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Pissarro – Studing a Rare Early Painting

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Paysage à La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire, 1863 Private collection, PDRS 72

 

The appearance of a Pissarro painting that has long been in private collections is always exciting.  It is even more compelling when it is an early painting because so few of these exist in Pissarro’s oeuvre. Those who study Pissarro know that in 1870 when Pissarro was 40 years old, the soldiers occupied his home and destroyed nearly everything he had created until then. (He and his family escaped, first to Brittany and then to London, for the duration of the war.)

Recently at the Spring Masters Show in New York, Gallery 19C of Los Angeles exhibited a beautiful early painting by Pissarro. There is no clue as to how this small painting (7 1/2 x 9 3/4”) on a wood panel was saved. If the soldiers had seen it, they probably would have added it to other fuel in the fireplace to heat the large house.

This painting is especially important because it helps track Pissarro’s early development. The works he produced as a young man in St. Thomas and Venezuela demonstrate that he was an accomplished artist and display the sunlight and bright colors he would later incorporate into Impressionism.

Pissarro came to France in 1855, just in time to see the works of Corot, Daubigny, and Courbet at the Exposition Universelle. While these artists were beginning to push against academic art, they still utilized the subdued browns and grays most admired by Salon painters.

Seemingly influenced by their example and probably feeling pressure from his father to enter a painting in the Salon, Pissarro abandoned the vivid reds and bright blues of his Caribbean paintings and began using more subdued colors like the browns, grays and dark greens in this painting. As if he just couldn’t contain himself, however, he paints the roof a bright blue and ties it to the red kerchief on one of the women below with white dabs of paint that might be flowers on the tree.

His inventiveness goes way beyond Corot, Daubigny, and Courbet, however, in the prominence of his brushstrokes and his use of color to create design. There are four basic elements in the painting—the brown earth, the silver blue of the river, the blackish green of the forest, and the gray sky.  The field in the foreground is represented with prominent horizontal brush strokes. The tiny strip of water would be almost indistinguishable except it is set off by small vertical green strokes suggesting foliage on the bank. The forest is composed of black and dark green blotches and the only clue we have that they are trees are the barely visible trunks. Brush strokes are most evident as paint on canvas in the sky where the swirls and globs display the movement of the bristles. The two buildings, constructed with blocks of vertical brushstrokes, are there merely to create perspective in the layers of color.

Imagine if you will that there is no field, no stream or sky, and that what you see are stripes of color separated by two vertical blocks with swirls at the top. It’s not so hard to do.

As a landscape, this is a little treasure—delightful and pleasant to see.  However, once you study it closely, you have to question if that was Pissarro’s intention.  Or did he simply use the  landscape as the basis for making abstract design with paint on canvas? 

Pissarro Painting Returns to Holocaust Survivors

 

shepherdess

Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep, 1886

It is good news when great paintings remain available to be seen by the people who love them.  In the agreement between the University of Oklahoma and the Holocaust survivor’s family, this incredible painting by Camille Pissarro will remain in museums, rotating between France and Oklahoma. For the full story on the agreement, please see the article in the New York Times. (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/university-of-oklahoma-agrees-to-return-pissarro-painting-looted-by-nazis/)

This painting is not as well known as some of Pissarro’s paintings, but it is extremely interesting for many reasons. Just a year before, Pissarro had been introduced to Paul Signac and then later to Georges Seurat, who was in the process of developing a new scientific way of making paintings by placing tiny dots of contrasting colors close together. None of this was new to Pissarro, who had for several years been experimenting with color division based on the works of Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood.

In this painting, Pissarro uses tiny brushstrokes of varying colors to form the image. For example, look at the woman’s green apron, which includes several shades of green, blue, pink, and even dark blue to form the shadow on the side.

Look at the left side of the painting at the wall between the edge and the door frame. You will find pink, yellow, gray, blue, salmon, and even light green composing the mixture that looks like bright yellow. As early as 1881, well before he met Seurat, Pissarro was using these color techniques to create luminosity in his paintings.

The composition of this painting is most interesting, as well. Everything feels pushed together with the overlapping of the small cottages in the background.  Even the fence to the left of the gate seems to be leaning forward. It feels as though everything in the background is pushing the young woman so that she is almost “bursting” through the gate.  (Incidentally, did you notice the proud rooster behind her?)

