Pissarro -Figures in a Landscape



Two Young Peasant Girls, Chatting under the Trees, Pontoise, 1881, Private collection, PDRS 65


After focusing on landscapes in the 1860s and early 70s, Pissarro turned again (Brettell and Lloyd 1980, p 5.)to figure painting, a subject he had often depicted in St. Thomas and Venezuela. To best understand Pissarro’s figure painting, it is helpful to consider his drawings. Instead of long flowing lines, he constructed forms with many separate lines. “The idea of the whole figure seen as an enclosed form did not interest the young Pissarro.”1

In his paintings, this translates to forms that are more angular than fluid. This is evident in Two Young Peasant Girls Chatting under Trees, Pontoise, [PDRS 654] painted in 1881. The figures of the girls are set at angles, the sitting girl at almost a right angle while the standing girl’s right foot juts out putting her skirt at a slight angle with her bodice. This angle matches that of the leaning tree in the background.

The form of the standing girl is almost a series of color blocks. Her bodice is nearly square with little sign of actual bodily contours. A few light lines hint of a checker-board pattern in her blouse. Her light-blue skirt is a vertical parallelogram with shaded areas. The red-checkered kerchief covers her face. The form of the other girl is almost indistinct, and her features are mere notations. Both figures are built up with tiny touches of paint, often applied in directional strokes to suggest the form underneath. The foliage behind them is constructed using the same tiny directional strokes that almost stitch the girls into the background. In fact, the brushstrokes are so similar that the girl leaning on the tree would almost disappear into the tree trunk except for the dramatic difference in colors.

This figure painting is so different from what artists had done in the past. The people, who are unknown and have no special importance, are in a place of no significance. There is nothing in the background to tell us anything about them or why they are there—nothing to suggest a storyline. Théodore Duret wrote later, “[Pissarro] portrayed men and women as he saw them, with a simplicity of method and a direct truth of observation greater than had been known before.”2

The composition of the painting, based on the angles of the trees, pulls the standing girl into a highly geometric matrix. Indeed, the shape of the tree at the far right mirrors the stance of the girl. As Brettell and Lloyd say about one of Pissarro’s figure drawings, “She exists within, and merges with, the structured confines of her setting.”3

The area behind the trees is filled with colored planes, and only one tiny house in the distance suggests any depth. The highly-worked surface calls attention to the vigorous brushstrokes and diverts attention from the girls to the making of the painting.

Pissarro had painted this location once before in 1875 in The Climb, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, Pontoise. The addition of figures makes the depiction of the steep cliff even more complicated. (See the previous blog on The Climb.)



1Brettell, R. R. and C. Lloyd (1980). A Catalogue of the Drawings by Camille Pissarro in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Oxford, The Clarendon Press.

2Duret, T. D. (1910). Manet and the French Impressionists. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Company.

3Brettell, R. R. and C. Lloyd (1980). A Catalogue of the Drawings by Camille Pissarro in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Oxford, The Clarendon Press.




Pissarro: Impressionist or Abstract?


Ploughed Fields Near Osny 1873 Private Collection PDRS 290

Many of Pissarro’s paintings fit the expected Impressionist “mold,” but his œuvre is full of paintings that do not match that style and are difficult to explain. For instance, the painting, Ploughed Fields Near Osny, made one year before the first Impressionist Exhibition, seems almost strange compared to most Impressionist paintings. While it depicts an imminent change in weather, there is none of the lightness and “prettiness” we have come to expect from the Impressionists.

What it offers is far more interesting—an earthy grid of colors and texture—large rectangles—one of deep purple in the foreground fading into brick red and then light salmon, others of different shades of green. The areas are further defined by varying brushstrokes—tiny repetitive up-and-down strokes next to circular forms and in the next section, short puddles of paint that create a mottled effect. While it appears to be a commonplace study in perspective, the genius of Pissarro places the view at a slight diagonal and curves the horizon line ever so gently. The farmer following two white horses and the three trees are just window-dressing for this captivating painting based on an abstract pattern.

