Le Pont Corneille à Rouen, temps gris, 1896. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, PDRS 1124.
Absolutely nothing compares with seeing a painting in person. Being able to study it closely allows you to see details that just are not evident in photographs. This was certainly evident in my recent visit to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa where I saw this remarkable painting of Pont Corneille in Rouen.
It serves as a historical record, capturing the image of the bridge and the activity on Île Lacroix as it was in Pissarro’s time. The graceful bridge spanning the Seine used the tip of the island to support one of its piers. The island itself was filled with industry, the tall smokestacks revealing the presence of the European Gas Company.
In the foreground, Pissarro depicted the modern river traffic including a steamboat, probably one of the frequent cargo vessels that carried goods between Paris and Le Havre. The boat may have been powered by coal since the smoke coming out of the large black stack is dark gray. Nearby is a small boat, probably a ferry, its deck crowded with people.
To connect the two scenes across the sparkling gray-green river, Pissarro used a large plume of white smoke from a steam-powered crane, barely visible as it moves the cargo. The white smoke dissolves into three tall gray-green poplars that continue the vertical line reaching into the sky.
As he sometimes did, Pissarro included a detail for the viewer who takes time to look. In the upper left corner on top of Sainte-Catherine’s Hill is the shadow of a church. It is, in fact, the Notre Dame Basilica of Bonsecours, built in 1840-44 in the Gothic Revival style. Perhaps he visited the church to study its architecture. He was a fan of Gothic architecture and made several paintings of the Gothic church in Dieppe.
The lovely scene is this painting is unfortunately no longer the way Pissarro saw it. Because of its industry, Île Lacroix and the bridge were prime targets for bombing attacks during World War II. The bridge has since been rebuilt, and the island has become an entertainment center with an ice hockey arena and public swimming pools.
This is just one of three marvelous Pissarro paintings at the National Gallery of Ontario, a superb museum with a remarkable collection of Impressionist paintings. The museum is reason enough to plan a visit to Ottawa.