A VERY EARLY PISSARRO MASTERPIECE

Unloading a Barge, Sunset c. 1864    PDR 85 Private collection

Unloading a Barge, Sunset
c. 1864 PDR 85
Private collection

“Unloading a Barge, Sunset” (PDR 85) is an incredible painting, even in a photograph. Painted about 1864, it is one of the few survivors of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) during which thousands of Pissarro’s artworks were destroyed. We can only wonder how many other beautiful canvases were lost.

At first glance, we are reminded of the painting that gave Impressionism its name, Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (1872). Pissarro made this painting eight years before Monet’s painting and ten years before the First Impressionist Exhibition. It is possible that Monet saw this painting by Pissarro in Louveciennes when they painted together before the War.

Even at this early stage in his career (Pissarro had come to Paris only nine years earlier), the artist was making his own rules. The standards for art during those days was set by the French Academy in their annual Salon exhibitions. Their mandates were clear: important topics, historical or mythical; smooth finish, no visible brushstrokes; giant canvases suitable for public buildings, and more. This painting defies every dictum.

The focal point is clear—a dark, shadowy barge in the foreground, its mast pointing our eyes to the top of the canvas. It depicts a workaday scene, a man pushing a wheelbarrow down the gangplank unloading goods. On the other side, a man standing in a small skiff works with someone on deck. At the right edge, a small white sailboat describes the width of the river and emphasizes the painting’s strong asymmetrical composition. The painting is tiny by any standards, approximately 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches.

Unlike most of Pissarro’s later paintings, the title of this one does not indicate the location. But the type of boat and width of the river suggest that the location could be somewhere on the Seine River near Paris. Pissarro had made other paintings of barges at La Roche Guyon, a village near Giverny, and this might be the scene, but with the background subsumed in blue-grey shadows, it is impossible to know for sure.

The boat and all the figures are mere silhouettes against the sunset, brilliantly depicted with bold brushstrokes and heavy impasto, paint layered on as thick as butter on toast. The brilliance of the sun is masterful, created with a cool pale yellow which we see as white hot. Its heat tinges the nearby clouds with rose, coral and pale pink fading gradually into the darker blue of the overcast sky. In the dark water, shimmers of white and gold and red surround the dark reflection of the barge.

Many artists would have moved beyond the barge to give the sunset and the glimmering water the most emphasis. But Pissarro forces us to look at the boat first and makes our eyes work to get beyond it to the colors in the sky.  A radical composition and a true treasure.

——————

Many readers from this blog are from Germany—there are at least two today! Over the past few months, 348 views have been from Germany.  If you are one of those, or if you are from Belgium, France, or any nearby country, you might be interested in this Pissarro exhibition!

PISSARRO, FATHER OF IMPRESSIONISM

Von der Heydt Museum

Wuppertal, Germany

Until February 22, 2015

http://www.pissarro-ausstellung.de/

The exhibition contains nearly 60 paintings by Pissarro and an even larger number of his works on paper—drawings, etchings, prints, wood block prints and all types of media. They are paired with a large number of paintings by other painters of that time, most notably paintings by Fritz Melbye, who went with Pissarro to Venezuela, and Ludovic Piette, his very close friend and owner of Montfoucault, a large farm in Brittany where Pissarro and his family visited frequently.

There are also paintings and drawings by such artists as Corot, Daubigny, Courbet, Manet, Gauguin, Monet, Sisley, Signac, Cézanne, Seurat, and other painters contemporary with Pissarro.

There are many early paintings and paintings from private collections on view that I have never seen.  I am going to see the exhibition in early December.  If you are in Germany and plan to see the exhibition, let me know. (annsaul33@pissarrosplaces.com)

Remembering CAMILLE PISSARRO July 10, 1830 – November 13, 1903

860                     WE HAVE ONLY BEGUN TO UNDERSTAND HIS GENIUS.

This painting is currently on view at the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.  I watched as people looked at it. They inevitably turned back for another look–sometimes two or three times.

PISSARRO LOOKS AT THE FOG

Vue de Bazincourt, Brouillard c. 1894    PDR 1024 Private collection

Vue de Bazincourt, Brouillard
 c. 1894 PDR 1024  Private collection

“Vue de Bazincourt, Brouillard” (1894, PDR 1024) is a tiny oil painting, about 13 by 16 inches, but it is a little treasure. It was among the paintings available at this fall’s Impressionist auctions, and one very discerning collector took it home.