Pissarro Afield- The Hills at Thierceville

1189 Thierceville Hills

The Hills at Thierceville, 1897, Private Collection PDRS 1189

When Pissarro returned home in mid-July 1897 after two months of caring for his ill son Lucien in London, he painted his garden and the meadow at his Èragny home. One day, he took his easel and walked a mile and a half northwest of Èragny to the hills surrounding the village of Thierceville.

In this place, unlike his enclosed garden and tree-lined meadow, he found complete openness—just the earth and the sky. The only trees were far away. The haystacks on the left suggest that some of the fields had been harvested. But it appears that Pissarro set his easel in the midst of an uncut field.

The long green and yellow brushstrokes fill the foreground beginning at the lower left corner and forming an ascending diagonal line to the right edge. The area with the haystacks is mostly green and horizontal brushstrokes give it an appearance of smoothness. To the right, a shepherd and a flock of sheep occupy a yellow patch of ground that echoes the diagonal beneath it. Surrounding them are other patches of land, dark green, light green, salmon and another patch with long green brushstrokes. In the distance behind the haystacks are rows of dark green trees and other hillsides. The sky reinforces the perspective with tiny clouds just above the distant hills turning into larger more colorful clouds up close.

Though this is a pleasant scene, it offers no dramatic focal point—an important object or person. It teaches no lesson nor does it promote any cause. This is one of those paintings about which Pissarro said, “. . . the eye of the passerby is too hasty and sees only the surface. Whoever is in a hurry will not stop for me.”

So if we are to understand why Pissarro painted this picture as he did, perhaps we should listen to his own words. “I see only spots of color. When I begin a painting, the first thing I try to put down is the accord.” When Pissarro looked at this field, he did not necessarily see fields of grain with haystacks and sheep. He saw blocks of color—robust green brushstrokes set against smoother linear areas in pale green, yellow and salmon. Above that a vivid contrast in texture and color—vigorous circular strokes in shades of white and lavender.

What happens in a painting when color and brushstroke are more important than haystacks and a flock of sheep? If we dare to compare this painting with many of those made half a century later, we might conclude that this painting is close to abstract. Considering it this way, even the most casual observer might be willing to stop and examine it more closely.

PISSARRO – In Paris next February

An exciting new retrospective of Camille Pissarro’s works will be exhibited at the Marmottan Monet Museum in Paris, opening on February 23.  The following is from the Marmottan’s web-site.

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From February 23 to July 2, 2017

The Marmottan Monet Museum presents, from February 23 to July 2, 2017, the first monographic exhibition Camille Pissarro in Paris for 36 years. Some seventy-five of his masterpieces, paintings and temperas, from major museums worldwide and prestigious private collections, tracing the work of Camille Pissarro, from his youth in the Danish West Indies to large series urban of Paris, Rouen and Le Havre at the end of his life. Considered by Cézanne as ” the first Impressionist ” Pissarro was one of the founders of this group. It is also the only one to participate in their eight exhibitions. Companion and faithful friend of Monet, master of Cézanne and Gauguin, Seurat inspirer, supporter of Signac, Pissarro is a major and essential artist. Polyglot intellectual, committed and militant, listening to the younger generation, his work, powerful and evolving, offers a unique view of the research that has animated the Impressionists and Post-circles of the second half of the nineteenth century.



Camille Pissarro’s Birthday – July 10, 1830

The world thinks of Camille Pissarro as an Impressionist.  And indeed, Cezanne called him “The First Impressionist.”  But long before that, Pissarro was a highly skilled artist. This painting, which is the first listed in the catalogue raisonne (Pissarro-Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, 2005), is dated 1852-54 and was painted in Venezuela. [Earlier works may have been destroyed when Pissarro’s house was occupied by enemy troops during the Franco-Prussian War, 1870]  It clearly demonstrates his knowledge of perspective, figure painting and the effect of brilliant sunlight.

