Archive for the 'Art' Category

Pissarro’s Not-So-Still Still Life

Camille Pissarro, French, 1830-1903; Still Life; 1867;oil on canvas;H: 31 7/8 in. (81 cm); W: 39 1/4 in. (99.7 cm).

Still Life with Wine Carafe, 1867, Toledo Museum of Art (Ohio) PDRS 114

Pissarro had been in Paris for 12 years when he painted Still Life with Wine Carafe (1867). In many ways, it seems like a traditional still life, similar to those produced in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age.

Dutch still life

Willem Claeszoon Heda, Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie (1631) Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

The Dutch paintings generally included various kind of food and wine arranged with cutlery on a white tablecloth. Artists used these realistic paintings to demonstrate their skill in portraying various textures— the sheen of light on the silver compote, the translucent wine in the glass, the crusty texture of the pie crust, and the soft drapes of the white tablecloth. It looks so realistic you want to touch it.

Manet salmon 1868

Edouard Manet, The Salmon (c. 1868) Shelbourne Museum (Vermont).

Even in Pissarro’s time, artists were still painting still lifes in a realistic fashion. This Manet painting, The Salmon, (c. 1868) made a year after Pissarro’s still life is very traditional with carefully painted figures on the china bowl, the vivid peeled lemon, the translucence of the wine glass and carafe, and the shiny scales of the fish. Of particular interest is the smooth tablecloth, freshly ironed with its crisp folds emphasized by the tucked-up corner. The table looks realistic, just like the one in the 17th century. That’s because there are no visible brushstrokes.

Compared with the others, Pissarro’s painting is anything but realistic. As early as 1858, Pissarro was making paintings with highly visible brushstrokes. In this still life, he made no attempt to hide the brushstrokes, heavy with paint—in fact, they are celebrated almost as if he wanted you to see the paint on the canvas. The tablecloth looks as though the paint was daubed on, like frosting; the overhang of the cloth is an exhibition of strong brushstrokes, maybe even palette knife. Compare the detail below to the tablecloth in Manet’s painting.

Camille Pissarro, French, 1830-1903; Still Life; 1867;oil on canvas;H: 31 7/8 in. (81 cm); W: 39 1/4 in. (99.7 cm).

Detail of Pissarro’s still life.

While there is sheen on the glass and carafe, there is no attempt to hide the strokes of white paint he used to create it. And look at the criss-cross brushstrokes on those apples.

Camille Pissarro, French, 1830-1903; Still Life; 1867;oil on canvas;H: 31 7/8 in. (81 cm); W: 39 1/4 in. (99.7 cm).

Detail from Pissarro’s still life.

The brown loaf of bread is a panoply of rough brush strokes in two shades of brown.

Camille Pissarro, French, 1830-1903; Still Life; 1867;oil on canvas;H: 31 7/8 in. (81 cm); W: 39 1/4 in. (99.7 cm).

Detail of Pissarro’s still life.

Pissarro was the first artist to make the materiality of painting more important than the narrative subject matter–that is, he intentionally drew attention to the brushstroke and paint on the canvas. Today, we recognize materiality in abstract art, but in Pissarro’s time, there was not a word for it. When he came to Paris in 1855, Pissarro intentionally rejected traditional art and the standards of the Paris Salon so that he could find his own individual expression in paint.

Art historian Richard Shiff commented on the materiality in this painting, noting the “roughness” of the brushstrokes especially in the tablecloth.[1] Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of the artist and art historian, noted that the rough brushstrokes in the bread are examples of what Barnett Newman, abstract expressionist, called the “ugly brushstrokes” used by the Impressionists.[2]

At the time Pissarro made this painting, other artists who would later become Impressionists were still painting in the manner of Corot and Courbet, who used visible brushstrokes only to add to the realism of their paintings. Pissarro was the first to intentionally use the rough brushstrokes in this still life and in his landscapes. We know that Pissarro generously shared his ideas with other painters, and Monet, Sisley, and Renoir quickly picked up the technique and used it to create their own personal styles. It was quickly forgotten that Pissarro was the one who pioneered the use of the rough brushstroke which is now celebrated and ubiquitous in abstract art of the 21st century. 

[1] New York Studio School, September 26, 2018, “A Conversation with Joachim Pissarro and Richard Shiff.”

[2] The Jewish Museum, October 23, 2018, “Camille Pissarro and Barnett Newman.”



The book that investigates the abstract elements in Pissarro’s paintings will be published this Spring. Watch this space for more information.


