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.
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