quality. I very much like early Impressionism and this is one the best paintings of Monet’s early period.”
Lang kept track of the painting, knowing that “sooner or later” it would come on the art market. He recently advised a private Canadian collector to bid on it at auction: “It is a painting we could have never been able to acquire with our acquisition budget, and we knew that this individual would be willing to place Le Pont de bois on long-term loan with us.”
Lang’s recommendation is part of a long-term strategy that identifies gaps in the National Gallery’s collection: “We already have a great representation by Monet with four paintings by the artist. However, they were all painted a decade and more later, and none of them is representative of modern life, or the historical or social background. With this picture, you have that. So I knew right away that this picture was exactly what we were looking for.”
“In early 1872 Monet is not yet an Impressionist,” Lang says. “He is painting en à-plat, a technique used by Edouard Manet, who was the first owner of this picture and one could in fact consider this picture a tribute to him. Monet then transforms his technique very quickly that same year and goes on to paint what may be his most famous work, Impression, soleil levant, which would give its name to the Impressionist movement.”
Anabelle Kienle Ponka, Associate Curator of European and American Art adds: “We can situate this picture at rise of Impressionism, at a pivotal time in French nineteenth-century painting. This is text book art history. It is also one of Monet’s first conscious paintings devoted to a bridge, a motif that he continued to explore throughout his oeuvre.”
The bridge across the Seine connecting Argenteuil and Paris served us an important link between the bedroom community and the city. Monet depicted the bridge during the waning hours of day with the commuters returning home. The bridge is under construction, as it had been destroyed in 1871 by retreating French troops at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. “While the scaffolding and beams allude to the structure being resurrected, the traffic on the bridge has already resumed,” says Kienle Ponka. Monet was one of the few Impressionists committed to documenting social change and history and he chose this motif deliberately – as a reflection of the indomitable French spirit.
Le Pont de bois joins the National Gallery’s existing collection of Monets: A Stormy Sea (c. 1884), Rock Needle Seen through the Porte d’Aval, Étretat (1886), Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and Michel Monet on the Banks of the Epte (c. 1887–1890), and Waterloo Bridge: The Sun in a Fog (1903), along with another loan from a private collection, Rain, Pourville (1896).
“We are now able to present a retrospective of the artist’s work,” Lang says. “Le Pont de bois is not just one Monet more. It is the Monet which was missing from the National Gallery Collection.”
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