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Remembering Camille Pissarro–Looking Closely

#Pissarro #Impressionism #AbstractPissarro #Gauguin #Sotheby’s #Originality #Art #Visiblebrushstrokes #Landscapes #Unconventional #Haystacks #

718 Landscape with Haystacks 1883 copy

As we celebrate the life and extraordinary art of Camille Pissarro on this day, we are challenged to take a new and fresh look at his work. For Pissarro, art demanded no less than the “whiplash of originality,” (his words).1 The paintings we see most often and remember are frequently those that conform with our idea of Impressionism. But Pissarro was not bound by any rules or standards. Even while he was inventing Impressionism, he was investigating techniques unthinkable at that time—no narrative, no focal point, lack of perspective, visible brushstrokes, flattened structures, and nontraditional composition.

His painting, Landscape with Haystacks, Osny, 1883 [PDRS 718], shows how Pissarro looked at an ordinary motif and created an unconventional painting that defies tradition with its tightly woven brushstrokes in colors almost Fauvist, nearly unrecognizable forms that seem to melt into the background, and the opposition of sharp diagonal lines. Truly, a masterpiece, radical for its time and even now.

His genius was not lost on Paul Gauguin, who according to Sotheby’s,2 was the first owner of the painting. Sotheby’s also points out that this painting by Pissarro foreshadows Monet’s haystacks painted in 1891, which are more traditional in composition and execution.

To properly honor Pissarro, we must look closely at all of his works, not just those easy to understand, and appreciate the immensity of his creativity and inventiveness. There is much more to be learned from Camille Pissarro.

 1 John Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien, p. 323.

2 Sotheby’s website:



#Pissarro #HarvestingPotatoesPontoise #1874 #Pontoise #Abstract #Cézanne #Constructiviststroke #artestablishment #Impressionism #FirstImpressionistExhibition #brushstrokes #boldcolors #AbstractPissarro

The Harvest of Potatoes, Pontoise, 1874 (oil on canvas)

Harvesting Potatoes, Pontoise, 1874, Private collection, PDRS 360

Harvesting Potatoes, Pontoise (1874) is not an easy painting. Though it was made the same year as the First Impressionist Exhibition, it has few of the characteristics normally associated with Impressionism. It blatantly confronts us with its bold colors and conspicuous brushstrokes. If it is challenging to our eyes today, imagine how it must have looked 135 years ago!

At that time, there were no words to describe what Pissarro did in this painting. The motif is banal—nothing picturesque or important in the scene. There is no real focal point; the bright colors and visible brushstrokes pull our eye in every direction. The most familiar-looking details, the houses, are flattened against the hill.

The Harvest of Potatoes, Pontoise, 1874 (oil on canvas)

The figures, especially the kneeling woman in the foreground, are simply brushstrokes.


Instead of receding, the distant hills advance in bold colors applied in the up-down brushstroke that Cézanne would later adopt as his “constructivist” stroke.

The Harvest of Potatoes, Pontoise, 1874 (oil on canvas)

The paint on the canvas, the colors, the brushstrokes are all combined in this masterpiece of materiality.

The same techniques used by Pissarro in 1874 to make this sensational painting are being used by artists today. Back then, there was no name to describe them.  Today we recognize these techniques as abstract. Though this painting was never sold, Pissarro kept it.* Pissarro had thrown down the gauntlet, and academic art would never again be the same.

The painting remained with the artist during his lifetime and was inherited by his son Lucien. It was first shown in an exhibition well after Pissarro’s death in 1910 in Germany. (Pissarro: Critical Cataogue, 2005)

 Harvesting Potatoes, Pontoise is featured on the cover of the new book Abstract Pissarro which is available on Amazon.

Pissarro–Looking Beyond the Obvious

350 Landscape, Bright Sunlight, Pontoise 1874

Landscape, Bright Sunlight, Pontoise, 1874, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, PDRS 350

Pissarro’s landscapes can be deceptive. To the casual viewer, this painting looks pleasant but hardly exciting. The colors—harmonious shades of green and blue are lovely, but there is no red, no orange to grab the eye. The scene includes a man on a horse and a woman with a little girl, but no interaction. In fact, they are going opposite directions. The background of trees and houses seem to push forward instead of receding.


