Pissarro’s Early Abstract Painting

119 L'Hermitage at Pontoise 1867

L’Hermitage at Pontoise. 1867. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany. PDRS 119.

In 1867, Pissarro had been back in Paris for twelve years, and several of his paintings had been accepted by the Salon. The group that would become known as the Impressionists were already acquainted and discussing their work.  Pissarro had been experimenting for several years with various innovative techniques and had produced many paintings that would have been seen as radical at that time. This is one of those paintings, produced seven years before the first Impressionist Exhibition.

In 1903, Pissarro explained how he saw only color, saying, “I can see only patches (of color). When I start off a painting, the first thing I strive to catch is its harmonic form [l’accord]. Between that sky and that ground and that water there is necessarily a link. It can only be a set of harmonies [relation d’accords], and this is the ultimate hardship with painting.”

In L’Hermitage at Pontoise (1867) [PDRS 119], Pissarro used color to create the shapes and forms on the canvas instead of drawing outlines. He painted those patches of color with no shadows or modeling, so they appear to be flat on the canvas. This is especially apparent in the houses, which appear to have no volume at all. The curving fields on the hillside look like flat trapezoidal color blocks. Increasing that sense of flatness, the colors at the top of the hill which should be farthest away, are just as intense as those in the foreground, causing the background to push forward. Pissarro created a slight sense of recession by overlapping the houses.  Only in the foreground is there any indication of perspective. Everything behind that—the houses and hillside—are as flat as theatrical scenery. He was creating a new way of painting—one which called attention to the paint on the canvas rather than the picture.

Only in the foreground is there any indication of perspective. Everything behind that—the houses and hillside—are as flat as theatrical scenery. He was creating a new way of painting—one which called attention to the paint on the canvas rather than the picture.

This is a very early painting that demonstrates how Pissarro was using radical elements in his paintings. These elements are familiar to us today and we call them “abstract.”

Reference for quote: Richard R. Brettell and Joachim Pissarro. The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro’s Series Paintings. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. 1992, p xxxix.

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