ABSTRACT PISSARRO

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The Dieppe Railway 1886 Philadelphia Museum of Art PDRS 828

 

COMING SOON —

A new look at Camille Pissarro’s paintings

Most people are familiar with the Pissarro paintings that fulfill their expectations of Impressionism. But Pissarro made just as many paintings that look totally different. These are seldom seen in exhibitions and rarely featured in books because they have been difficult to explain until now.

ABSTRACT PISSARRO will explore the abstract elements in Pissarro’s paintings–innovations for which there was no name at the time. He was the first to experiment with many of these techniques, some of which were quickly adapted by his artist friends. The book is now being edited and should be available in a few months.

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Pissarro — a snowy day in Paris

1412 Pont-Neuf effect of snow 1902

The Pont-Neuf, Effect of Snow and Fog. 1902. Private collection. PDRS 1412.

In the winter of 1901-1902, Pissarro and his family returned to Paris and stayed for the second time on the Ile de la Cité, the small island in the middle of the Seine. His apartment faced the equestrian statue of Henri IV and on both sides, he could see the Pont-Neuf connecting the island to the riverbanks. To his right beyond the statue was the Louvre and to his left, the Hotel de la Monnaie. Pissarro made 26 oil paintings from his windows during that winter.

On one snowy day, Pissarro chose a familiar view of the Pont-Neuf, looking toward the Right Bank where normally he could see flags flying on the Samaritaine department store. On this day, the buildings at the end of the bridge are hardly visible at all. The falling snow throws a glistening white veil over the entire scene, broken only by the movement of the dark carriages on the bridge.

The bridge itself is simply a diagonal separating two color blocks—the large area of sky delicately pricked by the faint outlines of buildings contrasting with the dark blue-gray triangle of water in the lower right corner. The brilliant white sky is actually made up of faint brush strokes of pink and blue, each overlapping the other. The dark water is made of solid slabs of color ranging from dark blue to light gray. Pissarro’s use of color blocks in this and many other paintings foreshadows the work of Rothko in the 1950s.

This magnificent painting was part of the recent auction at Christie’s in New York City.

 

 

 

PISSARRO and Pointillism

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Young Peasant Girl Having Café au Lait, 1881, The Art Institute of Chicago, PDRS 662

 

Pissarro, like most other artists studied the color division theories of Chevreul, so he knew how to divide local (or normal) color into its different parts to increase its brilliance.  And he knew that colors placed side-by-side produce reflections on each other. It is no surprise then that in 1881, when Ogden Rood’s book, “Modern Chromatics: Students’ Text-Book of Color,”  was translated into French, Pissarro would take note of what Rood said about color division:

The effect referred to takes place when different colours are placed side by side in lines or dots, and then viewed at such a distance that the blending is more or less accomplished by the eye of the beholder. . . . If the coloured lines or dots are quite distant from the eye, the mixture is of course perfect, and presents nothing remarkable in its appearance.*

That same year, he painted “Young Peasant Girl Having Cafe au Lait” (1881) [PDRS 662], a study in the optical mixing of colors and reflections.  The blue-green on the wall behind her is reflected on the shoulder and sleeve of her pink blouse in tiny dots.  Her dark blue skirt is reflected on the front of her blouse, and the pink of her long sleeve is reflected in the skirt at the bottom of the canvas. The brushstrokes are tiny and many are criss-crossed.

All of this happened in 1881, four years before Pissarro met Seurat, years before pointillism became a painting technique, and well before the word, Neo-Impressionism was invented by art critic Félix Fénéon. Though he graciously gave Seurat all the credit for “inventing” the new scientific technique of painting, he had been experimenting with it years before!

* Rood, O. N. (1879). Modern Chromatics. London, C. Kegan Paul & Co., 279-80.

[This is a small segment from my upcoming book, ABSTRACT PISSARRO.]

 

 

Pissarro’s Birthday – July 10, 1830

 

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Camille Pissarro

On July 10, 1830, Camille Pissarro was born in Charlotte Amalie, the principal city on the island of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.  At the age of 12, his parents sent him to private school in Passy, a suburb of Paris, where he learned to draw. From that time forward, his life was devoted to art.

At the age of 53, he wrote his son Lucien, “Painting, art in general, enchants me. It is my life. What else matters? When you put all your soul into a work, all that is noble in you, you cannot fail to find a kindred soul who understands you, and you do not need a host of such spirits. Is not that all an artist should wish for?”*

Today, there are hosts of kindred souls who love Pissarro’s work. Two exhibitions in Paris were filled with people; one extended its time for two extra weeks. In Pontoise, viewers crowded the galleries to look at his engravings. Even in Copenhagen, large groups came to see the early works of Pissarro. Since this blog on Pissarro began in 2012, there have been 23,420 views from readers on six continents, showing the international appeal of Pissarro’s work.