Our eyes are drawn to the patch of sunlight—not bright yellow, but pale peach streaked with purple shadows. Once again, Pissarro focuses our attention on the center of the painting where there is nothing at all of importance—a painting with no real focal point, where every element is equal. This is a device that Pissarro uses frequently, creating an all-over effect (an abstract device) in what appears to be a traditional landscape.


Pissarro, the master of composition, uses the shadows to create a series of diagonal lines that continue through the grasses in the lower left corner. The tree trunks that dominate the right side lean heavily to the left. If they were to fall over, they would follow the lines of the shadows into the grass. The strong horizontal of the road with its perpendicular path counters the heaviness of the diagonals.


This painting is also a virtuosic display of brushwork. The grasses are quick up-and-down strokes in various shades of green.


At the base of the tree trunk are mere touches of paint with no effort to shape them into leaves.


The figures on the right are merely streaks of paint—no more than a dozen visible brushstrokes and no defined face. Yet Pissarro arranges those rough marks in a way that causes us to see a woman and child.

IMG-1990 - Copy

 While this landscape may seem traditional, its radical composition and brushwork reveal Pissarro’s highly innovative techniques. It is often the less obvious paintings that offer the most surprises.


#Pissarro #CamillePissarro #Impressionism #Landscape #Pontoise #AvantGarde #Shadows #FrenchCountryside #Diagonals #All-OverPainting #MasterfulComposition  #ArtInnovator #Oiloncanvas #AbstractTechnique #RadicalBrushwork #NoFocalPoint #AbstractPissarro #ArtLovers #ArtStudents #PissarroFans #ArtHistory #1874


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 ABSTRACT PISSARRO — now available on Amazon


One of the reviews of ABSTRACT PISSARRO

It was not for nothing that Paul Cezanne called himself a “pupil of Pissarro”. Now, finally! – – an author who approaches Camille Pissarro as the brilliant quiet revolutionary he was. In 2030, we will celebrate the Master’s two hundredth birthday. Problem is, history has doffed a respectful hat to Pissarro without acknowledging that his Mastery – – – and his abiding influence on so many others – – – helped birth not only Impressionism but the abstract values that presaged the wrenching directions of twentieth century expression. Beatifully produced with gorgeous illustrations, Saul’s book is graciously written, with comparative analysis that is fiercely independent, accessible and unexceptionable. A must-have volume that reshapes our thinking about Pissarro and modern art.
                                                                                                 Marshall Portnoy

Pissarro’s 189th Birthday-July 10th: A Personal Note

488 La Cote des Boeufs

Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise, 1877, The National Gallery, London, PDRS 488


Many people have asked how I came to write my book ABSTRACT PISSARRO. It all started with this painting, Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise. Many years ago, when I first began studying Pissarro, I found this painting puzzling.  Books and exhibition catalogs had taught me that Impressionist paintings include a picturesque (pretty) scene, bright colors, and a clear focal point. This painting had none of those characteristics, and I could not figure it out.


A few years later, I found myself in front of a painting by Jackson Pollock, whose work I had never before liked. I began to understand the use of colors in layers that made my eye weave in and out of the pattern, never resting, and finally accepting the “overall” composition as a whole.


For the first time, I understood Pissarro’s Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise. Pissarro was doing the same thing in 1877 that Pollock did in the 1950s. Then I discovered similarities between another Pissarro painting and a Rothko. The most amazing comparison was Pissarro with Picasso—two paintings that are incredibly similar, both with obvious cubist characteristics. My search for the abstract in Pissarro’s paintings was on; there was no turning back. The result is my book ABSTRACT PISSARRO.


In Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise, there is no focal point—no church, no bridge, nor bank of flowers. The background is blocked by a hill and the houses are virtually hidden by a screen of tall trees, forcing the eye to work through a maze. The trees are obviously not the focal point because all the viewer sees is their cropped middle portion. Most of the treetops are cut off by the upper edge of the canvas, and their roots are hidden by scrubby bushes. Indeed, there is no focal point at all. Obviously, Pissarro meant the viewer to see the overall painting—together as one unit made up of linear, abstract elements—forcing the eye to wander without guidance in and out of the trees, through the houses, and up the hill to the sky. Though the motif suggests depth, the intensity of the colors pushes the background forward, flattening the perspective and making the view appear shallower than one would imagine. In History of Art, Janson called this a “surprisingly abstract composition.”1


Enchanted Forest, 1947 (oil on canvas)

Jackson Pollock, Enchanted Forest, 1947, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice

In Pollock’s Enchanted Forest, thin painted swirls resemble Pissarro’s curvaceous tree branches. The underlying layers are warm earth tones dotted with small thin splashes of rusty red. The upper layers are a tangle of green, beige, and black arches and curves, which forms an effective screen. As with the Pissarro, there is no focal point. The eye wanders restlessly in and out of the swirls and beneath the various layers to locate the painting, which can only really be seen in its totality.


