Van Gogh’s bridges – then and now

Vincent van Gogh went to Arles in search of Japan – according to David Dale, author of A traveller’s alphabet of essential places. In reality he was looking for the light and colours that he saw in Japanese prints, and he found them in Arles. This post is about how we bridged the distance between France and Japan through Van Gogh’s paintings.

He did several versions of the Pont Langlois bridge at Arles in southern France. The original bridge traversed the Arles-to-Bouc canal and was a simple but functional drawbridge enabling canal boats to pass underneath when raised. A series of these bridges were built along the canal in the first half of the 19th century. The one nearest Arles was called Pont de Réginel but was more popularly known for its keeper, Monsieur Langlois – hence it was known as Langlois’ bridge.

Pont Langlois

Pont Langlois [source: Wikipedia]

I had heard that the bridge was still around and could be seen today. Actually, that’s not quite true, as we found. The original bridge became structurally unsound and was replaced in the 1930s by a concrete bridge – and that in turn was destroyed by retreating Germans in 1944 – they destroyed all but one of the bridges along the canal, leaving only the one at Fos sur Mer. This was of the original bridges on the canal and was the same design as the one Van Gogh painted in 1888. In 1959 the Fos bridge was dismantled with a view to relocating it at the site of the Langlois bridge, but the canal had since been widened and it was decided to move it to its current location near the Montcalde Lock. It is not easy to find.

Pont van Gogh, Arles

Pont van Gogh, Arles

It took a few goes and finally, we turned down a little side street on the outskirts of the town and there was Pont Van-Gogh – its new name – restored to working order. Some might consider it a reproduction or a fake, but since it is from the original series and contemporary with the Langlois bridge, by the same builder, I think it is close enough to original. Again I was struck by how accurately Van Gogh represented the structure and how faithfully he painted the chains and support beams and pulleys for raising the bridge.

He painted four oil paintings and one watercolour of the bridge and completed a number of drawings.

Little did I realise that this bridge was a key to his link with Japan. In the late nineteenth century, Europe was Japan crazy – high quality lacquer furniture, boxes, ceramics and pottery were being exported to Europe by the shipload. As it turns out, many of these were wrapped in fine paper prints, some by famous Japanese artists, others, like the prints of Japanese women were adverts for Geishas.

The different perspective and flat use of colour in these images inspired the post-impressionists to look differently at the world. One print that came to Van Gogh was of a famous painting by Hiroshige of the Edo period bridge that led into the Emperor’s palace in the centre of Tokyo. The bridge is depicted in rain and elegant lines and unusual foreshortening inspired Van Gogh to paint a copy.

Hiroshige bridge

Hiroshige bridge [source: Wikipedia]

 And this is Van Gogh’s version:

Van Gogh-Hiroshige bridge

Van Gogh-Hiroshige bridge [source: Wikipedia]

And we found this connection in Tokyo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum – which has a full-size replica of the Edo bridge within the museum. It is extraordinary and surprising how connections turn up in the places you least expect. So here is my photo of the replica bridge in Tokyo

Edo-Tokyo bridge

Edo-Tokyo bridge

So from a painting in the Musee d’Orsay, to a bridge in the South of France where Van Gogh sought to connect with his vision of Japan seen through a print of a bridge, we found an extraordinary connection with a reproduction bridge in a museum in Tokyo. This is what makes travel so worthwhile!

What connections have you made across the world in unexpected places? Let us know in the comments below :-)

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