But Pissarro was never satisfied with the present; he was always looking for innovative techniques, bigger challenges, and new ways to express his “sensations.” While he is considered “The First Among the Impressionists,” he is so much more.

The only way to understand his artistic contribution is to look at his work, not through the microscope of Impressionism, but with a wide-angle lens that includes the generations of painters who followed him. Some of the techniques he pioneered had no name in his time; now, we see them as virtually abstract. Our comprehension of Pissarro’s genius has only just begun.

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The Flock of Sheep, Eragny, 1888 Private collection, PDRS 860

In just thirteen years, we will mark Pissarro’s 200th birthday. He will be the first Impressionist to reach that milestone. How should he be remembered in that year? Here are some possibilities:

  A comprehensive retrospective in major museums in France and the United States.

  A scholarly symposium that looks at Pissarro’s work as seminal in the wide scope of modern and contemporary art, resulting in publications. (An excellent symposium was held in 2003 commemorating the 100th anniversary of Pissarro’s death, but it centered on his role as Impressionist.)

  New research into Pissarro’s work by graduate students of art schools and universities.

  A new more comprehensive biography, including extensive new information from the 2005 catalogue raisonne (Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts).

It is not too soon to begin thinking about 2030—good exhibitions, research, and publication of books take time.  And when Pissarro’s work is in focus, there are always surprises.

*Letter of November 20, 1883, Letters to His Son Lucien, edited by John Rewald.

 

 

 

 

 

PISSARRO in Copenhagen

Palm tree painting

Landscape from the Antilles, rider and donkey on the road, 1856, Ordrupgaard, Charlottenlund

Copenhagen feels a special connection with Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), and rightly so. The artist was, after all, a Danish citizen his whole life. And his early life was marked by a close connection with a Danish painter named Fritz Melbye (1826-1869). It was their friendship and their influence on each other which inspired the recent exhibition, “Pissarro, a meeting in St. Thomas” at the Ordrupgaard in the outskirts of Copenhagen.

Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830 in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. At that time, St. Thomas and its neighboring islands St. Croix and St. John were the Danish West Indies, a colony of Denmark. Thus, Pissarro was a Danish citizen at birth, and though he spent all of his adult life in France, he never became a French citizen.

After attending school in France, the young man was expected to enter the family business in the Caribbean. But he wanted to be an artist. It was while working on the docks at Charlotte Amalie that he met Fritz Melbye.

Because Melbye was four years older than Pissarro, it might be assumed that he had much to teach the young artist. But Pissarro’s early drawings and paintings show that his technique was already well advanced. What occurred was a collegial sharing of ideas and interests.  They traveled together to Venezuela where for almost two years they worked side-by-side, exploring the mountains and maintaining an art studio in Caracas where they painted and sold their works.

This exhibition brought together a large number of Pissarro’s early drawings, watercolors, and paintings, pairing them with drawings and paintings by Melbye. A large portion of the exhibition was based on work done previously by Richard Brettell on a cache of works that Melbye had left with Frederick William Church (1826-1900) in Olano, New York. Another sizable portion included Pissarro’s early drawings from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK, which were catalogued by Brettell and Christopher Lloyd.

One new discovery was the early Pissarro painting, “Landscape from the Antilles, rider and donkey on the road,” (1856), which was not included in the recent catalogue raisonne by Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005). It may have been bought in France by Anton Melbye (1818-1875), artist and brother of Fritz, and taken back to Denmark at some point.

Pissarro’s drawing, “Rio de Maiquetia,” (1852) shows his skillful use of simple pencil marks to create form and volume. He uses parallel lines, not only to create light and darkness, but to shape the planes of the rocks. Later, he used a similar technique in painting with oils, one that Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) later adopted and developed into his signature technique.

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Rio de Maiquetia, 1852, Private collection.

This early watercolor, “Bridge in Caracas” (1854), much more than a sketch, is a complete painting. Pissarro and Melbye may have made paintings like this to sell in their studio.

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Bridge in Caracas, 1854 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The painting, “Mountain landscape with a cabin,” (c. 1854) leaves no doubt as to Pissarro’s capabilities.  It may have been painted en plein air during one of the trips Pissarro and Melbye took with friends into the mountains that surround Caracas.

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Mountain landscape with a cabin, c. 1854, Private collection

In our minds, Pissarro has a bald head and a long white beard. But we forget that he was once young and had a full head of hair.  This self-portrait (1857-58) shows him as he must have been during his sojourn in Venezuela—a handsome young man looking earnestly at us with just a hint of a smile.

