A Puzzle to Mid-Nineteenth Century Eyes…Still Puzzling Now

Hoar-Frost at Ennery

1873 Musée d’Orsay, Paris  PDR 285


One cold winter morning, Pissarro carried his easel directly north of Pontoise to the fields of nearby Ennery. The painting he made there, Hoar-Frost at Ennery, was shown in the first exhibition of the Impressonists at Nadar’s studio in Paris in 1874.

Responses from some of the art critics of the time were extremely harsh. One critic pointed out what was considered one of the most serious mistakes of that era, showing shadows on the ground of trees that are not in the picture. Another proclaimed that the painting had “neither head nor tail, neither top nor bottom, neither front nor back.”

Even to our eyes, the painting is dramatically different from other Impressionist paintings. This is no Sisley landscape with reflections in the river or Monet haystacks. Those are simple to understand. At first glance, this painting seems commonplace with the horizon line two-thirds of the way to the top. But below that is an extremely complex composition. The only familiar reference points are the bare trees and the peasant. Two-thirds of the painting is a patchwork of colors crisscrossed by parallel lines with a dark green anchor near the center. The work could be that of a contemporary abstract artist.

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