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The Dieppe Railway 1886 PDR 828 Philadelphia Museum of Art Philadelphia, PA

The Dieppe Railway
1886 PDR 828
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia, PA

Pissarro painted The Dieppe Railway in 1886, following the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in which he showed his Pointillist works. You have to look closely to even see the train, just to left of the canvas center. The train itself is not important—it is simply there as a reference point in a composition of geometric shapes and color blocks. In many of his paintings, Pissarro used sketchy trees and figures to make what are essentially abstract compositions look more like familiar scenes.

Some 25 years later (around 1911), Pablo Picasso who created Cubism, talked about including familiar objects in his abstract paintings, calling them “attributes,” to characterize the subject matter. He said, “The attributes were the few points of reference designed to bring one back to visual reality, recognizable to anyone.”*

While the actual location of this painting is not important, I believe this scene was near the Éragny railroad station just across the highway from his home. This current photograph shows the railroad track, the contours of the fields, and the same blue hills in the distance.

Eragny train7

We usually expect a painting to show something important or at least something pretty, but there is not much distinctive about this particular space. Rather than a typical subject, Pissarro chose these oddly-shaped color fields.

In the large foreground, he created a golden field with points of color, ranging from light yellow to gold, coral to red, and a bit of light green. To the right is an odd shape composed of green and dark blue spots, flecked with a little gold. It is obviously a shadow but we do not know its origin (possibly the old train station that is no longer there but appears in historic postcards). The green fields in the distance, made of light and dark green dots, are edged with golden fields of the same intensity as the foreground. Even the distant hills are blue dots of different shades mixed with ivory flecks. The cloudy sky absorbs the ivory points and mixes them with dots of yellow and coral. Above the clouds, light blue dots fill the top of the canvas with blue.

Pissarro must have made this painting as a showcase for Pointillism and fields of color. The composition and use of paint are far more important than the picture of the train. When we look at this painting today, we can say it is virtually abstract—Pissarro couldn’t do that.  In 1886, the word abstract had not yet been used in relation to art.

*Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection (2013) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 139


THE FOREST 1870  PDR 172 Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa

1870 PDR 172
Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa

In May 1870, two of Pissarro’s pictures were chosen to be exhibited with hundreds of paintings by other artists in the Paris Salon. Their titles, “Autumn” and “Landscape,” are pretty general, so art historians have not been able to definitively determine which of Pissarro’s paintings they were. (Critical Catalog, 2005) In fact, they may not have survived the ransacking of Pissarro’s home during the Franco-Prussian war later that year.

Those paintings must have been impressive, however, since they attracted the attention of highly-regarded art critics of the day. Comments by one of them, Theodore Duret writing for L’Electeur Libre, are particularly interesting. 

Duret wrote, “For him (Pissarro), the landscape on the canvas must be a faithful and exact transposition of a natural scene, the portrait of some corner of the world that actually exists. […] But while we grant the theory according to which Pissarro evidently proceeds, we cannot help remarking that, in observing it too strictly, where nature itself is so unpicturesque that the artist has painted a landscape without making a picture.”  (The italics and bold are mine.)

Pissarro was already known as a painter true to nature and Duret’s reference to “portrait of some corner of the world” is apt. However, the critic says that Pissarro observes this practice so carefully, depicting everyday scenes, that his paintings are “unpicturesque” or not pretty! Too bad we cannot see the exact painting he wrote about.

However, there are several paintings from that period in Pissarro’s work that illustrate Duret’s point.  “The Forest” provides a good example.  At first glance, it appears to be a horizontal rectangle of green, or several shades of green. Then we notice the sunlight on large tree trunks and cottages on the left. Only after looking closely, do we discover a bending woman in the left foreground. Is she picking up nuts from the trees? Almost by accident we discover people under a tree on the right. Are there two, or three, or four? There is no statue or important building, no famous person; nor does it depict a historic event or a mythical story. It would be hard to create a story about it.The scene is pleasant enough, but not memorable. Is this what Duret meant?

Apparently, this little corner of the world appealed to Pissarro for different reasons. He saw much more than thick leaves, dense tree trunks, and firm ground. In making the painting, he gives us no focal point to draw our attention. He crowds the trees together as if they are all pushing to the front. There is no sense of space or “breathing room” in the picture.  Except for a tiny corner of blue, there is no sky.

Pissarro was not painting a grove of trees. He was arranging contrasts — color (yellows and greens) and paint ( thin and thick), brushstrokes (heavy and light) and patterns (dark and bright). He balanced it so carefully that we see the whole, not the parts.

Duret might not have called this landscape a picture, but it is an intriguing painting just the same. In more recent years, we have grown accustomed to works by Picasso, Klee, and Pollock that contain blocks of color, light and dark contrasts, and all-over design. Now we are able to understand what Pissarro was doing in 1870.

Abstract art had not been invented then, but Pissarro already had the eye of an abstract painter.


