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Japanese Bridge

The Japanese Footbridge Description

The Japanese Footbridge, 1899
Henri Matisse (1840-1926)
Oil on canvas
32" x 40"
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Prior to the waterlilies series, Monet's series paintings were generally representations of a single object under varying atmospheric conditions. The waterlily paintings, on the other hand, are details of a larger subject. By focusing on different sections of the pond, and the ever-changing reflective nature of the water, Monet created a series of seemingly infinite variety out of a single subject.

This painting, one of many views of the Japanese bridge that spanned the pond, appears static at first glance, but is actually full of lively action. This is achieved primarily through two things: the reflections on the water between the lilies, and the interplay of complementary elements. The reflections undulate with a palpable animation, appearing almost as if they are dancing. The surface of the water itself alternates rhythmically between lilies and exposed reflective water, creating continuous oscillation between physical objects and reflected simulacra. Throughout the scene, green complements red, enlivening the foliage around the water. The gently arching bridge lends a lateral crescendo and decrescendo, complementing and contrasting the horizontal surface of the water.

The weeping willow trees in the background provide a screen against which the bridge is framed, and, along with the shrubs and grasses on the edges of the pond, completely engulf the painting in foliage. There is no horizon and no vanishing point; the only indication of space outside this microcosm is the glimpse of pinkish twilight sky in the upper left. The lack of perspective recalls Japanese woodblock prints, of which Monet was an avid collector. They were certainly influential to his art in the later stages of his career, as this painting clearly shows. 

Ten years after moving to Giverny in 1883, Claude Monet envisioned turning a small pond on an adjacent parcel of land into an Asian-influenced water garden. Overcoming the resistance of locals wary of introducing foreign plants into the region, Monet won approval to expand the pond by diverting water from the Epte River. He encircled the basin with a vivacious arrangement of flowers, trees, and bushes, and the next year filled it with water lilies. He added a Japanese-style wooden bridge in 1895, then a few years later started to paint the pond and its water lilies—and never stopped, making them the obsessive focus of his intensely searching work for the next quarter century.

Lush and luminous, The Japanese Bridge immerses us in the physical experience of being in the garden. With the bands of the blue bridge suspended like a canopy near the top of the canvas and no sky to be seen, the water and billowing foliage fill the visual field, immersing the viewer in the verdant, brightly colored waterscape. Cool blue and green tones predominate, but are balanced by the pink, white, and yellow lilies floating in complex pattern across the surface of the water from near to far. Controlled, vertical dabs of paint define the sparkling greenery and its fleeting reflection in the water, while the more fluid lilies are rendered with broad, textured, horizontal strokes that emphasize the shared physicality of the paint and the landscape.

Deeply admiring nature’s central role in Japanese culture, Monet here fuses Japanese motifs with his impressionist palette and brushstrokes to posit a hybrid, transcendent understanding of nature’s primacy. He first seriously explored translating the garden into paint in the summer of 1899, producing a series of 12 views of its light-dappled surface, arching footbridge, and surrounding flora. He exhibited the paintings, including this one, at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris the following year. 

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