PISSARRO – Seeing Paint on Canvas

 

1305 Tuilleries Snow 1900 2

The Tuileries Gardens, Effect of Snow, 1900, Private collection, PDRS 1305

 

This beautiful painting could be a snowy field anywhere. There are almost no identifying features. The hazy steeples behind the barren trees provide no clues. It is only because of Pissarro’s title, “The Tuileries Gardens, Effect of Snow,” that we realize this is the center of Paris with the twin steeples of the church of Sainte-Clotilde in the background. (1)

Now that we know the location, we can see outlines of the circular walks in the garden, and sketchy black marks that look almost like people. We realize that the odd post-like figures are actually statues surrounding the snow-covered circular pool. 

 

Statues in Tuileries

Statues surrounding circular pond in Tuileries Garden, Paris. (2)

Pissarro made this painting in a way that was not representative of the actual site. He intentionally masked identifying features and reduced the distant buildings into hazy outlines. He used the heavy snow to create a painting that is almost abstract.

Let’s try to “un-see” what we now know about the location, and view the painting itself. Pissarro reduces the scene to its basics—two wide bands separated by a narrow grayish strip. The paint in the foreground is heavy, and the brushstrokes are highly visible. The white snow is actually several shades of blue-grey with hints of light coral and pale pink in the center. The colors in the top band are more distinct— pink and white shading into pale blue. Pale grey diagonal lines, almost imperceptible, overlay the entire upper strip.

This painting is a superb example of brushwork–heavy directional strokes in the foreground and delicate lacy strokes above divided by flurries of grey-green strokes in the middle. Pissarro forces us to recognize the brushstrokes for what they are. We have to admit to its materiality—simply paint on canvas. The application of color, the vitality of the brushstrokes, and the reductive composition push this painting toward the abstract. Instead of making a picture, he made a painting. This is Pissarro’s genius.

(1) Pissarro, J. and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005). Pissarro: Catalogue critique des peintures. Milano, Italy, Skira Editore S.p.A., III, 782.

(2) By User:Munford – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1215048. Detail of original photograph.

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ABSTRACT PISSARRO

railroad-to-dieppe-1886.jpg!Large

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.

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

662 Breakfast, Peasant Girl

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

 

CP

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.

860 The Flock of Sheep, Eragny 1888 -

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.

mountains drawing

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.

new bridge wc

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.

hut painting

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.

self=portrait early

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.



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