1 plaza mayor

Market Scene on the Plaza Mayor, Caracas 1852-54 PDR 1 Presidential residence, La Casona, Caracas

Two decades later Pissarro was at the forefront of the Impressionist movement, creating innovative ways of painting. This painting from 1873 was shown at the first Impressionist exhibition. While it uses the effect of sunlight and the clear colors of Impressionism, it is so much more. We barely see the trees and bushes and man because our eyes are captured by the multitudes of lines and angles and the play of color dividing one section from the other. Specifically, we can’t help seeing the giant X created by lines from the treetop on the left through the bushes at center and continuing along the top of the dark orange section. It is crossed by a line from the tree on the right though the center bush and down the other side of the dark orange section. We do not see this as just a reproduction of early morning frost. We see how paint is used on canvass, the contrast of light blue and orange in a geometric grid. This painting may be called Impressionist, but it is no less than an abstract painting.


Hoar-Frost at Ennery 1873 Musée d’Orsay PDRS 285

At the age of 56, Pissarro was working in the Pointilist style and made this painting near his home in Éragny. The melange of dots placed closely together produce the different colors, but that is not what draws your attention.  The sharp geometric structure create color blocks of yellow and green and blue. It is almost irrelevant that a tiny steam engine is pulling a train into our vision. The shapes look like flat puzzle pieces that fit snugly together. To make sure our eyes stay on the color blocks, Pissarro paints in a neutral cloudy sky above with nothing to distract us from the totally abstract design beneath.


The Dieppe Railway 1886 Philadelphia Museum of Art PDRS 828

In his later years, Pissarro often painted from windows in order to protect his eye which frequently became infected. He spent winters in Paris in various locations. In 1901, he was living at Place Dauphine on the Île de la Citė where he had a splendid view of the Pont -Neuf leading over to the Samaritaine, the large department store on the Right Bank.  The painting is warm and lush with golden sunlight bathing the buildings and reflections in the turquoise water.


The Pont-Neuf, Afternoon, Sunlight (First Series) 1901 Philadelphia Museum of Art PDRS 1351

The buildings, which should suggest substance and mass, look instead like flat theatrical sets. The road, a flowing mass teeming with carriages and pedestrians, is only contained by the side of the bridge with its familiar circular spaces glistening bright white creating a strong diagonal line from the bottom of the canvas to center right. While we can’t see the other side of the bridge, we do see another glistening white horizontal block which almost meets the diagonal of the bridge, drawing our eyes to the Samaritaine. When we get there, however, there is almost nothing to see, a rather shadowy building, less distinct than the others, and not even flying the flags that were customary over Samaritaine.  Just to balance the strong acute angle and give it stability, Pissarro uses the quai across the river to complete the horizontal. However, he diminishes its importance by making it the same color as the building above it and draws our attention to the reflections in the breathtakingly beautiful turquoise water, which cools down all of the buttery yellow blocks and white hot diagonals.

This painting is clearly a scene we recognize, and it still looks the same today (though some of the Samaritaine buildings were reconfigured under a single facade many years ago). Though this picture is clearly representational, something easily recognized, the power of the abstract geometric elements captures our attention. 

Perhaps as we acknowledge Pissarro as the First Impressionist, we should begin to acknowledge the importance of abstract elements in his paintings. Dana Gordon, a New York City artist, said it first and best:

Pissarro traditionally was known as a great landscapist, a translator of nature into art. Pissarro showed that painting’s basic qualities — colors, brushstrokes, materiality, lines, shapes, composition—were meaningful in their own right, and transformed paint into purely visual poetry. He was, in essence, the first abstract artist.

Pissarro – Studing a Rare Early Painting

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Paysage à La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire, 1863 Private collection, PDRS 72


The appearance of a Pissarro painting that has long been in private collections is always exciting.  It is even more compelling when it is an early painting because so few of these exist in Pissarro’s oeuvre. Those who study Pissarro know that in 1870 when Pissarro was 40 years old, the soldiers occupied his home and destroyed nearly everything he had created until then. (He and his family escaped, first to Brittany and then to London, for the duration of the war.)

Recently at the Spring Masters Show in New York, Gallery 19C of Los Angeles exhibited a beautiful early painting by Pissarro. There is no clue as to how this small painting (7 1/2 x 9 3/4”) on a wood panel was saved. If the soldiers had seen it, they probably would have added it to other fuel in the fireplace to heat the large house.

