Posts Tagged 'Abstract'

Pissarro’s Birthday – July 10, 1830

 

CP

Camille Pissarro

On July 10, 1830, Camille Pissarro was born in Charlotte Amalie, the principal city on the island of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.  At the age of 12, his parents sent him to private school in Passy, a suburb of Paris, where he learned to draw. From that time forward, his life was devoted to art.

At the age of 53, he wrote his son Lucien, “Painting, art in general, enchants me. It is my life. What else matters? When you put all your soul into a work, all that is noble in you, you cannot fail to find a kindred soul who understands you, and you do not need a host of such spirits. Is not that all an artist should wish for?”*

Today, there are hosts of kindred souls who love Pissarro’s work. Two exhibitions in Paris were filled with people; one extended its time for two extra weeks. In Pontoise, viewers crowded the galleries to look at his engravings. Even in Copenhagen, large groups came to see the early works of Pissarro. Since this blog on Pissarro began in 2012, there have been 23,420 views from readers on six continents, showing the international appeal of Pissarro’s work.

But Pissarro was never satisfied with the present; he was always looking for innovative techniques, bigger challenges, and new ways to express his “sensations.” While he is considered “The First Among the Impressionists,” he is so much more.

The only way to understand his artistic contribution is to look at his work, not through the microscope of Impressionism, but with a wide-angle lens that includes the generations of painters who followed him. Some of the techniques he pioneered had no name in his time; now, we see them as virtually abstract. Our comprehension of Pissarro’s genius has only just begun.

860 The Flock of Sheep, Eragny 1888 -

The Flock of Sheep, Eragny, 1888 Private collection, PDRS 860

In just thirteen years, we will mark Pissarro’s 200th birthday. He will be the first Impressionist to reach that milestone. How should he be remembered in that year? Here are some possibilities:

  A comprehensive retrospective in major museums in France and the United States.

  A scholarly symposium that looks at Pissarro’s work as seminal in the wide scope of modern and contemporary art, resulting in publications. (An excellent symposium was held in 2003 commemorating the 100th anniversary of Pissarro’s death, but it centered on his role as Impressionist.)

  New research into Pissarro’s work by graduate students of art schools and universities.

  A new more comprehensive biography, including extensive new information from the 2005 catalogue raisonne (Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts).

It is not too soon to begin thinking about 2030—good exhibitions, research, and publication of books take time.  And when Pissarro’s work is in focus, there are always surprises.

*Letter of November 20, 1883, Letters to His Son Lucien, edited by John Rewald.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pissarro: Impressionist or Abstract?

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Ploughed Fields Near Osny 1873 Private Collection PDRS 290

Many of Pissarro’s paintings fit the expected Impressionist “mold,” but his œuvre is full of paintings that do not match that style and are difficult to explain. For instance, the painting, Ploughed Fields Near Osny, made one year before the first Impressionist Exhibition, seems almost strange compared to most Impressionist paintings. While it depicts an imminent change in weather, there is none of the lightness and “prettiness” we have come to expect from the Impressionists.

What it offers is far more interesting—an earthy grid of colors and texture—large rectangles—one of deep purple in the foreground fading into brick red and then light salmon, others of different shades of green. The areas are further defined by varying brushstrokes—tiny repetitive up-and-down strokes next to circular forms and in the next section, short puddles of paint that create a mottled effect. While it appears to be a commonplace study in perspective, the genius of Pissarro places the view at a slight diagonal and curves the horizon line ever so gently. The farmer following two white horses and the three trees are just window-dressing for this captivating painting based on an abstract pattern.

Pissarro Afield- The Hills at Thierceville

1189 Thierceville Hills

The Hills at Thierceville, 1897, Private Collection PDRS 1189

When Pissarro returned home in mid-July 1897 after two months of caring for his ill son Lucien in London, he painted his garden and the meadow at his Èragny home. One day, he took his easel and walked a mile and a half northwest of Èragny to the hills surrounding the village of Thierceville.

In this place, unlike his enclosed garden and tree-lined meadow, he found complete openness—just the earth and the sky. The only trees were far away. The haystacks on the left suggest that some of the fields had been harvested. But it appears that Pissarro set his easel in the midst of an uncut field.

The long green and yellow brushstrokes fill the foreground beginning at the lower left corner and forming an ascending diagonal line to the right edge. The area with the haystacks is mostly green and horizontal brushstrokes give it an appearance of smoothness. To the right, a shepherd and a flock of sheep occupy a yellow patch of ground that echoes the diagonal beneath it. Surrounding them are other patches of land, dark green, light green, salmon and another patch with long green brushstrokes. In the distance behind the haystacks are rows of dark green trees and other hillsides. The sky reinforces the perspective with tiny clouds just above the distant hills turning into larger more colorful clouds up close.

Though this is a pleasant scene, it offers no dramatic focal point—an important object or person. It teaches no lesson nor does it promote any cause. This is one of those paintings about which Pissarro said, “. . . the eye of the passerby is too hasty and sees only the surface. Whoever is in a hurry will not stop for me.”