Pissarro made this painting at his home in Érany-sur-Epte.  He may have been working beside the back window of his studio, a remodeled barn in the field behind his home. He was looking across the tiny Epte River, indicated by the slightly darker line with trees on the sides, towards the church steeple in the neighboring village of Bazincourt. It must have been early spring because the pastures have a tinge of green, and the horizontal stripe in the foreground appears to be plowed ground. Everything looks misty because of the heavy fog.

The mauve-like color in the foreground fades into pale green, which merges into pale coral before disappearing into the gray blue sky. When you see this painting in person, the fog appears much heavier, and the colors and shapes are less distinct.  In fact, it you stand back from it, it looks like a Rothko, simply strips of color fading one into the other.

Pissarro was painting what he saw, but he did not see a village and fields and trees. He simply saw strips of color—an abstract motif.

cp window

RADICAL PAINTING CLOTHED IN SIMPLICITY

The Village Screened by Trees c. 1869   PDR 134 Private collection

The Village Screened by Trees
             c. 1869 PDR 134
             Private collection

This stunning painting, The Village Screened by Trees, (1869) seems so simple, yet it is an enigma. There is a village bathed in the crisp clear sunlight of autumn. We long to hurry through the trees to see it more clearly. But Pissarro holds us back and forces us to take a more complicated view. A thick stand of tall trees creates a screen that blocks our sight line and demands our attention. This is the first of Pissarro’s paintings to use this unique device in composition.

Some of Pissarro’s earlier paintings were similar to those of Corot in that they used rows or groups of trees to frame the view. This painting, however, does the opposite—the trees obstruct the view, forcing our eyes to wander in an out of the spindly tree trunks to piece together our view of the village. Years later, Pissarro took this device to the extreme in his painting La Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise (1877) with a screen of trees that covers the entire canvas.

We could ask why Pissarro did this, but there is no answer. What we do know is that most Impressionist paintings have a clear focal point, and the picture’s elements are arranged so that the motif is easily understood. This composition of this picture does the opposite. In 1869, five years before the First Impressionist Exhibition, Pissarro’s concept of forcing the viewer to look through a screen was totally radical.

This painting presents other puzzles as well. Most landscapes are horizontal in shape, but this one is vertical, which easily accommodates the tall trees. While the actual date of the painting is unknown, it has been placed at 1869, the year Pissarro moved to Louveciennes. Scholars say that the actual village is unknown since its particular topography does not appear to match Pissarro’s other views of either Louveciennes or Pontoise.

However, Pissarro points the way through the screen. Directly in front of us is a walkway leading to the village and a smaller path branching off to the right. Together, they form a strong V that anchors the composition. Just to be sure we don’t miss it, Pissarro places a small figure of a woman in the angle. He repeats this angle in the limbs of the tree just above her head and again in the background with the two sections of wall leading into the picture from each side.

While some might think this painting somewhat bland compared with other works of its time, it is, in fact, highly sophisticated and experimental. Perhaps if so many of Pissarro’s paintings of this period had not been lost in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-18871), he would be correctly recognized as the artist who was far ahead of his time. 

POINTILLISM BY PISSARRO

Peasant Women Planting Poles into the Ground 1891    PDR 922 Private collection, London; on loan to Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, UK

Peasant Women Planting Poles into the Ground
                                                                                              1891 PDR 922
                                              Private collection, London; on loan to Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, UK

 

This painting, “Peasant Women Planting Poles into the Ground,” (1891) was made during those few years that Pissarro used the pointillist technique. Right now, it can be seen as part of an exhibition on Neo-Impressionists at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.  Its last appearance in the US was in 1995 in New York at an exhibition curated by Joachim Pissarro, the artist’s great-grandson.

Pissarro was intrigued with pointillism because it used scientific methods to create art. As you know, this technique is created by putting dabs or spots of pure color side-by-side to create light or shadow.  When you look at the painting, your eyes automatically mix the dots. This is the opposite of mixing colors on the palette. You can see the same effect in digital photographs.  If you zoom in close enough, you can actually see the little squares of different colors that make up the images in the photo.

The Impressionists had perfected the practice of painting en plein air, often completing a picture in a single day. However, pointillism with its myriad details required advance planning.  To make this painting, Pissarro did several drawings to finalize the composition. In fact, he went back to a previous fan-shaped gouache from the previous year (1890) for the motif.

The fan shows women putting poles in the ground to support the young pea plants. The composition is spacious, showing surrounding fields on each side and there is room between each of the women. In contrast, the composition of this painting is much more dramatic. Pissarro cropped away all the surrounding fields and moved the women closer together. He also changed the positions of the women to emphasize the motion of their bodies. You can feel the rhythmic pounding of their actions.