In 1955, Clement Greenberg gave this phenomenon the name “allover” painting,2 and Abstract Expressionists used the technique to banish representational painting. Eighty years earlier, Pissarro was already using allover painting with no focal point. In fact, allover painting became a feature of many of Pissarro’s landscapes and cityscapes.


Though Pissarro was the first to use many of the artistic elements we know today as abstract, he has never been properly recognized for the seminal role he played in the creation of modern art. ABSTRACT PISSARRO was written to set the record straight.




1. H. W. Janson, History of Art, 5th ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 706.


2. Clemenet Greenberg, ” ‘American-Type’ Painting,” Partisan Review 22, no. 2 (1955): 179-96.


blvd montmartre

Boulevard Montmartre, Twilight, 1897, Private collection, PDRS 1170

When the gavel dropped on June 19, 2019 at Sotheby’s London Impressionist sales, Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Twilight sold for the amazing sum of 7,145,900 GBP, equivalent in American dollars to $9,077,790. 


Many of the paintings Pissarro made during his Paris expedition from February 10 to about April 25, 1897 depict cloudy, overcast, or rainy weather. But in this painting, strong sunlight paints a broad swathe of pinkish gold diagonally across the boulevard, complimentary to the lavender shadows beyond. The rows of Haussmann apartments on the right, usually gray, are tinged with gold, and the brick chimneys are rosy in broad sunlight. The trees lining both sides of the boulevard are leafing out in the tender delicate green of early spring. Even the sky, tinges of pink among the blue, reflects the late afternoon sun.


Because we know this scene so well, whether from experience or from photographs, our eyes tend to fill in what the painter chose not delineate. The brushstrokes are, in fact, mere suggestions with virtually no detail at all. Certain segments of the painting, when isolated, look almost abstract.


1           2

Of the 16 paintings Pissarro did during this expedition, the art dealer Durand-Ruel bought 12 of them. This painting was one that he bought. Pissarro’s painting of the same scene at night during a heavy rainstorm, Boulevard Montmartre, Night Effect, is virtually abstract with colors and shapes dissolving into reflections. Durand-Ruel did not buy that one. Perhaps he thought it too avant-garde for his clients. It is now one of Pissarro’s most loved paintings.

The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897 (oil on canvas)

Boulevard Montmartre, Night Effect, 1897, The National Gallery, London, PDRS 1168 


In time for Pissarro’s 189th birthday

on July 10th

cover for blog

“Abstract Pissarro sheds new light on Camille Pissarro’s innovative and rich painting techniques, highlighting in unparalleled words his role in the birth of modern art. Ann Saul explores, in depth, Pissarro’s continual experimentation and adaptation of new ideas and lays out how artists to this day have continued to be inspired by his work. This book provides a radical and fresh look at art history.

—Joachim Pissarro, art historian and great-grandson of Camille Pissarro

“Ann Saul has a very strong knowledge of the artist’s life and œuvre and a very accurate and sensitive eye.”

—Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, art historian and great-great-granddaughter of Paul Durand-Ruel

Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts are co-authors of Pissarro: Catalogue Critique des Peintures (2005).

ABSTRACT PISSARRO questions what we believe about Pissarro as an Impressionist and shows how he, in fact, planted the seeds for abstract art in his rebellion against the Paris Salon. The radical innovations he introduced are evident in paintings of the Abstract Expressionists and contemporary abstract painters today.

ABSTRACT PISSARRO is now available on Amazon. For more information or to order a copy from the author, write:









Abstract Pissarro in 1865


103 Banks of the Marne at Chennevieres 1865

Banks of the Marne at Chennevières, c. 1865, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh [PDRS 103]

To appreciate a Pissarro landscape, you first have to get over the fact that it looks like a landscape. Later, after seeing everything else that is there, you will be amazed that it does look like a landscape.   Dana Gordon, abstract artist, New York City1

Those words provide an apt description of Pissarro’s beautiful 1865 painting Banks of the Marne at Chennevières. A picturesque scene like this would ordinarily suggest a narrative or storyline. Instead, Pissarro created a canvas that displays an array of artistic techniques that were totally unacceptable at that time. He used the palette knife to forcefully  spread thick impasto on the canvas. The houses are just slabs of paint sitting on the flat canvas surface. The reflections in the water are mere suggestions of the village. Pissarro constructed trees with back-and-forth strokes, the “constructive” stroke that Cezanne would later adapt, and grasses with thick, heavy streaks of paint. The tiny boat crossing the river is too insignificant to be a focal point, which leaves the painting without a narrative.