PISSARRO in Canada

1124-Le Pont Corneille

Le Pont Corneille à Rouen, temps gris, 1896. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, PDRS 1124.

Absolutely nothing compares with seeing a painting in person. Being able to study it closely allows you to see details that just are not evident in photographs. This was certainly evident in my recent visit to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa where I saw this remarkable painting of Pont Corneille in Rouen.

It serves as a historical record, capturing the image of the bridge and the activity on Île Lacroix as it was in Pissarro’s time. The graceful bridge spanning the Seine used the tip of the island to support one of its piers. The island itself was filled with industry, the tall smokestacks revealing the presence of the European Gas Company.

In the foreground, Pissarro depicted the modern river traffic including a steamboat, probably one of the frequent cargo vessels that carried goods between Paris and Le Havre. The boat may have been powered by coal since the smoke coming out of the large black stack is dark gray. Nearby is a small boat, probably a ferry, its deck crowded with people.

To connect the two scenes across the sparkling gray-green river, Pissarro used a large plume of white smoke from a steam-powered crane, barely visible as it moves the cargo. The white smoke dissolves into three tall gray-green poplars that continue the vertical line reaching into the sky.

As he sometimes did, Pissarro included a detail for the viewer who takes time to look. In the upper left corner on top of Sainte-Catherine’s Hill is the shadow of a church. It is, in fact, the Notre Dame Basilica of Bonsecours, built in 1840-44 in the Gothic Revival style. Perhaps he visited the church to study its architecture. He was a fan of Gothic architecture and made several paintings of the Gothic church in Dieppe.

The lovely scene is this painting is unfortunately no longer the way Pissarro saw it. Because of its industry, Île Lacroix and the bridge were prime targets for bombing attacks during World War II. The bridge has since been rebuilt, and the island has become an entertainment center with an ice hockey arena and public swimming pools.

This is just one of three marvelous Pissarro paintings at the National Gallery of Ontario, a superb museum with a remarkable collection of Impressionist paintings. The museum is reason enough to plan a visit to Ottawa.




The Fish Market, Dieppe, Overcast Sky, Morning, 1902 Dallas Museum of Art, PDRS 1441

This extraordinary painting was made on Pissarro’s final trip to Dieppe in 1902. He rented an upstairs room by the harbor where he made twenty-one paintings during his late summer stay of almost seven weeks. His son Georges noted, “. . . the port with the hustle and bustle of the crowd and the boats departing and arriving, the trails of smoke, and so forth and so on.”[1] Pissarro must have been working at the crack of dawn to capture the fishing boats unloading their catch directly to the street market below his window.

crop detail

Many of Pissarro’s paintings have no dominant focal point, but this one does—just a little left of center. It is a mélange of dark sails, masts, steamboat stacks, and gray smoke that blends in with the clouds overhead. A road curves around from the left and beneath it, separating it from the crowded fish market below. To the right, the glistening green harbor and the prow of a steamship complete a frame around the boats. His quick brushstrokes depict the smoke and the crowds of people.

This painting was part of the personal collection of Margaret and Eugene McDermott of Dallas. Eugene McDermott, who died in 1973, was a co-founder of Texas Instruments, a philanthropist and Board Member of the Dallas Museum of Art. Mrs. McDermott, who died in May of this year at the age of 106, was a trustee of the museum and donated more than 3,100 works of art from different cultures, disciplines, and eras. Now their personal collection has been donated to the Dallas Museum of Art.[2]

The museum’s wall label reveals the importance of this painting to the McDermott’s. “This painting was one of Eugene McDermott’s favorites. It was moved into the bedroom to lift his spirits during his illness, and remained there throughout Margaret’s lifetime.”

[1] Pissarro: Critical Catalogue of Paintings, Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005), 880.




1416 Le Pont-Neuf, Temps gris, 1902

The Pont-Neuf, Overcast Sky, 1902, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon (France) PDRS 1416

Just five days before his birthday in 1898, Pissarro visited the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. Could he have imagined then that this museum would have one of his masterpieces 100 years later? This painting of Pont-Neuf was made four years after his visit to Lyon. It was given to the museum in 2000 as part of the Sara Lee Corporation Millennium Gift.[1] It is the only Pissarro painting in their collection, according to museum staff.

