“Unloading a Barge, Sunset” (PDR 85) is an incredible painting, even in a photograph. Painted about 1864, it is one of the few survivors of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) during which thousands of Pissarro’s artworks were destroyed. We can only wonder how many other beautiful canvases were lost.
At first glance, we are reminded of the painting that gave Impressionism its name, Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (1872). Pissarro made this painting eight years before Monet’s painting and ten years before the First Impressionist Exhibition. It is possible that Monet saw this painting by Pissarro in Louveciennes when they painted together before the War.
Even at this early stage in his career (Pissarro had come to Paris only nine years earlier), the artist was making his own rules. The standards for art during those days was set by the French Academy in their annual Salon exhibitions. Their mandates were clear: important topics, historical or mythical; smooth finish, no visible brushstrokes; giant canvases suitable for public buildings, and more. This painting defies every dictum.
The focal point is clear—a dark, shadowy barge in the foreground, its mast pointing our eyes to the top of the canvas. It depicts a workaday scene, a man pushing a wheelbarrow down the gangplank unloading goods. On the other side, a man standing in a small skiff works with someone on deck. At the right edge, a small white sailboat describes the width of the river and emphasizes the painting’s strong asymmetrical composition. The painting is tiny by any standards, approximately 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches.
Unlike most of Pissarro’s later paintings, the title of this one does not indicate the location. But the type of boat and width of the river suggest that the location could be somewhere on the Seine River near Paris. Pissarro had made other paintings of barges at La Roche Guyon, a village near Giverny, and this might be the scene, but with the background subsumed in blue-grey shadows, it is impossible to know for sure.
The boat and all the figures are mere silhouettes against the sunset, brilliantly depicted with bold brushstrokes and heavy impasto, paint layered on as thick as butter on toast. The brilliance of the sun is masterful, created with a cool pale yellow which we see as white hot. Its heat tinges the nearby clouds with rose, coral and pale pink fading gradually into the darker blue of the overcast sky. In the dark water, shimmers of white and gold and red surround the dark reflection of the barge.
Many artists would have moved beyond the barge to give the sunset and the glimmering water the most emphasis. But Pissarro forces us to look at the boat first and makes our eyes work to get beyond it to the colors in the sky. A radical composition and a true treasure.
Many readers from this blog are from Germany—there are at least two today! Over the past few months, 348 views have been from Germany. If you are one of those, or if you are from Belgium, France, or any nearby country, you might be interested in this Pissarro exhibition!
PISSARRO, FATHER OF IMPRESSIONISM
Von der Heydt Museum
Until February 22, 2015
The exhibition contains nearly 60 paintings by Pissarro and an even larger number of his works on paper—drawings, etchings, prints, wood block prints and all types of media. They are paired with a large number of paintings by other painters of that time, most notably paintings by Fritz Melbye, who went with Pissarro to Venezuela, and Ludovic Piette, his very close friend and owner of Montfoucault, a large farm in Brittany where Pissarro and his family visited frequently.
There are also paintings and drawings by such artists as Corot, Daubigny, Courbet, Manet, Gauguin, Monet, Sisley, Signac, Cézanne, Seurat, and other painters contemporary with Pissarro.
There are many early paintings and paintings from private collections on view that I have never seen. I am going to see the exhibition in early December. If you are in Germany and plan to see the exhibition, let me know. (firstname.lastname@example.org)