The timid sheep, shyly sticking their noses forward, create tension by pushing in the opposite direction. Though you know the woman wants the sheep to come in the gate, you worry that her momentum will just overpower their forward motion. The poor little sheep themselves look more like wooly stuffed toys than real animals. Though we see the young woman’s shape, her facial features are almost nonexistent so we have no sense of her as a real person.

So what was Pissarro really painting? To be sure, it is an interesting picture of an everyday task performed in countless villages in his day. But it is a superb demonstration of the use of a mixture of colors to create light and shadow.  And it is a fascinating study of the push and pull of opposing forms, even when those images tell a different story.  No wonder those who have seen it become attached to it.

 

 

 

 

 

WHEN PISSARRO MADE A PAINTING, NOT A PICTURE

The Rabbit-Warren at Pontoise 1879 The Art Institute of Chicago (IL) PDR 587

Rabbit-Warren at Pontoise 1879 The Art Institute of Chicago (IL) PDR 587

 

This finger-numbing winter scene was painted in 1879 atop a high hill in Pontoise. The coldness of the air is accentuated by the dark blue clouds  and the patches of heavy snow on the ground. The only hint of warmth is in the dull orange chimney pots on two houses.

Like many of Pissarro’s paintings, this one has no defined focal point. At the very center is a tiny sapling not large enough or important enough to draw our attention. The man gathering wood at the right is more of a caricature than a defined person. The stand of tall trees on the left are large, but their importance is diminished because we can see neither the top nor bottom of them.There are no rabbits, and the only evidence of a rabbit-warren is the large snow-covered mound on the side of the hill.

This picture is all about a diagonal line. The big trees bring our eyes to the ground where it begins its downward slope. If the man on the right were facing into the picture, he would define a stopping point.  However, he is facing out which suggests that the line continues past him, past the edge of the canvas into infinity. This gives us the feeling that we are slipping and sliding down the icy hill. This type of composition would have been radical, even during the Impressionist period ( generally considered to be 1872-1884).

This is not a picturesque snowy hill with snow layered in even brushstrokes. Pissarro uses small circular strokes of white interlaced with grey and blue for the snow and allows dark spiky undergrowth to break through its surface. The large dark patch in the left corner supports the large trees and an arrow-shaped dark patch near the center points downward toward the man. Even the houses and chimney pots reinforce the diagonal, from the left upper corner to the rooftops on the right side.

Even though we would call this an Impressionist landscape, there are many elements that define it as abstract: no focal point, strong geometrical composition, endless edges (going beyond the edge of the canvas), evident brushstrokes that call attention to the paint.  In fact, if isolated from the rest of the painting, the lower left quarter could be seen as an abstract painting.

Detail, Rabbit-Warren

Detail, Rabbit-Warren

These abstract elements are not uncommon among Pissarro’s works.  From the very beginning of his career in Paris, he celebrated the materiality of painting, making the painting itself as important as the scene.  It’s no wonder that Theodore Duret, an art critic, had written in 1870 that Pissarro “ … has painted a landscape without making a picture (emphasis added). Instead of making a lifelike image of this ordinary place, he used the view as inspiration to make an arrangement of paint on canvas.

PISSARRO IN THE AUTUMN OF HIS LIFE

Autumn at Eragny, 1900 Private collection PDR 1342

Autumn at Eragny, 1900
Private collection PDR 1342

As he had done in recent years, Pissarro once again moved his family to Paris In November of 1900 for the winter months. But before leaving É­­ragny, he made four paintings of the orchard behind his home.  When he converted his barn into a studio, he had a large window installed in the back wall (see photo) which allowed him to work without endangering his infection-prone eye.

Pissarro in his Studio at Eragny

Pissarro in his Studio at Eragny

At this time in his life, he was working tirelessly to make the paintings that he knew would provide income for his family after he was gone. From this point to his death on November 13, 1903, he made 186 more paintings. This one was inherited by his wife Julie who gave it to their son Paul-Emile Pissarro. It is now in a private collection in Luxembourg, according to the Pissarro catalogue raisonne (2005).

The heart of the splendid fall colors is found in the center of the tree just above the trunk (see detail). The splashes of yellow, orange and red are offset by dark emerald green fading into lighter yellows and greens that predominate in the background. Many of Pissarro’s landscapes have been likened to tapestries because of the way he wove his brushstrokes together. This is a perfect example of that technique. Magnification, as in the detail, shows the impasto or heavy layer of paint that actually forms little ridges on the surface. The texture of the painted areas captures light and intensifies the colors.