He captured this view of the bridge from the window of his apartment on the Ile de la Cité in middle of the Seine. Though the weather is grey, there is a warmness to the painting from the subtle touches of ivory and pale coral. Flashes of red and blue along the storefronts provide an anchor for the tall buildings and diagonal sweep of the bridge. The grayness of the painting is tempered by the dark green of the river with its splashes of white. While traffic creates a busy scene, it cannot compare with the lively brushstrokes on the canvas. Those marks that our eyes see as people and carriages are, in fact, blobs and splashes of color skillfully applied as this detail shows. Seen on its own, it looks like abstract art.

close up

The Pont-Neuf, detail.

Though this painting came to the Lyon museum more than 100 years after Pissarro’s visit in 1898, there was plenty of good art for him to enjoy. He wrote his son Lucien from Lyon on July 5, 1898, that there was “a fine museum” with some “superb primitives, works by Tintoretto, Veronese, there is a Greco, there are things by Claude Lorrain, etc. . .” He even had plans to go back the next day to see some other works. “. . . in fact, it is the museum which interests me most.”[2]

When I visited the museum just 22 days ago, I had no idea I was following in Pissarro’s footsteps. I saw and took the time to study some of the same paintings he saw.


Danaë, Tintoretto, c. 1570


Bathsheba Bathing, Veronese, 1575

el greco lyon

El Expolio, El Greco, 1581-85.

What did Pissarro notice in these paintings, all made around the same time 300 years earlier? He was probably unimpressed by the strong narrative element in each of them since he did not favor storylines in his own paintings. But he must have noticed the use of light by each of the artists, particularly the “spotlight” in the Veronese and the El Greco. The bold use of red in each of the paintings might have caught his eye as he looked for (and found in each case) complementary greens (dark green of the maid’s towel in the Tintoretto and bluish green in Bathsheba’s covering in the Veronese).

With his keen eye for composition, Pissarro must have appreciated the strong diagonal of the Tintoretto created by the nude’s twisted position and repeated in the bend of her maid toward her. He must have noticed the inverted triangle in the Veronese with Bathsheba at the bottom, the old man towering over her and a male nude statue on the left. In the El Greco, Jesus is the focal point because of his center position and the brilliant light on his face, but the arrangement of figures in the crowd behind him may have interested Pissarro because of the many scenes he painted of busy market places.

What Pissarro did not see (nor did I) were visible brushstrokes. All of the surfaces were smooth as if color had magically flowed onto canvas. How different that is from the surface of Pissarro’s painting that hangs just a few galleries away (see the detail above). Pissarro was one of the first to celebrate and accentuate the visible brushstroke and the texture of thick paint on canvas—the materiality of art.

Knowing that Pissarro studied these 16th century masterpieces, it is easier to understand how futuristic his innovations were at the time, pushing toward what we now call abstract art.  In just 12 years, it will be time to celebrate his 200th birthday. Now is the time to take a new look at his paintings, acknowledge the innovations he used so boldly, and find new appreciation for all of his paintings, especially the ones that do not fit in the convenient Impressionist template so often used to judge his paintings.

[1] Sara Lee Corporation, which had a large collection of Impressionist masterpieces, gave 40 paintings valued at about $100 million to museums, most of them to U.S. museums.

[2] John Rewald, Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien, 1995.


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. 

PISSARRO in Boston


Woman and Goat at Eragny, 1889, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, PDRS 874

Among the many splendid Pissarro paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, this one stands out for its stark geometric composition. At this time, Pissarro had been living in Éragny for five years, experimenting with Pointillism. He was already losing patience with the technique because it was so time-consuming.  He complained to Lucien in an 1887 letter, “Maybe I will be forced to come back to my old way?  It is embarrassing.”[1] While the color division is evident in this painting, he has moved away from the dot to a short stroke, creating a dense texture. Seeing this painting in person, you are immediately aware of the freshness and brightness of the greens, reds, and yellows.

Even more striking than the brushstroke is the sharp, angular aspect of the painting, which suppresses any softness of the rural scene. The tall green hedge creates a dark diagonal, cutting through the canvas at its lower third. The steep red roof, complementary to the green hedge, creates an undisputed focal point, most of which is hidden from the viewer. In the foreground, the flowers are separated by a line that creates a sharp angle with the hedge. In the background, several dark horizontal lines cut through the green grass and follow the diagonal of the hedge. The only curved object is the dark green crown of the tree. The woman and goat, headed out of view, seem almost incidental.

This painting was made at a time when Pissarro was experimenting with geometric composition and abstract design. That same year, he made two paintings (see below) that are decidedly abstract in appearance. These paintings show how Pissarro was able to embrace every form of design from Impressionist to abstract and all levels in between.

