Archive for December, 2014


LA PLACE DU THEATRE-FRANCAIS ET L'AVENUE DE L'OPERA 1898   PDR 1202 Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rheims, France Ann Saul, left of painting

1898 PDR 1202
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rheims, France
Ann Saul, left of painting

It was a great pleasure to see the exhibition PISSARRO: FATHER OF IMPRESSIONISM at the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, Germany.  This picture shows me with one of my favorite Pissarro painting, the one that is on the cover of my book PISSARRO’S PLACES.

The exhibition is a very large retrospective that thoroughly covers almost every part of Pissarro’s oeuvre with the exception of Pointillism, which is represented by one small painting. It included very early French paintings (none from Venezuela), a few from Pontoise and Louveciennes (some of Osny and Ennery I had never seen), Eragny and a good selection of Rouen, Dieppe, Le Havre, and Paris. I was especially delighted to see the early painting of Julie when she was a young girl from the Ashmolean, probably painted soon after Pissarro met her. He painted her portrait many times during their marriage. There were several flower still lifes and two self-portraits (1870 and 1903).

The Big Pear Tree at Montfoucault 1876 Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland

The Big Pear Tree at Montfoucault
Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland

 Some of the paintings are not ordinarily seen in the US. One of those is this elegant painting of a tree at Montfoucault, the Brittany home of Ludovic Piette where Pissarro and his family frequently visited.  The obvious focal point is the big tree, but your eyes go to the golden ground created by rough brushstrokes of yellow, red, green, orange and coral. The heavy foliage on the big tree is nothing more than large blotches of dark green paint, reflected on the ground as a dark shadow. The odd sky is dark blue on the shadowed side of the tree and cloud filled on the other side. This isolation of this deserted field is tempered by tiny rooftops on a nearby hill.

Each group of Pissarros was paired with paintings by his contemporaries from the museum’s impressive holdings, including those of Corot, Courbet, Daubigny, Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Seurat, Daumier and many others. There were also paintings by Fritz Melbye, Pissarro’s friend in St. Thomas and Venezuela, and Ludovic Piette, his very close friend from Montfoucault.

There seemed to be twice as many works on paper (drawings, prints, etchings, watercolors) as paintings. Both the Musée Pissarro (Pontoise, France) and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, England) sent generous selections to show alongside the large collection in the museum. One especially interesting drawing shows a village behind a screen of trees, with the artist’s handwritten notes on colors to use in a future painting.

Seeing this comprehensive group of Pissarro’s paintings, it is easy to see that he was much more than an Iimpressionist. For more on the Wuppertal exhibition, please see my review in the New York Sun:


La Place du Théâtre Français 1898   PDR 1208 Los Angeles Count Museum of Art

La Place du Théâtre Français
1898 PDR 1208
Los Angeles Count Museum of Art

The exhibition at Wuppertal, Germany, “Pissarro, Father of Impressionism,” is an extensive retrospective of Pissarro’s lifework, including a wide selection of paintings and works on paper from his earliest days as an artist. This painting, “La Place du Théâtre Français,” is one of several he painted during a long stay at the Hotel du Louvre from December 1898 to Spring 1899.It was about this time of year—the leaves were off the trees and people were bundled up in coats and hats.

Pissarro had the capacity to focus closely, and it served him well during this painting expedition. Paris was sharply divided over the Dreyfus Affair. Earlier that year, Émile Zola had published his famous letter “J’accuse,” which had incited public demonstrations. At night, anti-Semitic mobs were filling the streets, and as a Jew, Pissarro may have been in danger. Some of his colleagues and dear friends turned against him, including Renoir, Degas, and Cézanne. Through it all, he calmly painted the daytime scenes, portraying business as usual.

From his suite of rooms on the front of the Hotel Louvre, he had an excellent view straight down the Avenue de l’Opera to the fashionable new Opera Garnier. He did not usually paint famous sites or important buildings, and in the ten paintings he made of that street, the magnificent building is barely visible.