LA PLACE DU THEATRE-FRANCAIS ET L'AVENUE DE L'OPERA 1898   PDR 1202 Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rheims, France Ann Saul, left of painting

1898 PDR 1202
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rheims, France
Ann Saul, left of painting

It was a great pleasure to see the exhibition PISSARRO: FATHER OF IMPRESSIONISM at the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, Germany.  This picture shows me with one of my favorite Pissarro painting, the one that is on the cover of my book PISSARRO’S PLACES.

The exhibition is a very large retrospective that thoroughly covers almost every part of Pissarro’s oeuvre with the exception of Pointillism, which is represented by one small painting. It included very early French paintings (none from Venezuela), a few from Pontoise and Louveciennes (some of Osny and Ennery I had never seen), Eragny and a good selection of Rouen, Dieppe, Le Havre, and Paris. I was especially delighted to see the early painting of Julie when she was a young girl from the Ashmolean, probably painted soon after Pissarro met her. He painted her portrait many times during their marriage. There were several flower still lifes and two self-portraits (1870 and 1903).

The Big Pear Tree at Montfoucault 1876 Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland

The Big Pear Tree at Montfoucault
Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland

 Some of the paintings are not ordinarily seen in the US. One of those is this elegant painting of a tree at Montfoucault, the Brittany home of Ludovic Piette where Pissarro and his family frequently visited.  The obvious focal point is the big tree, but your eyes go to the golden ground created by rough brushstrokes of yellow, red, green, orange and coral. The heavy foliage on the big tree is nothing more than large blotches of dark green paint, reflected on the ground as a dark shadow. The odd sky is dark blue on the shadowed side of the tree and cloud filled on the other side. This isolation of this deserted field is tempered by tiny rooftops on a nearby hill.

Each group of Pissarros was paired with paintings by his contemporaries from the museum’s impressive holdings, including those of Corot, Courbet, Daubigny, Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Seurat, Daumier and many others. There were also paintings by Fritz Melbye, Pissarro’s friend in St. Thomas and Venezuela, and Ludovic Piette, his very close friend from Montfoucault.

There seemed to be twice as many works on paper (drawings, prints, etchings, watercolors) as paintings. Both the Musée Pissarro (Pontoise, France) and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, England) sent generous selections to show alongside the large collection in the museum. One especially interesting drawing shows a village behind a screen of trees, with the artist’s handwritten notes on colors to use in a future painting.

Seeing this comprehensive group of Pissarro’s paintings, it is easy to see that he was much more than an Iimpressionist. For more on the Wuppertal exhibition, please see my review in the New York Sun:


La Place du Théâtre Français 1898   PDR 1208 Los Angeles Count Museum of Art

La Place du Théâtre Français
1898 PDR 1208
Los Angeles Count Museum of Art

The exhibition at Wuppertal, Germany, “Pissarro, Father of Impressionism,” is an extensive retrospective of Pissarro’s lifework, including a wide selection of paintings and works on paper from his earliest days as an artist. This painting, “La Place du Théâtre Français,” is one of several he painted during a long stay at the Hotel du Louvre from December 1898 to Spring 1899.It was about this time of year—the leaves were off the trees and people were bundled up in coats and hats.

Pissarro had the capacity to focus closely, and it served him well during this painting expedition. Paris was sharply divided over the Dreyfus Affair. Earlier that year, Émile Zola had published his famous letter “J’accuse,” which had incited public demonstrations. At night, anti-Semitic mobs were filling the streets, and as a Jew, Pissarro may have been in danger. Some of his colleagues and dear friends turned against him, including Renoir, Degas, and Cézanne. Through it all, he calmly painted the daytime scenes, portraying business as usual.

From his suite of rooms on the front of the Hotel Louvre, he had an excellent view straight down the Avenue de l’Opera to the fashionable new Opera Garnier. He did not usually paint famous sites or important buildings, and in the ten paintings he made of that street, the magnificent building is barely visible.

In this painting, he ignores the street and buildings to concentrate on the busy, traffic-filled intersection directly in front of the hotel. There is no horizon line, no sky, not even edges to the painting. The traffic literally runs off the canvas. Traffic is going in every direction with no regulations apparent. Pedestrians walk in the middle of the street among carriages, wagons full of produce and filled omnibuses. Pissarro gives order to the scene, using the largest omnibus to anchor the composition on the lower edge.

As he does sometimes, Pissarro uses the tallest tree to divide the canvas. On the right is a large pedestrian island and a small red building. Behind that and near the top of the canvas are white columns that indicate the presence of a large building. To the left of the tree is the helter-skelter of heavy traffic, regulated slightly by the small circle holding the tall street light and a larger circle at the top of the canvas with a fountain.

The whole scene looks like miniature figures on a tilted table, almost as if they are sliding into our lap. To emphasize the motion, Pissarro created a line on the street beginning at left corner and extending to the head of the brown horse pulling the omnibus. To the right, the street is lighter compared to the left. Is there a shadow on the street? There is no way to know because we can see neither the sky nor the buildings that might be blocking the sun.

If a contemporary artist made a painting like that today, we would call it an all-over abstract painting. It goes beyond the canvas edges on every side and it tells no story. This is another example of how far ahead of his time Pissarro was. The techniques he developed more than a hundred years ago now seem very ordinary to us, and we forget that he was such a radical and inventive artist.


