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1 Dana Gordon, “The Moses of Modernism,” unpublished manuscript (2005).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





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.


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