In this painting, he ignores the street and buildings to concentrate on the busy, traffic-filled intersection directly in front of the hotel. There is no horizon line, no sky, not even edges to the painting. The traffic literally runs off the canvas. Traffic is going in every direction with no regulations apparent. Pedestrians walk in the middle of the street among carriages, wagons full of produce and filled omnibuses. Pissarro gives order to the scene, using the largest omnibus to anchor the composition on the lower edge.

As he does sometimes, Pissarro uses the tallest tree to divide the canvas. On the right is a large pedestrian island and a small red building. Behind that and near the top of the canvas are white columns that indicate the presence of a large building. To the left of the tree is the helter-skelter of heavy traffic, regulated slightly by the small circle holding the tall street light and a larger circle at the top of the canvas with a fountain.

The whole scene looks like miniature figures on a tilted table, almost as if they are sliding into our lap. To emphasize the motion, Pissarro created a line on the street beginning at left corner and extending to the head of the brown horse pulling the omnibus. To the right, the street is lighter compared to the left. Is there a shadow on the street? There is no way to know because we can see neither the sky nor the buildings that might be blocking the sun.

If a contemporary artist made a painting like that today, we would call it an all-over abstract painting. It goes beyond the canvas edges on every side and it tells no story. This is another example of how far ahead of his time Pissarro was. The techniques he developed more than a hundred years ago now seem very ordinary to us, and we forget that he was such a radical and inventive artist.


Landscape at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire c. 1864  PDR 94 Kunstmuseum Bern Bern, Switzerland

Landscape at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire
c. 1864 PDR 94
Kunstmuseum Bern
Bern, Switzerland

This tiny painting (approximately 9.5 inches by 12.5 inches) is another one that is part of the Pissarro exhibition at Wuppertal, Germany.  I am especially interested in studying these early paintings closely because they clearly demonstrate that very early in his career, Pissarro was breaking the generally accepted rules and painting in a way that was different.  He was, in fact, as interested in the paint on the surface of the canvas as he was in the motif.  This thinking was radical for his time.

Southeast of Paris, the Marne River makes a big loop and La Varenne-Saint Hilaire is one of the little villages along the riverside. Pissarro made many paintings in this area in the early 1860s. This is no ordinary landscape. From the right front of the canvas, the road leads directly to the center and meets the river, which continues out of view because of the tall house on the right.  If we imagine that the house isn’t there and we can see the river cutting across the full canvas, the road leading toward the river is perpendicular and forms a T shape.  Beyond the river on the left, the hills slope gently down forming an angle which ends on the right side at the big block-shaped house.  It is a study in geometric shapes that Pissarro filled with different colors and various brushstrokes.  I can’t wait to see those brushstrokes up close and find out if they are all brushstrokes or if he used the palette knife as well.


A Creek with Palm Trees 1856  PDR 16 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

A Creek with Palm Trees
1856 PDR 16
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

This wonderful painting by Pissarro lives in Washington, DC., and I live just a train ride away in Philadelphia.  Yet I am going to see it for the first time in Germany at the exhibition, “Pissarro, Father of Impressionism,” at the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal. It is rarely on view at NGA because they generally show a similar painting, “Two Women Chatting by the Sea,” (PDR 23) which is more familiar. Both were painted by Pissarro shortly after he left St. Thomas to live in France for the rest of his life to be an artist.

The Critical Catalogue (2005) tells us why Pissarro was still painting pictures of St. Thomas. His son, Ludovic-Rodo wrote that one of Pissarro’s friends was trying to sell them in the Lille area. At that time, pictures of exotic places were very popular in Europe.

1856 was almost 20 years before the First Impressionist  Exhibition, yet this painting has distinct characteristics of Impressionism. No wonder they called Pissarro the Father of Impressionism.  It is all about the light and the atmosphere.

Can’t wait to see this along with 60 other oil paintings and dozens of drawings by Pissarro next Thursday and Friday at Wuppertal, Germany.


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