PISSARRO AT THE MUSÉE D’ORSAY

291 Hill at l'Hermitage 1873

Hill at l’Hermitage, 1873, PDRS 291, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

When is a painting more abstract than Impressionist? Camille Pissarro answers that question in this painting, currently on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  It is an “allover” painting that covers the canvas and spills out over the sides. The horizon is so high that it virtually eliminates the fragment of hazy blue-grey sky.

The focal point, if you can call it that, is the large house, flat as a signboard, on the left. It fights for attention with the intense green blocks of grass in the foreground and the curved stripes of green spouting out of its roof. Behind it are other flattened rooftops stretching across the field to a tall structure with many windows. In the foreground is what must be a road covered with green diagonal slash marks. Two scraggly trees do little to soften the many angles. The peasant man struggling up the hill is so realistic that he seems out of place in this abstract arrangement.

What was probably a small cluster of common hillside dwellings on a dreary day became an intriguing arrangement of paint on canvas as seen through Pissarro’s sensations.

In July 1872, Cézanne moved near to Pissarro’s home in Pontoise, and the two artists worked side-by-side on a daily basis for almost two years. He must have seen this painting by Pissarro, and it may have inspired him to seek motifs with similar geometric possibilities. The Hanged Man’s House, Auvers-sur-Oise (1873) is replete with opposing diagonals set against the strong perpendiculars of two tree trunks and the right edge of the house. He uses a strong curve on the right to indicate the steep descent of the path. However, Cézanne did not adopt Pissarro’s flattening of structures and elimination of perspective. His houses have volume making them more realistic, and the hazy hills suggest distance in a very traditional way.

Cezanne Hanged Man's House

Paul Cézanne, The Hanged Man’s House, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1873, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

At this time, the Musée d’Orsay provides a unique opportunity to compare these two paintings. A large wall in the Impressionist galleries contains a row of six Pissarro paintings.  In the center beside Pissarro’s Hill at l’Hermitage hangs Cézanne’s The Hanged Man’s House. It pays tribute to Pissarro’s role in Cézanne’s artistic development. Describing the interactions between the two artists, Joseph Rishel, art historian and Cézanne expert wrote, “Pissarro’s influence on Cézanne cannot be overestimated.”[1]

My new book ABSTRACT PISSARRO compares these two paintings.  Watch this space for the upcoming publication date.

[1] Cachin et al., Cézanne, 378. 

ABSTRACT PISSARRO, the first investigation of abstract elements in the paintings of Camille Pissarro will be published in coming months. 

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