This stunning painting, The Village Screened by Trees, (1869) seems so simple, yet it is an enigma. There is a village bathed in the crisp clear sunlight of autumn. We long to hurry through the trees to see it more clearly. But Pissarro holds us back and forces us to take a more complicated view. A thick stand of tall trees creates a screen that blocks our sight line and demands our attention. This is the first of Pissarro’s paintings to use this unique device in composition.
Some of Pissarro’s earlier paintings were similar to those of Corot in that they used rows or groups of trees to frame the view. This painting, however, does the opposite—the trees obstruct the view, forcing our eyes to wander in an out of the spindly tree trunks to piece together our view of the village. Years later, Pissarro took this device to the extreme in his painting La Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise (1877) with a screen of trees that covers the entire canvas.
We could ask why Pissarro did this, but there is no answer. What we do know is that most Impressionist paintings have a clear focal point, and the picture’s elements are arranged so that the motif is easily understood. This composition of this picture does the opposite. In 1869, five years before the First Impressionist Exhibition, Pissarro’s concept of forcing the viewer to look through a screen was totally radical.
This painting presents other puzzles as well. Most landscapes are horizontal in shape, but this one is vertical, which easily accommodates the tall trees. While the actual date of the painting is unknown, it has been placed at 1869, the year Pissarro moved to Louveciennes. Scholars say that the actual village is unknown since its particular topography does not appear to match Pissarro’s other views of either Louveciennes or Pontoise.
However, Pissarro points the way through the screen. Directly in front of us is a walkway leading to the village and a smaller path branching off to the right. Together, they form a strong V that anchors the composition. Just to be sure we don’t miss it, Pissarro places a small figure of a woman in the angle. He repeats this angle in the limbs of the tree just above her head and again in the background with the two sections of wall leading into the picture from each side.
While some might think this painting somewhat bland compared with other works of its time, it is, in fact, highly sophisticated and experimental. Perhaps if so many of Pissarro’s paintings of this period had not been lost in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-18871), he would be correctly recognized as the artist who was far ahead of his time.