Posts Tagged 'Abstract'


Landscape with Women under a Large Tree c. 1854-55  PDR 7 Private collection

Landscape with Women under a Large Tree
c. 1854-55 PDR 7
Private collection

The 24-year old artist who painted Landscape with Women under  Large Tree around 1854-55 is the very same one who painted Market Scene on the Plaza Mayor, Caracas, featured in the previous post.

The differences in the two paintings are obvious.  Market Scene is highly realistic, with hard edges and bright clear colors. The campanile of the cathedral of Santiago in the background is accurate in detail. The cloudless sky is a deep blue, fading just a bit as it touches the rooftops. The rider’s red coat is carefully modeled to give form to his body. The reflection of the brilliant sun on the white awning contrasts with deep shadows that blur the profiles of the two women. The painting is an intentional representation of an actual scene.

The landscape featured in this post could hardly be more different. The painting is a blend of greens, oranges and browns, with only the cloudy sky for escape. The immense tree  almost disappears into the mountains behind it. We would not know where the tree ends and the ground begins were it not for the figures that may or may not be women. Their forms are simply a few blobs of white paint with touches of red complimenting the greens. Our eyes, searching for something recognizable, see an umbrella in the horizontal stroke and believe it is held by a woman.

Detail from Landscape with Women under a Large Tree

Detail from Landscape with Women under a Large Tree

The detail (below) from the center of the tree reveals the artist’s brushwork. (These details were taken from a photograph and only suggest what could be seen on the original painting.) Pissarro used small groups of diagonal strokes to construct the tree. Just above the spiky white form at the bottom, we see groups of light green diagonal strokes and nearby a patch of orange strokes. To the left, larger fatter strokes call attention to a dark area that creates a negative space. Nowhere in this painting do we see a realistic leaf or group of leaves, only groups of brushstrokes. The strokes depicting the treetop silhouetted against the sky are so thin that they virtually dissolve into the gray-white clouds. Near the center top of the trees, some bare limbs are outlined in white. This is the primary clue that the brown, green and orange form might be a tree.

Detail from Landscape with Women under a Large Tree

Detail from Landscape with Women under a Large Tree

Pissarro traveled to Venezuela with his friend Fritz Melbye, who painted native scenes in which different types of trees, bushes and vines can be identified. Pissarro also made some paintings like that as shown in Tropical Forest, Galipan.

Tropical Forest, Galipan c. 1854  PDR 6 Private collection

Tropical Forest, Galipan
c. 1854 PDR 6
Private collection

What then was Pissarro’s intent in painting the tree? Clearly, it was not a painting of the women since they are indistinguishable. He obviously was not recording botanical elements since there are no details of the foliage.

Pissarro downplayed the reality of the scene in order to call attention to the paint—the brushstrokes themselves, the groups of strokes used to construct the forms, the subtle variations in colors—dark greens, medium greens, light gray-greens, burnt orange. If you forget the tree, you see dark spaces invaded on the right by light tans and on the left by light greens.

Look again at the detail above and you see abstract painting similar to that created in the 1950s. Remember: this was 1854-55; Pissarro was only 24 years old, had not yet moved to Paris, and Impressionism was 20 years in the future.



The Dieppe Railway 1886 PDR 828 Philadelphia Museum of Art Philadelphia, PA

The Dieppe Railway
1886 PDR 828
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia, PA

Pissarro painted The Dieppe Railway in 1886, following the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in which he showed his Pointillist works. You have to look closely to even see the train, just to left of the canvas center. The train itself is not important—it is simply there as a reference point in a composition of geometric shapes and color blocks. In many of his paintings, Pissarro used sketchy trees and figures to make what are essentially abstract compositions look more like familiar scenes.

Some 25 years later (around 1911), Pablo Picasso who created Cubism, talked about including familiar objects in his abstract paintings, calling them “attributes,” to characterize the subject matter. He said, “The attributes were the few points of reference designed to bring one back to visual reality, recognizable to anyone.”*

While the actual location of this painting is not important, I believe this scene was near the Éragny railroad station just across the highway from his home. This current photograph shows the railroad track, the contours of the fields, and the same blue hills in the distance.

Eragny train7

We usually expect a painting to show something important or at least something pretty, but there is not much distinctive about this particular space. Rather than a typical subject, Pissarro chose these oddly-shaped color fields.

