This elegant painting by Pissarro, which appeared in the Salon of 1866, must have looked very different from the others. It drew the attention of critics, one of whom called it a “vulgar view.” We know that Pissarro lived nearby. After he died, this picture was included in the inventory of his works and was called Landscape at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire. He and his companion Julie were living there the previous spring, when their first daughter Jeanne Rachel was born.
But why this scene, which is so bleak, so empty? It is intriguing because of its mystery—it does not tell a story, does not pamper the eye. It is a tightly-woven geometric structure of horizontal and diagonal lines that pulls you into its web. Anchoring the painting is the straight line beginning with the river bank on the left of the canvas and meeting what we assume is a road with the horse and carriage, then extends through the smattering of houses to the right edge. In the midst of the dark green ground cover, a shorter line of dark earth extends to the right side. Midway up the mountain just below the white house on the crest of the hill is another dark line, presumably a road.
These three more or less parallel lines are slashed by the strong diagonal road leading from the left lower corner, accentuated by spindly leafless trees. A woman walks the other direction to draw our attention to the carriage with white horses at the corner. There are other diagonals, softer ones—the line of trees from the crest of the hill to a house below and a renegade dark line in the clouds above.
For Pissarro, it was enough. And for Emile Zola, a writer and art critic who was seeing Pissarro’s work for the first time, it also was enough. He wrote a long glowing review of the painting including the following comments: “…you ought to know that you please nobody and that your painting is thought to be too bare, too black. So why the devil do you have the arrant awkwardness to paint solidly and study nature so honestly!…Not the least delectation for the eye. A grave and austere kind of painting, an extreme care for truth and rightness, an iron will. You are a clumsy blunderer, sir —you are an artist that I like.”
Looking at a Pissarro painting is not always easy—he requires us to think, to look closely and to question what we see. This is why his paintings are endlessly interesting.
The quote from Zola is taken from Pissarro:Critical Catalogue, Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005).
This painting is one of 35 paintings by Pissarro featured in the book PISSARRO’S PLACES www.pissarrosplaces.com
AUTHOR’S NOTE: One winter day while returning on the train from Reims to Paris, I saw a line of hills that looked strikingly familiar, and even more so because of a bright green ground cover of some sort that extended from the railroad tracks to some houses. I quickly checked the GPS of my phone and found, much to my surprise, I was in the very area painted by Pissarro!