Pissarro used this scene to describe three distinct abstract shapes—the bright sky layer at the top; the dark center section including the village, the mountain, and the dark part of the water; and the light reflective band of the water. The darker center section creates a “negative” space in this abstract composition. This effect demonstrates that Pissarro was focusing on forms and the surface of the canvas, revealing movements of the paintbrush and palette knife. The landscape merely provided a design pattern for his unconventional execution. Joachim Pissarro said of this painting: “In fact, his treatment of much of the landscape and the buildings moved very close to abstraction.” 2

1 Dana Gordon, “The Moses of Modernism,” unpublished manuscript (2005).

2 Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), 48.

Taken from the new book ABSTRACT PISSARRO. For more information,

#CPissarro #Pissarro #AbstractPissarro #abstract #DanaGordon #Marne #Cezanne #paletteknife #impasto


cover for blog


“Abstract Pissarro sheds new light on Camille Pissarro’s innovative and rich painting techniques, highlighting in unparalleled words his role in the birth of modern art. Ann Saul explores, in depth, Pissarro’s continual experimentation and adaptation of new ideas and lays out how artists to this day have continued to be inspired by his work. This book provides a radical and fresh look at art history.

—Joachim Pissarro, art historian and great-grandson of Camille Pissarro

“Ann Saul has a very strong knowledge of the artist’s life and œuvre and a very accurate and sensitive eye.”

—Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, art historian and great-great-granddaughter of Paul Durand-Ruel

Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts are co-authors of Pissarro: Catalogue Critique des Peintures (2005).

ABSTRACT PISSARRO questions what we believe about Pissarro as an Impressionist and shows how he, in fact, planted the seeds for abstract art in his rebellion against the Paris Salon. The radical innovations he introduced are evident in paintings of the Abstract Expressionists and contemporary abstract painters today.

ABSTRACT PISSARRO will be available on Amazon in coming weeks. For more information or to order a copy now, write:





70 Village Scene, Wome Chatting c. 1863-INT

Village Scene, Women Chatting, 1863, Private Collection PDRS 70

At first glance, the painting Village Scene, Women Chatting (1863) seems like an ordinary street with people and chickens scattered about the canvas. But Pissarro used the bright ray of sunlight to call attention to the structures, appearing as a series of color blocks. The large yellow house has no real door, only a slit, and one tiny window. Together with the wall, it forms a long rectangle that extends beyond the canvas edge. The building on the left has blocks of gray and red with large doors bisected by a diagonal line separating light and shadow. That shadow, together with the left side of the peaked roof, forms a long diagonal ending at the top of the small white block. The gray building with a pointed top should create depth. Instead, it almost overlaps the structure on the left.

These flattened forms, jammed together and set against an indeterminate background, fill the canvas, leaving little room for the sky. The foreground is dominated by a large, dark shadow, its intensity conveyed by the white and black chickens.

The women are mere brushstrokes; it is hard to tell if there are three or four. Pissarro took an ordinary scene and used its innate geometrical shapes to make an assertive statement about form and color.


This post is taken from the new book ABSTRACT PISSARRO, which investigates abstract elements in Pissarro’s work, dating from the earliest paintings.  The book will be available in April.  For more information, write:




vue of the cote Saint-Denis, Pontoise 1867

View of the Côte Saint-Denis, Pontoise (c. 1867)

This beautiful painting, View of the Côte Saint-Denis, Pontoise (c. 1867) should have been included in the new book Abstract Pissarro. It is almost a textbook case for the abstract elements Pissarro initiated during his first years as a working artist in Paris.