1342 Detail

While the tree with its brilliant leaves is the obvious focal point, it is set to the side revealing the countryside behind it. Pissarro divides the canvas into four distinct horizontal stripes, distinguished by differing directional textures. In the foreground, the darker green brushstrokes are short diagonals, some of them forming x marks. In the middle ground beyond the women, the strokes appear to be longer and more upright, with slight color differences creating horizontal rows. In the background beyond the fence, Pissarro suggests an upward slope by using vertical lines of trees that point to the stormy sky above. The flowing strokes of the clouds create a horizontal movement that completes the composition. The gray-blue-violet colors complement and intensify the yellows and oranges of the tree.

The overall question is: what is more important—the lovely rural scene captured in this painting or the design and texture which makes this painting so interesting? While Pissarro tells us it was painted at É­­ragny, the subject is hardly distinguished. It certainly has no importance as a landmark or historical place. In fact, if the fall colors were not so brilliant, there would be little to look at. Because Pissarro created such varied directional textures, we have to assume that he was more interested in the texture of the paint, the colors, the design—the abstract elements we value in contemporary paintings. This is why Pissarro was so far ahead of his time and why it is important that his paintings be valued for their abstract qualities.

MORE….PISSARRO IN VIENNA

Rue de Gisors - 1868 Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria PDR 127

Rue de Gisors – 1868
Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria PDR 127

Never before have I written two posts about the same painting. But this one from Vienna is more puzzling that it appears. Even in his earliest days as an artist, Pissarro was more interested in using paint on canvas than he was in creating a what most people thought was the perfect picture.  The previous post discussed the strange composition which would have been easy if only it did not include that odd blank space and sliver of a house on the left.

But that isn’t the only unusual thing—Pissarro seemed to be using the large spaces to demonstrate  that brushstrokes can differentiate areas even when colors are almost the same. The predominant color in this painting is the yellowish beige of the houses and walkways.  The clouds and hills are various shades of gray blue, and only the dark green grass in the lower left corner is markedly different.

The grass is composed of large horizontal brush strokes, seemingly with a wide brush. The tiny furrows made by the stiff bristles are very evident from the bottom of the canvas to the vanishing point at the distant blue hillside. There is no difference in intensity or color in the grass of the foreground and that at the vanishing point.

The walkway beside the road seems to have been painted with a smaller brush and more delicate strokes that form very shallow arches. In the foreground the path appears to be a bit lighter than at the horizon line, but the major clue to perspective is the narrowing of the path. 

The road cuts a diagonal swath across the canvas from the right corner to the horizon line, with a shallow walkway on the other side that ultimately disappears. The light on the roadway is directly opposite that on the walkway, appearing darker in the foreground and lighter toward the vanishing point. The brushstrokes on the road are also delicate but are different in shape from those of the path. They appear to be short wavy lines that are slightly diagonal.

The construction of the houses are suggested with pale blue gray blocks  on the pale yellow-beige walls. There is no attempt to paint realistic shutters. They are simply rough perpendicular strokes that are not always aligned. 

The cloudy sky gives Pissarro more opportunities for varied brush strokes. The clouds near the hilltop appear soft with circular strokes. The dark gray clouds at the top are also composed of circular strokes.  The very white clouds in the center seem more ferocious than the dark ones because they are composed of wide brushstrokes in a herringbone pattern.

It seems that Pissarro was using this painting almost like a “sampler” to show that the type of strokes can create important differences in various areas even when the colors are very similar. This canvas shows that he is as interested in the textures the paint creates as he is in recording a picture of a specific place.

The biggest puzzle of all, however, is the woman in the black dress at the left.  She is almost hidden in the shadows, and we would not notice her except for her white petticoat. Who is she? Why is she on the grass instead of the walkway? Why is she there at all? The painting would accomplish the same thing even if she were not there. It calls attention to this strange little group including the tiny little house, the row of three saplings and the woman. What do they mean? We will never know, but we do know that Pissarro often places elements in his paintings that cannot be explained.  It is part of the charm in looking closely at his paintings.