In the large foreground, he created a golden field with points of color, ranging from light yellow to gold, coral to red, and a bit of light green. To the right is an odd shape composed of green and dark blue spots, flecked with a little gold. It is obviously a shadow but we do not know its origin (possibly the old train station that is no longer there but appears in historic postcards). The green fields in the distance, made of light and dark green dots, are edged with golden fields of the same intensity as the foreground. Even the distant hills are blue dots of different shades mixed with ivory flecks. The cloudy sky absorbs the ivory points and mixes them with dots of yellow and coral. Above the clouds, light blue dots fill the top of the canvas with blue.

Pissarro must have made this painting as a showcase for Pointillism and fields of color. The composition and use of paint are far more important than the picture of the train. When we look at this painting today, we can say it is virtually abstract—Pissarro couldn’t do that.  In 1886, the word abstract had not yet been used in relation to art.

*Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection (2013) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 139


Vue de Bazincourt, Brouillard c. 1894    PDR 1024 Private collection

Vue de Bazincourt, Brouillard
 c. 1894 PDR 1024  Private collection

“Vue de Bazincourt, Brouillard” (1894, PDR 1024) is a tiny oil painting, about 13 by 16 inches, but it is a little treasure. It was among the paintings available at this fall’s Impressionist auctions, and one very discerning collector took it home.

Pissarro made this painting at his home in Érany-sur-Epte.  He may have been working beside the back window of his studio, a remodeled barn in the field behind his home. He was looking across the tiny Epte River, indicated by the slightly darker line with trees on the sides, towards the church steeple in the neighboring village of Bazincourt. It must have been early spring because the pastures have a tinge of green, and the horizontal stripe in the foreground appears to be plowed ground. Everything looks misty because of the heavy fog.

The mauve-like color in the foreground fades into pale green, which merges into pale coral before disappearing into the gray blue sky. When you see this painting in person, the fog appears much heavier, and the colors and shapes are less distinct.  In fact, it you stand back from it, it looks like a Rothko, simply strips of color fading one into the other.

Pissarro was painting what he saw, but he did not see a village and fields and trees. He simply saw strips of color—an abstract motif.

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View of the Village of Éragny 1885   PDR 790 Birminghaam (AL) Museum of Art

View of the Village of Éragny, 1885,  PDR 790,  Birminghaam (AL) Museum of Art

This wonderful view of the village of Éragny is in the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama.  Recently, I had an opportunity to see the painting in person and study it closely. You would be deceived if you think this is simply a lovely landscape. Like so many of Pissarro’s paintings, there is a lot more to it than that.

Camille Pissarro and his family had just moved to Éragny in April of 1884. Delighted with new topographical subjects, he painted through the snowy winter. When he made this panoramic landscape in the early spring of 1885, he seemed to be taking the measurements of this new location. The current photo of Éragny (below) shows that it has changed little since he lived there.

Rue Camille Pissarro Éragny sur Epte

Rue Camille Pissarro
Éragny sur Epte

To get the view in the painting, Pissarro crossed the road (now Rue Camille Pissarro) in front of his house and walked beyond the houses on the other side to look back at the village. All the local landmarks are visible. In the center of the painting, the steeple of the church at Éragny pierces the sky. The current photograph below shows that the steeple is quite high, especially for a church that small (the two sections in front of the steeple are recent additions). It appears that Pissarro gave the steeple in his painting some added height, perhaps to take it above the row of trees in the background and make it easier for us to see. To the left are the towers of the large manor house which dates from the sixteenth century and was built for the lord of Éragny (see the current photograph below).  

         Church at Éragny  Eragny chateau

This painting is one of those by Pissarro that can be viewed at many levels. The very casual observer might barely slow down, labeling it as a pleasant picture of a peaceful village. Others might do as we just did, examine the picture for landmarks and try to feel a sense of the village and the bare fields pictured there.

But there is so much more to see. Pissarro saw the “skeleton” of the view and responded with what look like broad swaths of color in the foreground. Near the bottom, a darker area, then a lighter green strip, and a reddish section, which could have been newly-plowed ground preparing for spring planting. It leads our eyes on the right to the small wooden fence which stretches across the width of the canvas. The regularity of the horizontal lines is then interrupted by the jumble of houses lining both sides of the main street. Except for Bazincourt in the distant middle ground, there are fields leading to the horizon lined with tree tops.

