On first glance, this painting by Gustave Caillebotte may seem fairly clear cut. After all, each of the subjects’ place in Parisian society is readily discernible by his or her clothes alone. The man at the right leaning on the bridge railing is a worker, identifiable by his cap and smock. Another worker, also in a cap and a loose fitting jacket, walks away from the viewer, just to the right of the lone woman. She, undeniably stylish, wears all the trappings of the sophisticated and fashionable Parisienne. Black had just become the new black; and her chic ruffled black walking ensemble is complemented with a dainty embellished parasol and coordinating red bows on her veiled bonnet and shoes. Finally, the man to her right (likely a self-portrait of the artist) strides confidently in his tall top hat and well-cut overcoat, emblems of his status as a bourgeois gentleman.
But just how these members of distinct social classes relate to each other is much more fuzzy. The top-hatted flaneur and stylish woman are well suited to each other in terms of dress, but they do not walk side by side or arm in arm as a couple. He is several steps ahead, and while she certainly seems to be eying him, it is not clear whether his sideways glance is an untoward over-the-shoulder proposition to her or a gaze in the direction of the worker at the railing. Before arriving at this final enigmatic composition, Caillebotte played around with the fashions and placement of the figures—and thus their relationships—in several preparatory sketches and on this canvas itself. At one point the possible propositioner sported a bowler hat and walked side by side with his female companion in more polite fashion. As they each became more independent strollers, her ensemble and parasol became more ruffled and flamboyant—perhaps more eye-catching and enticing to the gentlemen of the city.
As suggestive as this would all seem, the painting was received much more favorably when it debuted at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877 than the other work Caillebotte showed, Paris Street; Rainy Day. That one was criticized as “big and boring,” while Pont de l’Europe was viewed as “more truthful and at the same time more graceful.” What perhaps made it more truthful was the ambiguity of the scene; that was certainly what made it modern. The mixing of worker and gentleman, the murkiness of relationships—these were all very recent developments of the new widened boulevards and intersections of Paris. By portraying the new mingling and haziness of the urban streetscape, Caillebotte truly captured the contemporary moment and left us wondering still over a century later—are they or aren’t they?
Image Credit: Gustave Caillebotte. Pont de l’Europe, 1876. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneva.