After spending about four months in Italy as part of the Rome Prize which he won in his final year at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, Pechstein moved on to Paris, arriving in December 1907 and remaining until late in the summer of 1908. He loved it:
I lived in that city, giving myself delightedly to everything the eye could see and the heart could feel … it was there that my fight against Impressionism began, which the Brücke had already started in Dresden. However, the struggle went on in a different formal language, to match the French élan.1
Fauvism, with its lively paint handling and brilliant colours, was the prevailing style, well matched to the 'French élan', and while in Paris Pechstein established friendships with Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), who exhibited with the Fauves, and also the German artist Hans Purrmann (1880-1966), who became one of the principal students in the art school set up by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) in January 1908.
In March 1908 Pechstein sent a letter from Paris to his friend Alexander Gerbig in Suhl, Germany, enclosing a page of thumbnail sketches of five paintings that he had just completed, including Bridge over the Seine with small steamer: 'I have once more noted down a few ideas for larger paintings', wrote Pechstein, 'one of them I've carried out larger in colour, and I believe it is almost there'.2 Although the exact location of the bridge on the Seine in the Australian National Gallery's painting has not been established, the site immediately recalls the river paintings that André Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) produced around Le Pecq and Chatou in 1904-05, arguably the first Fauve paintings. Then the banks of the river were still grassy and the river was busy with the traffic of steamers and lined with laundry barges like floating sheds, one of which is seen puffing up smoke in the upper left of Pechstein's painting. It is the style of Pechstein's painting, as much as the subject, that suggests these affinities. Employing a typically Fauve palette, Pechstein has used green flecked with fire-engine red to frame the yellow and chartreuse river at the heart of the composition. The facture of short, broad brushstrokes allows the white ground of the canvas to show through. At the same time, however, the brushstrokes are organised in a way that is uncharacteristic of Fauve paintings; this is especially noticeable in the painting of the surface of the river, where the brushstrokes flow together in a swirling pattern as if to suggest the river currents. Such expressive handling recalls the work of Vincent Van Goph (1853-90) and it is noteworthy that in January 1908, presumably just before Pechstein painted Bridge over the Seine with small steamer, the largest exhibition of Van Gogh's work up to that time was held at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris.
On the verso of Bridge over the Seine with small steamer3
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.96.
- Quoted in Vincent Van Gogh and Early Modem Art (exhibition catalogue), Amsterdam: Museum Folkwang, Essen, and Van Gogh Museum, 1990, p.368.
- Letter from Pechstein to Alexander Gerbig dated 9 March 1908, held in the archive of Dr Wolfgang Knop, Suhl, Germany. We are grateful to Dr Knop for providing us with copies of the text of this and other letters written by Pechstein from Paris to his friend Alexander Gerbig.
- Max K. Pechstein will suggest a date of about 1913 in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Pechstein's work; correspondence with the Gallery, 3 October 1988.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010