The 24-year old artist who painted Landscape with Women under Large Tree around 1854-55 is the very same one who painted Market Scene on the Plaza Mayor, Caracas, featured in the previous post.
The differences in the two paintings are obvious. Market Scene is highly realistic, with hard edges and bright clear colors. The campanile of the cathedral of Santiago in the background is accurate in detail. The cloudless sky is a deep blue, fading just a bit as it touches the rooftops. The rider’s red coat is carefully modeled to give form to his body. The reflection of the brilliant sun on the white awning contrasts with deep shadows that blur the profiles of the two women. The painting is an intentional representation of an actual scene.
The landscape featured in this post could hardly be more different. The painting is a blend of greens, oranges and browns, with only the cloudy sky for escape. The immense tree almost disappears into the mountains behind it. We would not know where the tree ends and the ground begins were it not for the figures that may or may not be women. Their forms are simply a few blobs of white paint with touches of red complimenting the greens. Our eyes, searching for something recognizable, see an umbrella in the horizontal stroke and believe it is held by a woman.
The detail (below) from the center of the tree reveals the artist’s brushwork. (These details were taken from a photograph and only suggest what could be seen on the original painting.) Pissarro used small groups of diagonal strokes to construct the tree. Just above the spiky white form at the bottom, we see groups of light green diagonal strokes and nearby a patch of orange strokes. To the left, larger fatter strokes call attention to a dark area that creates a negative space. Nowhere in this painting do we see a realistic leaf or group of leaves, only groups of brushstrokes. The strokes depicting the treetop silhouetted against the sky are so thin that they virtually dissolve into the gray-white clouds. Near the center top of the trees, some bare limbs are outlined in white. This is the primary clue that the brown, green and orange form might be a tree.
Pissarro traveled to Venezuela with his friend Fritz Melbye, who painted native scenes in which different types of trees, bushes and vines can be identified. Pissarro also made some paintings like that as shown in Tropical Forest, Galipan.
What then was Pissarro’s intent in painting the tree? Clearly, it was not a painting of the women since they are indistinguishable. He obviously was not recording botanical elements since there are no details of the foliage.
Pissarro downplayed the reality of the scene in order to call attention to the paint—the brushstrokes themselves, the groups of strokes used to construct the forms, the subtle variations in colors—dark greens, medium greens, light gray-greens, burnt orange. If you forget the tree, you see dark spaces invaded on the right by light tans and on the left by light greens.
Look again at the detail above and you see abstract painting similar to that created in the 1950s. Remember: this was 1854-55; Pissarro was only 24 years old, had not yet moved to Paris, and Impressionism was 20 years in the future.