This painting is especially important because it helps track Pissarro’s early development. The works he produced as a young man in St. Thomas and Venezuela demonstrate that he was an accomplished artist and display the sunlight and bright colors he would later incorporate into Impressionism.

Pissarro came to France in 1855, just in time to see the works of Corot, Daubigny, and Courbet at the Exposition Universelle. While these artists were beginning to push against academic art, they still utilized the subdued browns and grays most admired by Salon painters.

Seemingly influenced by their example and probably feeling pressure from his father to enter a painting in the Salon, Pissarro abandoned the vivid reds and bright blues of his Caribbean paintings and began using more subdued colors like the browns, grays and dark greens in this painting. As if he just couldn’t contain himself, however, he paints the roof a bright blue and ties it to the red kerchief on one of the women below with white dabs of paint that might be flowers on the tree.

His inventiveness goes way beyond Corot, Daubigny, and Courbet, however, in the prominence of his brushstrokes and his use of color to create design. There are four basic elements in the painting—the brown earth, the silver blue of the river, the blackish green of the forest, and the gray sky.  The field in the foreground is represented with prominent horizontal brush strokes. The tiny strip of water would be almost indistinguishable except it is set off by small vertical green strokes suggesting foliage on the bank. The forest is composed of black and dark green blotches and the only clue we have that they are trees are the barely visible trunks. Brush strokes are most evident as paint on canvas in the sky where the swirls and globs display the movement of the bristles. The two buildings, constructed with blocks of vertical brushstrokes, are there merely to create perspective in the layers of color.

Imagine if you will that there is no field, no stream or sky, and that what you see are stripes of color separated by two vertical blocks with swirls at the top. It’s not so hard to do.

As a landscape, this is a little treasure—delightful and pleasant to see.  However, once you study it closely, you have to question if that was Pissarro’s intention.  Or did he simply use the  landscape as the basis for making abstract design with paint on canvas? 

Pissarro Painting Returns to Holocaust Survivors



Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep, 1886

It is good news when great paintings remain available to be seen by the people who love them.  In the agreement between the University of Oklahoma and the Holocaust survivor’s family, this incredible painting by Camille Pissarro will remain in museums, rotating between France and Oklahoma. For the full story on the agreement, please see the article in the New York Times. (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/university-of-oklahoma-agrees-to-return-pissarro-painting-looted-by-nazis/)

This painting is not as well known as some of Pissarro’s paintings, but it is extremely interesting for many reasons. Just a year before, Pissarro had been introduced to Paul Signac and then later to Georges Seurat, who was in the process of developing a new scientific way of making paintings by placing tiny dots of contrasting colors close together. None of this was new to Pissarro, who had for several years been experimenting with color division based on the works of Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood.

In this painting, Pissarro uses tiny brushstrokes of varying colors to form the image. For example, look at the woman’s green apron, which includes several shades of green, blue, pink, and even dark blue to form the shadow on the side.

Look at the left side of the painting at the wall between the edge and the door frame. You will find pink, yellow, gray, blue, salmon, and even light green composing the mixture that looks like bright yellow. As early as 1881, well before he met Seurat, Pissarro was using these color techniques to create luminosity in his paintings.

The composition of this painting is most interesting, as well. Everything feels pushed together with the overlapping of the small cottages in the background.  Even the fence to the left of the gate seems to be leaning forward. It feels as though everything in the background is pushing the young woman so that she is almost “bursting” through the gate.  (Incidentally, did you notice the proud rooster behind her?)

The timid sheep, shyly sticking their noses forward, create tension by pushing in the opposite direction. Though you know the woman wants the sheep to come in the gate, you worry that her momentum will just overpower their forward motion. The poor little sheep themselves look more like wooly stuffed toys than real animals. Though we see the young woman’s shape, her facial features are almost nonexistent so we have no sense of her as a real person.

So what was Pissarro really painting? To be sure, it is an interesting picture of an everyday task performed in countless villages in his day. But it is a superb demonstration of the use of a mixture of colors to create light and shadow.  And it is a fascinating study of the push and pull of opposing forms, even when those images tell a different story.  No wonder those who have seen it become attached to it.







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