PISSARRO IN VIENNA

Rue de Gisors - 1868 Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria PDR 127

Rue de Gisors – 1868
Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria PDR 127

 

Pissarro made several paintings on the Rue de Gisors in Pontoise, but this one is unlike any of the others.  He painted it during his first stay in Pontoise before the beginnings of Impressionism.

The paintings he made of this street after the Franco-Prussian war show a different part of the street, a high traffic area looking towards the center of town.  This view appears to be the other end the street, looking toward a faraway hill.  At this point, he was still using black in his paintings, as shown by the woman in the black dress on the left. The colors appear to be dark, but this may be simply the an accumulation of residue from more than a hundred years ago.

This painting is one of the few surviving paintings made by Pissarro that date before 1872, the end of the Franco-Prussian War.  During 1870-71, Pissarro fled with his family, first to Brittany and then to London, where he stayed until the war was over.  While he was gone, his home in Louveciennes was used by Prussian soldiers to house their horses and soldiers. They used his canvases to butcher animals and to cover mud in the garden. At that time, he was in his early 40s, and nearly all of his life’s work was destroyed.  Only about 30 paintings survive from those early days.

This painting provides a special insight into Pissarro’s art before Impressionism. I had a chance to see this painting recently in Vienna and here is a little bit of what I learned. His painting was already radical. The composition focuses on the wide cobblestone street with walkways on either side which appears to go downhill. The buildings on the right side of the street are typical and are very much like buildings on that street today. It is the left side of the composition that is so curious. Beside the road on the left is a tiny house partially hidden behind a row of slender trees. In photographs, it is difficult to see the roofline behind the trees, but in person, it is barely visible. To the left is an open space showing sky and then a tiny sliver of another building. If the little trees had been on the left edge of the canvas, the composition would have looked very ordinary. As it is, your attention is drawn to the empty space instead. Other people in the painting seem to be doing something or going somewhere, but the mysterious woman in the black dress is just standing there on the grass. We might not notice her except for the white ruffle on her dress.

There is much more in this painting that is radical for its time, and I will write more about it in another post.

PISSARRO – RAINY DAY IN PARIS

The Louvre, Afternoon, Rainy Weather  1900 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC PDR 1346

The Louvre, Afternoon, Rainy Weather 1900
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC PDR 1346

“The Louvre, Afternoon, Rainy Weather” was one of the first group of paintings Camille Pissarro made after he and his family moved to their new apartment on the Île de la Cité in November, 1900.  Formerly, a part of the collection of The Corcoran Gallery of Art, it has just been hung in its new home at the National Gallery of Art, ( West Building, Gallery M-89) Washington, DC. (See it on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nationalgalleryofart?fref=ts)

Among their Pissarro paintings, the National Gallery has two others made in Paris: “Boulevard des Italiens” (1897) and “Place du Carrousel, Paris” (1900), a view of the Louvre in the spring from his former apartment on Rue Rivoli. (See those on the website of the National Gallery of Art by searching for Camille Pissarro works.)

This paintings is obviously a view from the apartment’s front window because it includes a corner of the Place du Pont-Neuf where the statue of Henri IV is located. It appears that a rain storm has just passed, leaving the surface of the Place wet and shiny. Pissarro painted this same view many more times before his death in 1903, depicting it in every possible weather situation and with varying boat traffic in the river.

The composition of this painting is determined by the motif. The corner of the Place on the lower left side gives the painting a decidedly asymmetrical feel, suggesting an imaginary diagonal line pointing towards tthe Louvre in the middle right side. The two boats shown steaming toward the bridge suggest another imaginary diagonal from right lower corner to middle left side, forming an X across the painting. The bridge cuts across the diagonals virtually through the middle of the canvas, its severity softened by the graceful arches.  On the left, the curved branches of the  trees echo the arches.

The hand of the master is most evident in the surface of the Place and the water, each of them composed of countless brushstrokes. The shiny orange surface of the Place actually includes shades of coral, yellow, lavender, pink, white, and brick red. The complimentary dark blue of the woman’s dress intensifies the orangey tones. The choppy waters of the Seine are depicted in shades of gray, ranging from nearly white to dark slate. Tiny streaks of deep blue are complemented with pale dashes of dark orange.

This is one of Pissarro’s paintings that really must be seen in person—but then, wouldn’t we prefer to study all of them in person?


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