This painting may look traditional to us, but it would have been considered radical at the time. Pissarro used elements that were unconventional and generally unacceptable by French art standards. (Note the underlined elements.) For instance, the site is an ordinary, unimportant place showing nothing of interest. There is no real focal point; while the yellow house in the center seems to draw the eye, it is not an important object or place, and we can’t even see all of it. Instead of making the surface smooth, Pissarro exaggerated his visible brushstrokes. The houses are flattened against the canvas, with no volume, and their forms are created from mere patches of color. The hill behind the houses pushes forward with its intense colors eliminating any sense of depth or perspective. The stripes on those hills, suggesting different fields, are composed of color blocks side-by-side with no transitional tones. The evidence of several kinds of brushstrokes and multiple shades of dark green suggest that Pissarro was perhaps as interested in the paint on the canvas (materiality) as he was in depicting the scene.  The eight underlined phrases above are among the abstract elements that Pissarro used in his early paintings. They were quickly adopted by other artists who later became known as the Impressionists and are so familiar to us now that we do not recognize them as radical.

Pissarro used a number of different brush techniques in this painting. One in particular, the side-by-side strokes so evident in shades of rust and dark green on the hillsides is, in fact, the “constructive” stroke that Cézanne would several years later learn from Pissarro and take as his own signature technique.

This painting definitely should have been in the new book Abstract Pissarro. But there are so many others that could also have been included.  The book is almost finished and will be in print in a few weeks.

ABSTRACT PISSARRO, the book that investigates the abstract elements in the paintings of Camille Pissarro, will be available in late March or April.  Watch this blog for additional information.

NOTE:   The catalogue raisonné, Pissarro: Critical Catalogue (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, 2005) says this is the same location depicted by Pissarro in his painting La Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise (1877). I have stood in that spot several times, and while I had not recognized it previously, I now realize that it is the same place I visited to take photographs several years ago.  The lane depicted is a private road leading to several small houses. For the later picture, Pissarro simply moved his easel to the left of the small lane. Sadly, that place is now paved and accommodates an unsightly commercial facility.






From the new book, Abstract Pissarro

64 walking figure, entering a village c. 1862-int

Walking Figure, Entering a Village, c. 1862, Private collection, PDRS 64.

Pissarro was a 24-year-old working artist in 1854, making and selling paintings, in Caracas, Venezuela. When he moved to Paris the following year, his father insisted that he submit paintings to the Paris Salon. While Pissarro opposed the formulaic painting directives of the French academy, he submitted paintings and many were accepted.

At the same time, Pissarro was also making paintings that expressed his own “sensations;” paintings that can only be described as unconventional, testing the limits of brushstrokes, composition, paint application, and the palette knife.  The fact that these are signed and dated indicates that Pissarro intended them to look as they do. These radical paintings are, in Pissarro’s eyes, finished works.

This painting, Walking Figure, Entering a Village (c. 1862) [PDRS 64] bears little resemblance to earlier paintings that reflect Corot’s influence. The notion of “entering a village” is one that Pissarro explored time and again throughout his career. In this case, no specific location is given, and this commonplace motif has no distinguishing features. In the foreground, shades of brown and dark tan form the first diagonal stripe. Another olive-green stripe partially covers the lower layer, its loose brushstrokes revealing the brown underneath. This is topped by a bright creamy beige that widens on the right, focusing attention on the sketchily drawn man and tree. Above that is a line of buildings with no windows or doors, executed in broad flat strokes. The only possible identifying feature is the pair of tall vertical strokes that might be smokestacks. The whole assemblage appears to be totally flat, like a cutout, functioning as just one more strip in a composition of layered colors. The hazy sky is light blue, brushed over with light gray and white strokes. The large tree at the right provides a strong perpendicular that holds the layers together. Its foliage is defined with short “constructive” strokes, a form of the stroke that Cézanne adopted for his own use in later years.

Because our eyes are accustomed to seeing visible brushstrokes, this painting may not look unusual to us. However, the French academic standards in the mid-1900s required brushstrokes to be completely smooth and invisible. Structures should be painted with proper volume, and figures no matter how small should be carefully drawn.

That is why in 1862, this painting would have been radical compared to those of other artists. Some would have called it unfinished, but Pissarro’s signature in the lower left corner indicates that he considered it complete. The extreme simplification of the subject, the abundant evidence of visible brushstrokes, the flatness of the buildings are all techniques used by today’s abstract artists. While this painting loosely represents a scene, it focuses on the paint and the surface of the canvas. It was created in an abstract manner.

ABSTRACT PISSARRO, the book that investigates the abstract elements in the paintings of Camille Pissarro, will be available in late March or April. Watch this blog for additional information.






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