Landscape at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire c. 1864  PDR 94 Kunstmuseum Bern Bern, Switzerland

Landscape at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire
c. 1864 PDR 94
Kunstmuseum Bern
Bern, Switzerland

This tiny painting (approximately 9.5 inches by 12.5 inches) is another one that is part of the Pissarro exhibition at Wuppertal, Germany.  I am especially interested in studying these early paintings closely because they clearly demonstrate that very early in his career, Pissarro was breaking the generally accepted rules and painting in a way that was different.  He was, in fact, as interested in the paint on the surface of the canvas as he was in the motif.  This thinking was radical for his time.

Southeast of Paris, the Marne River makes a big loop and La Varenne-Saint Hilaire is one of the little villages along the riverside. Pissarro made many paintings in this area in the early 1860s. This is no ordinary landscape. From the right front of the canvas, the road leads directly to the center and meets the river, which continues out of view because of the tall house on the right.  If we imagine that the house isn’t there and we can see the river cutting across the full canvas, the road leading toward the river is perpendicular and forms a T shape.  Beyond the river on the left, the hills slope gently down forming an angle which ends on the right side at the big block-shaped house.  It is a study in geometric shapes that Pissarro filled with different colors and various brushstrokes.  I can’t wait to see those brushstrokes up close and find out if they are all brushstrokes or if he used the palette knife as well.


A Creek with Palm Trees 1856  PDR 16 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

A Creek with Palm Trees
1856 PDR 16
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

This wonderful painting by Pissarro lives in Washington, DC., and I live just a train ride away in Philadelphia.  Yet I am going to see it for the first time in Germany at the exhibition, “Pissarro, Father of Impressionism,” at the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal. It is rarely on view at NGA because they generally show a similar painting, “Two Women Chatting by the Sea,” (PDR 23) which is more familiar. Both were painted by Pissarro shortly after he left St. Thomas to live in France for the rest of his life to be an artist.

The Critical Catalogue (2005) tells us why Pissarro was still painting pictures of St. Thomas. His son, Ludovic-Rodo wrote that one of Pissarro’s friends was trying to sell them in the Lille area. At that time, pictures of exotic places were very popular in Europe.

1856 was almost 20 years before the First Impressionist  Exhibition, yet this painting has distinct characteristics of Impressionism. No wonder they called Pissarro the Father of Impressionism.  It is all about the light and the atmosphere.

Can’t wait to see this along with 60 other oil paintings and dozens of drawings by Pissarro next Thursday and Friday at Wuppertal, Germany.


La Côte des Jalais, Pontoise 1867    PDR 116 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

La Côte des Jalais, Pontoise
1867 PDR 116
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

At first glance, this painting looks very much like any other Impressionist landscape in museums. But what if I were to tell you this is an extremely radical painting? One critic who wrote in 1868 about this painting said, “It is painted with great simplicity; the details, executed in groups, give one the impression they were studied singly. There is a great pictorial talent here, to be sure; unfortunately, it lacks a subject.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Today, we look at abstract art and are totally unconcerned that it rarely has a subject. We don’t even expect it. But historically, paintings were “pictures of something,” a church, a river, a person, or a group of people. In fact, the most favored paintings at the Salon were expected to show famous historical or mythological scenes. Landscapes were much less important to them, and it had to have a focal point—one thing that is the center of attention. The focal point was prominently positioned, a brighter color, or larger than other elements. In other words, it was obvious what the artist wanted you to look at.

This large painting (34.2” x 45.2”) by Pissarro was exhibited in the Salon of 1868, where reportedly it was hung too high to be seen properly. But the critic could see it well enough to determine that it has no focal point. In the lower foreground, two women dressed in fashionable dresses are seen on the path. In a painting by Monet or Renoir, they would probably be the focal point, but Pissarro makes them so small, we cannot even see their faces or distinguish any details of their dresses. Additionally, they are dwarfed by the tall trees directly behind them.

Just left of the women is a group of houses, but they do not provide a focal point. They derive their importance only by their proximity to each other. They are fashioned with few brush strokes, and get their only sense of depth from the roof lines. The right side is dominated by a large dark wedge; it is impossible to distinguish bushes or trees in the tangle of dark green brushstrokes.

The curved lines of the fields are the only clues that there is a deep valley between distant horizon line and the women. The fields are painted in broad swaths of color that flatten the background and make them look closer than they would in reality. Pissarro, who had already proven himself to be proficient in painting accurate perspective, has chosen to flatten out this landscape. He never intended to make a perfect photographic replica, as the Realistic painters did. He was painting a composition of different colors and shapes set side-by-side.  He simply used the real motif as a spark for his own personal sensation.

No one would call this an abstract painting—too much is recognizable, but the flatness of the painting and the broad swathes of color are abstract elements. But radical for its time—yes, indeed.  And this was seven years before the first Impressionist Exhibition. Pissarro was using artistic techniques that were different from all other artists before that time and those who were his friends.

Much of the information in this article is from Pissarro:Critical Catalogue, Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005).


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