|Claude Monet, The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil, 1874|
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Looking at Monet's landscapes from this period, it is hard to imagine the boisterous crowds littering the countryside. Beside the fact that Monet preferred to work during the week when it was less crowded, he tended to edit his pictures to include certain elements while excluding others. In The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil, we are faced with a tranquil, idyllic scene that does not have any figures or any of the clutter that was in the cartoons of the day. Even when he did put in a very distinct product of industry, the railroad bridge, he turned it into a part of his landscape. He cleaned up what should have been dark coal smoke to lavender and yellow puffs in the sky creating a harmonious, unified vision.
Monet blocked off the corner of his composition by painting a triangular, green hill to the bottom right corner. The sense of geometry is also picked up in the way the bridge is situated at an angle creating another triangle in the middle of the picture plane. He gave solidity to the composition with the open sail of the boat and the feet of the bridge. Dynamism is reinforced with his brush strokes in the water.
Monet was always interested in light and the way it reflected off of surfaces. In this painting the light is entering from the right side, turning the feet of the bridge blue and white and causing yellow and lavender reflections to ripple down the water. By repetition of similar tones throughout the picture plane, Monet has achieved a unity of tone.
As a by-product of capitalism, people didn't have to work year round and ended up having free time and the concept of leisure came into being. The mobility of people, the trains and factories were all part of the visual language of modernity in the countryside but most impressionists preferred to construct their landscapes to ignore or disguise these very prominent features; Monet's paintings are the best examples of these. Although there is a sense of immediacy to Monet's paintings, he actually very deliberately constructed his compositions. As a result, through his carefully planned and worked out studies of the countryside, Monet gave us the impression of the idyllic, transient moment.
1. Mary Tompkins Lewis, Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, (University of California Press, 2007) 78-80