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Self-portrait, 1857-1858, National Museum of Art, Copenhagen

The value of this exhibition is that it reminds us of the artist Pissarro was before he became an Impressionist.  His work was quite advanced, and he was already experimenting with new ideas and techniques. This inventiveness is what he would carry with him throughout his life, creating some of the most intriguing and beautiful paintings of all time.

Paris Loves Pissarro – 3 of 3

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The Oise River at Pontoise, 2017

The last of the three Pissarro exhibitions wasn’t in Paris at all—it was in Pontoise, just a 30-minute train ride from Paris. Pissarro lived in Pontoise with his family at two different times—from 1866-1868 and again from 1872 – 1882. There he created some of his most well-loved Impressionist paintings.

Pontoise, an ancient city on the banks of the Oise River northwest of Paris, has two museums: Musée Tavet-Delacour and Musée Camille Pissarro, both under the direction of Christophe Duvivier, who curated the exhibition, “Camille Pissarro—Engraved Impressions.” This large selection of prints was the perfect compliment to the two exhibitions in Paris, showcasing the artist’s extraordinary creativity. According to the exhibition catalogue, there are known to be about 230 prints by Pissarro, including 131 engravings, 67 lithographs and some 30 monotypes. In this extensive exhibition, approximately sixty prints were those held by the Musée Camille Pissarro.

One of the most beautiful works is an early etching, “La Roche-Guyon,” (1866). The etching process is fairly simple: the artist scratches lines on a metal plate covered with a waxy material. Acid bites into the metal where it is exposed by the lines, forming grooves. After cleaning, the plate is inked and wiped so that ink remains only in the grooves. The plate is pressed against paper, creating the etching. Each print, as it comes off the press, is noted as a different state.

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La Roche-Guyon, 1866 Etching, 2nd state, Bibliothéque nationale de France, Paris

In 1879, Pissarro began making prints with Edgar Degas, who owned his own press. They experimented with the plate after each print, changing the image, as shown in these two prints, “Effect of Rain,” (1879). For the first state, Pissarro began, not with etching, but with aquatint. Powdered resin, which is dusted on the plate, melts when it is heated and forms hard bumps. Acid makes grooves around them to hold ink. Aquatint, unlike etching, allows the artist to vary areas of light and dark.

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Effect of rain, 1879 Aquatint, 1st state, Kunsthalle Bremen, Breme, Italy

In the sixth state, Pissarro used etching, aquatint, and soft ground, which creates lines that look as soft as pencil or crayon. In the intervening states, he darkened the haystack and added two people and trees. In the sixth state, he achieved the look of rain by rubbing the plate with emery cloth in delicate diagonal stripes.

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Effect of rain, 1879 Etching, aquatint and soft ground on zinc, Bibliothéque nationale de France, Paris

Pissarro’s prints frequently reflect the same motifs as his paintings. The print, “Path near the woods at l’Hermitage (Pontoise)” (1879) is practically identical to that of his painting, “View of l’Hermitage through the trees,” (1879), and it appears they were made around the same time.

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Path near the woods at l’Hermitage (Pontoise) 1879 Etching, soft ground, aquatine and dry point, Bibliothéque nationale de France, Paris

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View of l’Hermitage through the trees, 1879, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO

In 1894, Pissarro was finally able to afford a good press of his own, allowing him to perform more complicated experiments. To make “Market at Gisors (rue Cappeville)” (1894/1895), he used four plates, which were inked in black, blue, red and yellow. He was able to make greens and browns by allowing areas of color to overlap. The pinpoints at the top and bottom show how he aligned the plates so as to achieve the proper register.

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Market at Gisors (rue Cappeville), 1894/1895 Etching and dry point, 7th state, Bibliothéque nationale de France, Paris

Pissarro also experimented with monotypes, in which paint is applied to glass or smooth stone or metal covered with a greasy substance. As indicated by the name, only one print can be made of each work, but different colors can be used as on a canvas. In this one, “Women doing haymaking,” (c. 1894), the brushstrokes are visible.

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Women doing haymaking, c. 1894 Monotype in colors, Musée Faure, Aix-les-Bains, France

He also made lithographs, a process based on the principle that oil repels water. In “Quai de Rouen (Grand Pont)” (1896), he used a variety of gray tones to indicate light and shadow.

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Quai de Rouen (Grand Pont), 1896 Lithograph on zinc, Unique state, Musée Camille Pissarro, Pontoise

One of the most popular self-portraits of Pissarro is this etching made in 1890. It recalls Rembrandt’s self-portraits in which the face emerges from blackness. In this one, Pissarro’s eyes, peering from behind his half-rimmed glasses, are captivating while his dark coat fades into the background.

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Camille Pissarro, 1890 Etching and aquatint, 2nd state, Musée Camille Pissarro, Pontoise



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