871 The Path, Women Chatting 1890

The Path, Women Chatting, 1889, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI, PDRS 871.

873 Landscape with a Flock of Sheep 1889-1902

Landscape with a Flock of Sheep, 1889-1902 Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA PDRS 873

[1] Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien, ed. John Rewald, p. 115.Nor

PISSARRO – Seeing Paint on Canvas


1305 Tuilleries Snow 1900 2

The Tuileries Gardens, Effect of Snow, 1900, Private collection, PDRS 1305


This beautiful painting could be a snowy field anywhere. There are almost no identifying features. The hazy steeples behind the barren trees provide no clues. It is only because of Pissarro’s title, “The Tuileries Gardens, Effect of Snow,” that we realize this is the center of Paris with the twin steeples of the church of Sainte-Clotilde in the background. (1)

Now that we know the location, we can see outlines of the circular walks in the garden, and sketchy black marks that look almost like people. We realize that the odd post-like figures are actually statues surrounding the snow-covered circular pool. 


Statues in Tuileries

Statues surrounding circular pond in Tuileries Garden, Paris. (2)

Pissarro made this painting in a way that was not representative of the actual site. He intentionally masked identifying features and reduced the distant buildings into hazy outlines. He used the heavy snow to create a painting that is almost abstract.

Let’s try to “un-see” what we now know about the location, and view the painting itself. Pissarro reduces the scene to its basics—two wide bands separated by a narrow grayish strip. The paint in the foreground is heavy, and the brushstrokes are highly visible. The white snow is actually several shades of blue-grey with hints of light coral and pale pink in the center. The colors in the top band are more distinct— pink and white shading into pale blue. Pale grey diagonal lines, almost imperceptible, overlay the entire upper strip.

This painting is a superb example of brushwork–heavy directional strokes in the foreground and delicate lacy strokes above divided by flurries of grey-green strokes in the middle. Pissarro forces us to recognize the brushstrokes for what they are. We have to admit to its materiality—simply paint on canvas. The application of color, the vitality of the brushstrokes, and the reductive composition push this painting toward the abstract. Instead of making a picture, he made a painting. This is Pissarro’s genius.

(1) Pissarro, J. and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005). Pissarro: Catalogue critique des peintures. Milano, Italy, Skira Editore S.p.A., III, 782.

(2) By User:Munford – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Detail of original photograph.



The Dieppe Railway 1886 Philadelphia Museum of Art PDRS 828



A new look at Camille Pissarro’s paintings

Most people are familiar with the Pissarro paintings that fulfill their expectations of Impressionism. But Pissarro made just as many paintings that look totally different. These are seldom seen in exhibitions and rarely featured in books because they have been difficult to explain until now.

ABSTRACT PISSARRO will explore the abstract elements in Pissarro’s paintings–innovations for which there was no name at the time. He was the first to experiment with many of these techniques, some of which were quickly adapted by his artist friends. The book is now being edited and should be available in a few months.

Pissarro — a snowy day in Paris

1412 Pont-Neuf effect of snow 1902

The Pont-Neuf, Effect of Snow and Fog. 1902. Private collection. PDRS 1412.

In the winter of 1901-1902, Pissarro and his family returned to Paris and stayed for the second time on the Ile de la Cité, the small island in the middle of the Seine. His apartment faced the equestrian statue of Henri IV and on both sides, he could see the Pont-Neuf connecting the island to the riverbanks. To his right beyond the statue was the Louvre and to his left, the Hotel de la Monnaie. Pissarro made 26 oil paintings from his windows during that winter.

On one snowy day, Pissarro chose a familiar view of the Pont-Neuf, looking toward the Right Bank where normally he could see flags flying on the Samaritaine department store. On this day, the buildings at the end of the bridge are hardly visible at all. The falling snow throws a glistening white veil over the entire scene, broken only by the movement of the dark carriages on the bridge.

The bridge itself is simply a diagonal separating two color blocks—the large area of sky delicately pricked by the faint outlines of buildings contrasting with the dark blue-gray triangle of water in the lower right corner. The brilliant white sky is actually made up of faint brush strokes of pink and blue, each overlapping the other. The dark water is made of solid slabs of color ranging from dark blue to light gray. Pissarro’s use of color blocks in this and many other paintings foreshadows the work of Rothko in the 1950s.

This magnificent painting was part of the recent auction at Christie’s in New York City.





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