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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Painting Bridges

The Brooklyn Bridge, Leroy Neiman
If you're a landscape artist of some standing, the chances are you've painted at least one bridge sometime during your lengthy contribution to art history. Speaking of history, the experts tell us that the oldest existing bridges today can be found in Greece dating back to the 13th-century BC. I doubt they've been painting them that long, but artists have long liked painting bridges. I've painted a few highly salable covered bridges (bottom, paintings, not the bridges themselves). Years ago I painted the bridge crossing the Muskingum River into my hometown. That was about 1990. They tore it down shortly thereafter and replaced it with a strange, asymmetrical, concrete arch affair which I also painted. Then I went back in history and found photos of the original steel truss bridge, which washed away in the devastating 1913 flood. I sold all three to a local restaurant where, I assume, they still hang today. For the most part, bridges are graceful, sometimes quite beautiful, and they're laden with a boatload of symbolism. They bypass problems, they smooth out the rough spots in our lives, and they connect things, both literally and figuratively. You know something is important when its noun form also becomes a verb. That is to say, bridges bridge.

The Langlois Bridge at Arles, 1888, Vincent van Gogh
Leroy Neiman's Brooklyn Bridge (top) is one of my favorites; but some other very important artists have also painted bridges, though most of them are far less important than the New York City landmark. Vincent van Gogh painted The Langlois Bridge at Arles (above), in 1888. It's still there today, likely because van Gogh painted it. The Impressionist, Alfred Sisley, painted The Bridge at Villeneuve la Garenne (below), 1872. It looks to be a little more important a thoroughfare than van Gogh's modest little span. So far as I know it is also still in place.

The Bridge at Villeneuve la Garenne,1872, Alfred Sisley
Without doubt, the consummate bridge painter of the Impressionist era would have to be Claude Monet. He may also be the only artist who ever designed and built his own bridge, literally painting it (a pale green) then setting about painting pictures of it. His Japanese Bridge over the lily pond at Giverny was the subject of no less than twelve painting efforts, between 1897 and 1899 (mostly 1899). I've seen it. I've walked across it. I only wish I'd had time to paint it, although the skies were drizzling rain at the time. Rain or shine, I could see why Monet loved it so much and why so many artists since his time, in visiting his home and gardens at Giverny, have also set up their easels before its graceful wooden beams (below).

The greatest bridge builder and painter of the Impressionist era.
For the most part the bridges artist paint are more important than the artists who paint them. In fact, their social importance and architectural/engineering beauty is likely why artists paint them. One of the oldest bridges in Europe spans the Arno River at Florence, Italy. The present Ponte Vecchio (below), built to replace some earlier wooden spans washed away by flooding, was completed in 1345 on a site where the river is at its narrowest, and where a Roman bridge had stood more than a thousand years earlier. As bridges go, it's not very attractive. In fact, of all the bridges ever painted by artists, this one vitally needs the artist's touch to imbue it with any sense of romantic beauty associated with most other such spans. Photographs actually tend to emphasize its uglier qualities. The Ponte Vecchio also has the distinction of being a key part of the first urban rapid transit system ever built. Designed by the famous art historian, painter, and architect, Giorgio Vasari in 1565, the Vasari Corridor passes over the shops along the bridge in order to connect the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence's town hall) with the Palazzo Pitti, allowing Cosimo I de' Medici to ride his horse to work each morning without encountering the rush hour traffic in the streets below. To enforce the prestige of the bridge, in 1593 the Medici Grand Dukes prohibited butchers from selling there. Their place was immediately taken by gold merchants. They're still there today where once hung out over the edge of the bridge the city's butcher shops (a great convenience for disposing of unwanted meat scraps). The bridge narrowly escaped destruction by the Nazis when they evacuated Florence in the waning days of WW II. It was the only bridge crossing the Arno left in place.

The Vasari Corridor remains today, though it's been turned into an art museum
featuring portraits of famous artists of the past from around the world.
Almost as old, and also in Italy, painters have long flocked to the famous Rialto Bridge crossing the Grand Canal in Venice. The present stone structure replaced two earlier bridges which had collapsed under the weight of spectators watching; parades of boats in the water below (that must have put a damper on the festivities). It was designed and completed in 1591 by the appropriately named Antonio da Ponte (Ponte means bridge in Italian). So radical was it's design at the time many feared to cross it, expecting it to suffer the same fate as its predecessors. They needn't have worried. The ultimate in Venetian bridgework has been there now for over four hundred years.

Big name artists such as Venice's own Canaletto and the American painter John Singer Sargent have all painted the Rialto. For some unknown reason, Sargent chose to paint under the bridge. Maybe it was raining at the time.
One of the strangest looking bridges ever painted by artists (or ever built for that matter) is London's Iconic Tower Bridge, completed in 1894 to span the Thames without, at the same time blocking it to ship traffic. It's a drawbridge, the mechanical elements hidden inside medieval Gothic towers on either bank of the river, which are joined at the top by a then state-of-the-art steel truss span to allow workers to cross the rive while the bridge below is open to nautical traffic. It's often mistaken for the tuneful "London Bridge" which was not falling down but was, in fact, taken down and shipped block for block to a site in the Arizona desert as the centerpiece for a housing development.

It's in London but London Bridge it's not.
The other two most painted bridges in the world are both American suspension bridge, one each firmly ensconced on each coast. Unlike London Bridge, which the Brits sold to the Americans, the Brooklyn Bridge has never been sold, though many have tried. Designed and build in 1883 by John Augustus Roebling and later his son, Washington Roebling, at great cost both financially and in the loss of lives, the Brooklyn Bridge across the East River is actually a few years older than London's Tower Bridge, though decades ahead as to engineering and design. Like the Tower Bridge, it's stone towers have Gothic elements as seen in its pointed arches, but beyond that, with its Roebling invented steel cables, the two bear few similarities as to size and appearance. Starting about 1920, the American artist, Joseph Stella (below-left), practically made a career for himself churning out dozens of modernist paintings inspired by its design. Or, maybe he was just taking his cues from Claude Monet.

The Brooklyn Bridge definitely has a personality all its own, depending on how you look at it.
And finally, the "baby" of the bunch, the 1930s vintage Golden Gate Bridge across the entrance to San Francisco Bay is probably the most visually impressive of the whole lot. Though no longer the longest or tallest, or most trafficked bridge in the world, that hasn't kept daredevils, suiciders, or artists from taking advantages of its graceful, towering curves. Of all these bridges, this is the only one I've ever actually crossed, though I've seen from a distance the Ponte Vecchio (I was not impressed). I could never say that about the Golden Gate. Whether on it, or looking back at it from Marin County, its northern terminus, the only word that comes to mind is "awesome." I'm guessing all the artists below would agree with me on that.

By the way, the Golden Gate Bridge is a rusty red, not Golden.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Millfield Bridge, 1970, Jim Lane
(I've never crossed this one either.)


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