His skill in the pointillism technique is evident as you examine the individual brushstrokes of each part of the painting. Look at the skirts of the women. The orange skirt on the left gets its shade from a combination of orange, dark blue, and yellow or white dots.  The dark red dress on the right includes deep blue or purple dots along with red and yellow dots. The blue skirt gets its color from dots of purple and white. The use of different colors in tiny brushstrokes gives the colors an intensity and brightness that they do not have when mixed on the palette.

After a few years Pissarro grew tired of the pointillist technique. It took a lot longer to make a picture, and his output during those few years is much less than was normal for him. He abandoned the full technique and went back to his more spontaneous way of creating paintings, but he kept elements of pointillism in his paintings for the rest of his life.

PISSARRO — ALWAYS MOVING FORWARD

View of the Village of Éragny 1885   PDR 790 Birminghaam (AL) Museum of Art

View of the Village of Éragny, 1885,  PDR 790,  Birminghaam (AL) Museum of Art

This wonderful view of the village of Éragny is in the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama.  Recently, I had an opportunity to see the painting in person and study it closely. You would be deceived if you think this is simply a lovely landscape. Like so many of Pissarro’s paintings, there is a lot more to it than that.

Camille Pissarro and his family had just moved to Éragny in April of 1884. Delighted with new topographical subjects, he painted through the snowy winter. When he made this panoramic landscape in the early spring of 1885, he seemed to be taking the measurements of this new location. The current photo of Éragny (below) shows that it has changed little since he lived there.

Rue Camille Pissarro Éragny sur Epte

Rue Camille Pissarro
Éragny sur Epte

To get the view in the painting, Pissarro crossed the road (now Rue Camille Pissarro) in front of his house and walked beyond the houses on the other side to look back at the village. All the local landmarks are visible. In the center of the painting, the steeple of the church at Éragny pierces the sky. The current photograph below shows that the steeple is quite high, especially for a church that small (the two sections in front of the steeple are recent additions). It appears that Pissarro gave the steeple in his painting some added height, perhaps to take it above the row of trees in the background and make it easier for us to see. To the left are the towers of the large manor house which dates from the sixteenth century and was built for the lord of Éragny (see the current photograph below).  

         Church at Éragny  Eragny chateau

This painting is one of those by Pissarro that can be viewed at many levels. The very casual observer might barely slow down, labeling it as a pleasant picture of a peaceful village. Others might do as we just did, examine the picture for landmarks and try to feel a sense of the village and the bare fields pictured there.

But there is so much more to see. Pissarro saw the “skeleton” of the view and responded with what look like broad swaths of color in the foreground. Near the bottom, a darker area, then a lighter green strip, and a reddish section, which could have been newly-plowed ground preparing for spring planting. It leads our eyes on the right to the small wooden fence which stretches across the width of the canvas. The regularity of the horizontal lines is then interrupted by the jumble of houses lining both sides of the main street. Except for Bazincourt in the distant middle ground, there are fields leading to the horizon lined with tree tops.

What Pissarro does within these designated spaces is the most interesting of all and can easily be seen in the dark area at the bottom. He achieves the color and texture by placing small patches of color side by side, varying the mix to make it darker or lighter.

This looks like pointillism, and in fact Pissarro had come to his own interpretation of pointillism before ever meeting Georges Seurat.  For years, he had been interested in the division of color and had been reading the scientific writings of Michel Eugène Chevruel and Ogden Rood, an American scientist. When he met Seurat a few months after making this painting, he was excited to find someone else who shared his interest in color. 

This is just another example of how Pissarro was always ahead of his time, pushing forward, investigating, experimenting, innovating. In fact, if you mentally eliminate the village from this painting, it would almost look abstract.

AMAZING HOW MANY PEOPLE LOVE PISSARRO

Camille Pissarro in his studio

Camille Pissarro in his studio

 

Every few days I check to see how many people are reading the blog.  Imagine my surprise today when I saw that 74 people clicked on this site.  Of those, 69 were from Germany.  Whether you are one person or a large group of Pissarro lovers who all decided to read the blog the same day, many thanks for your interest.

And thanks to all of those who follow this blog on Pissarro.  It reaches people in more than 70 nations and on six continents.  Wonder what Pissarro would have thought about that?

 

Ann Saul

annsaul@pissarrosplaces.com



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