So if we are to understand why Pissarro painted this picture as he did, perhaps we should listen to his own words. “I see only spots of color. When I begin a painting, the first thing I try to put down is the accord.” When Pissarro looked at this field, he did not necessarily see fields of grain with haystacks and sheep. He saw blocks of color—robust green brushstrokes set against smoother linear areas in pale green, yellow and salmon. Above that a vivid contrast in texture and color—vigorous circular strokes in shades of white and lavender.

What happens in a painting when color and brushstroke are more important than haystacks and a flock of sheep? If we dare to compare this painting with many of those made half a century later, we might conclude that this painting is close to abstract. Considering it this way, even the most casual observer might be willing to stop and examine it more closely.

Camille Pissarro’s Birthday – July 10, 1830

The world thinks of Camille Pissarro as an Impressionist.  And indeed, Cezanne called him “The First Impressionist.”  But long before that, Pissarro was a highly skilled artist. This painting, which is the first listed in the catalogue raisonne (Pissarro-Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, 2005), is dated 1852-54 and was painted in Venezuela. [Earlier works may have been destroyed when Pissarro’s house was occupied by enemy troops during the Franco-Prussian War, 1870]  It clearly demonstrates his knowledge of perspective, figure painting and the effect of brilliant sunlight.

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Market Scene on the Plaza Mayor, Caracas 1852-54 PDR 1 Presidential residence, La Casona, Caracas

Two decades later Pissarro was at the forefront of the Impressionist movement, creating innovative ways of painting. This painting from 1873 was shown at the first Impressionist exhibition. While it uses the effect of sunlight and the clear colors of Impressionism, it is so much more. We barely see the trees and bushes and man because our eyes are captured by the multitudes of lines and angles and the play of color dividing one section from the other. Specifically, we can’t help seeing the giant X created by lines from the treetop on the left through the bushes at center and continuing along the top of the dark orange section. It is crossed by a line from the tree on the right though the center bush and down the other side of the dark orange section. We do not see this as just a reproduction of early morning frost. We see how paint is used on canvass, the contrast of light blue and orange in a geometric grid. This painting may be called Impressionist, but it is no less than an abstract painting.

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Hoar-Frost at Ennery 1873 Musée d’Orsay PDRS 285

At the age of 56, Pissarro was working in the Pointilist style and made this painting near his home in Éragny. The melange of dots placed closely together produce the different colors, but that is not what draws your attention.  The sharp geometric structure create color blocks of yellow and green and blue. It is almost irrelevant that a tiny steam engine is pulling a train into our vision. The shapes look like flat puzzle pieces that fit snugly together. To make sure our eyes stay on the color blocks, Pissarro paints in a neutral cloudy sky above with nothing to distract us from the totally abstract design beneath.

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The Dieppe Railway 1886 Philadelphia Museum of Art PDRS 828

In his later years, Pissarro often painted from windows in order to protect his eye which frequently became infected. He spent winters in Paris in various locations. In 1901, he was living at Place Dauphine on the Île de la Citė where he had a splendid view of the Pont -Neuf leading over to the Samaritaine, the large department store on the Right Bank.  The painting is warm and lush with golden sunlight bathing the buildings and reflections in the turquoise water.

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The Pont-Neuf, Afternoon, Sunlight (First Series) 1901 Philadelphia Museum of Art PDRS 1351

The buildings, which should suggest substance and mass, look instead like flat theatrical sets. The road, a flowing mass teeming with carriages and pedestrians, is only contained by the side of the bridge with its familiar circular spaces glistening bright white creating a strong diagonal line from the bottom of the canvas to center right. While we can’t see the other side of the bridge, we do see another glistening white horizontal block which almost meets the diagonal of the bridge, drawing our eyes to the Samaritaine. When we get there, however, there is almost nothing to see, a rather shadowy building, less distinct than the others, and not even flying the flags that were customary over Samaritaine.  Just to balance the strong acute angle and give it stability, Pissarro uses the quai across the river to complete the horizontal. However, he diminishes its importance by making it the same color as the building above it and draws our attention to the reflections in the breathtakingly beautiful turquoise water, which cools down all of the buttery yellow blocks and white hot diagonals.

This painting is clearly a scene we recognize, and it still looks the same today (though some of the Samaritaine buildings were reconfigured under a single facade many years ago). Though this picture is clearly representational, something easily recognized, the power of the abstract geometric elements captures our attention. 

Perhaps as we acknowledge Pissarro as the First Impressionist, we should begin to acknowledge the importance of abstract elements in his paintings. Dana Gordon, a New York City artist, said it first and best:

Pissarro traditionally was known as a great landscapist, a translator of nature into art. Pissarro showed that painting’s basic qualities — colors, brushstrokes, materiality, lines, shapes, composition—were meaningful in their own right, and transformed paint into purely visual poetry. He was, in essence, the first abstract artist.

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? 

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.



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