Painted circa 1901, a year that marks a turning point in Henri Matisse’s career, the present work announces the daring palette and bold brushwork that would characterise the height of his Fauve years. A precursor to the revolutionary direction that Matisse’s art would take over the next decade, Le Pont is part of a series of works that earned the Frenchman a reputation as a master of colour, as John Elderfield describes: ‘after an extended stay in Corsica and Toulouse in 1898-1899, [Matisse] produced an important group of paintings in high key, arbitrary colours with un-naturalistically broken or atomised forms […] constructed purely from the relationship between colours, whose descriptive function is only summarily indicated. These “proto-fauve” paintings suddenly reveal the nature of Matisse’s genius as a colourist: his using colour not to imitate light, but to create it’ (John Elderfield, Henri Matisse, A Retrospective, New York, 1992, p. 81).
Le Pont was painted from the window of a studio in Paris that Matisse rented from 1895 to 1907, and again in 1913. It depicts a spectacular view over the Seine, with the impressive Pont Saint-Michel dominating the foreground. The footpath is bathed in sunshine, almost aglow with golds and yellows, whilst the shadows cast onto the water by the three round arches below are indicated with deft strokes of dark blue and red. Named after the nearby chapel of Saint-Michel, the bridge links the Place Saint-Michel on the left bank to the Île-de-la-Cité and the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Originally constructed in 1378, the medieval bridge was subsequently rebuilt several times, most recently in 1857. Matisse painted a series of works from his studio window featuring the same view of which the present work is undoubtedly the most vibrant. Other versions from this series reside in the permanent collections of The Phillips Collection in Washington, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.