What Pissarro does within these designated spaces is the most interesting of all and can easily be seen in the dark area at the bottom. He achieves the color and texture by placing small patches of color side by side, varying the mix to make it darker or lighter.

This looks like pointillism, and in fact Pissarro had come to his own interpretation of pointillism before ever meeting Georges Seurat.  For years, he had been interested in the division of color and had been reading the scientific writings of Michel Eugène Chevruel and Ogden Rood, an American scientist. When he met Seurat a few months after making this painting, he was excited to find someone else who shared his interest in color. 

This is just another example of how Pissarro was always ahead of his time, pushing forward, investigating, experimenting, innovating. In fact, if you mentally eliminate the village from this painting, it would almost look abstract.



Misty Morning at Creil, 1873 Camille Pissarro

Pissarro used realistic elements to create scenes that now appear almost abstract, as demonstrated by the comparison of Misty Morning at Creil, 1873, with Rothko’s Untitled, 1969. Certainly color field paintings were unimaginable in the vocabulary of the Impressionists, but from the current post-abstract perspective, the similarities in the two paintings are apparent.


Untitled, 1969  Mark Rothko

The simple reading of the Pissarro painting is that of a common landscape, depicting a condition of weather.  All of the Impressionists were interested in portraying various types of weather on the canvas, and many of them painted fog or mist in scenes similar to Pissarro’s.  However, most of these artists provided some kind of recognizable focal point to draw the eye.

In Misty Morning, the eye searches for an important focal point, and settles instead on the complementary contrast of the sky and land, two distinct color fields. The dusty blue sky with orange-shaded undertones is surprisingly similar to the top of the Rothko, which is also a dusty blue with shades of orange peeking through the brushstrokes.

The lower half of the Pissarro is not a solid color field like that of the Rothko, but the overall impression is similar.  In the foreground, Pissarro uses the orange-shaded color to depict the muddy ground. Near the crest of the hill, a silvery white frost covers the ground creating an effect similar to that in the lower half of the Rothko.

The elements that add realism and set the Pissarro apart from the Rothko are the images on the horizon. Just right of center is a dark blotch that represents several trees along with shadowy figures. In the center left is another shadowy tree image. While a landscape by another artist might use these figures as a focal point, Pissarro makes them dissolve into the background. The trees are dark blue and the covering mist erases any detail of structure that might grab the eye’s attention. Instead, the trees serve as a simple division between the contrasting colors of the sky and ground.

The use of human figures tends to draw the eye, but here Pissarro has minimized their importance. The color of the woman’s upper garment blends with the trees while her skirt is the same color as the ground. The man is practically invisible, with a cap the color of the trees and clothing that fades into the background.  There may or may not be another shadowy figure farther up the hill.

The obvious effort that Pissarro made to blend the people and trees into the background suggests that they are not to be considered focal points. The obvious point of interest is the complementary contrast between the sky and ground, two color fields only slightly more complicated than those depicted in the Rothko painting.

One might say that Pissarro just painted the scene as he saw it, and that he did not “intentionally” paint something that today can be compared to Rothko’s color fields. While Pissarro would not have used the same vocabulary, he certainly was striving for different effects throughout his career. To accept the obvious in his paintings is to miss the point of his work. It is only on close scrutiny that his genius is recognized.

A Puzzle to Mid-Nineteenth Century Eyes…Still Puzzling Now

Hoar-Frost at Ennery

1873 Musée d’Orsay, Paris  PDR 285

One cold winter morning, Pissarro carried his easel directly north of Pontoise to the fields of nearby Ennery. The painting he made there, Hoar-Frost at Ennery, was shown in the first exhibition of the Impressonists at Nadar’s studio in Paris in 1874.

Responses from some of the art critics of the time were extremely harsh. One critic pointed out what was considered one of the most serious mistakes of that era, showing shadows on the ground of trees that are not in the picture. Another proclaimed that the painting had “neither head nor tail, neither top nor bottom, neither front nor back.”

Even to our eyes, the painting is dramatically different from other Impressionist paintings. This is no Sisley landscape with reflections in the river or Monet haystacks. Those are simple to understand. At first glance, this painting seems commonplace with the horizon line two-thirds of the way to the top. But below that is an extremely complex composition. The only familiar reference points are the bare trees and the peasant. Two-thirds of the painting is a patchwork of colors crisscrossed by parallel lines with a dark green anchor near the center. The work could be that of a contemporary abstract artist.



La Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise 1877, The National Gallery, London - PDR 488

Many of the paintings of Camille Pissarro are unquestionably Impressionistic icons. Others, however, have surprising elements uncharacteristic of the typical Impressionist model. These unexpected aspects occur more frequently in Pissarro’s late paintings, but they also appear in works completed early in his career when Impressionism was at its peak. Puzzling and out of the ordinary, they make some Pissarro paintings difficult to read with the usual Impressionist language.

This visionary artist invented techniques that foreshadowed not only pointillism, his well-known diversion from Impressionism, but other techniques that would not even have a name until the mid-20th century. This comparison of a painting by Pissarro with one of Jackson Pollock reveals just how far Pissarro pushed into the future.

Pissarro and other Impressionists developed a new art that expressed their visual sensations. They painted modern life with bright high-keyed colors and visible brush strokes. They painted en plein air, gathering their sensations from the scene itself. In this inventive and defiant environment, Pissarro turned his back on academic painting and the Salon.

Like Pissarro, Jackson Pollock began with the academic painting of his day. A student of Thomas Hart Benton, he learned the rules of representational painting. However, a new spirit was brewing in New York, one that would discard realism and retain only its essence. When abstract expressionism did not yield the latitude he required, Pollock spread his canvas on the floor, layered it with color, and dribbled it with paint.

The link between Pissarro and Pollock was first observed three decades ago by the distinguished art historian Christopher Lloyd, who said, “The degree of sophistication in the variety and application of colour by Pissarro … finds a distant echo in, for example, the canvases of Jackson Pollock.” Though the careers of the two artists were separated by fifty years, a comparison of two of their paintings provides evidence that both artists were pushing the boundaries of current painting in ways that are strikingly similar.

Enchanted Forest 1947, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

In a study of Pissarro’s La Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise and Pollock’s Enchanted Forest, the ironic resemblance in names is irrelevant in light of other more remarkable parallels. The most obvious comparison is the verticality of both paintings. The upright format of the Pissarro is in itself unusual because at that time most landscapes, both Impressionist and academic, had a horizontal format. Pollock’s painting is also vertical and even more slender relative to its height.

In 1877 when Pissarro painted this canvas, most Impressionists used techniques of painting, composition, and color to draw attention to a single subject—a church, a bridge, a bank of flowers. However, this painting, like many of Pissarro’s works, has no central focal point. The artist fails to define what he means the viewer to see. The background is blocked by a hill, creating a high horizon line and allowing little room for blue sky and clouds. The houses, set on the hill at various levels, are not the focus; they are virtually hidden by a screen of tall trees, forcing the eye to work through a maze for a glimpse of their red roofs. The trees are obviously not the focal point because all the viewer sees is their middle portion. The treetops are cut off by the upper edge of the canvas. The tree roots are hidden by scrubby bushes, so bland in color that they clearly are not the focus. To the left, a small brook runs across the corner; but it is so insignificant in size, placement, and color that it often goes unnoticed. Peering out of the buses are two small faces that, if they are seen at all, challenge the viewer to wonder about their presence. Indeed, there is no clear focal point at all. The obvious conclusion is that Pissarro meant the viewer to see the overall painting—together as one unit—forcing the eye to wander without guidance in and out of the trees.

In the Enchanted Forest, the thin painted swirls resemble Pissarro’s tall curvaceous tree branches and scrubby bushes. The lower layers are spread with warm earth tones from bottom to top and dotted with small thin splashes of a rusty red similar to Pissarro’s red roofs. The upper layers are a tangle of green, beige and black arches and curves, which form an effective screen for the colors below. [Colors in photos are rarely as good as in person.] As in the Pissarro, there is no focal point. The eye wanders restlessly in and out of the swirls and beneath the various layers to find the painting, which can only be seen in its totality.

In 1955, Clement Greenberg gave this phenomenon the name of “all-over” painting, and abstract expressionists used the technique to banish representational painting. Eighty years earlier, Pissarro was already using all-over painting with no focal point. Even though the elements in his painting—trees, houses, hill and sky—are recognizable, the viewer sees them simply as abstract elements that dissolve into the painting’s unity. In fact, all-over painting became a feature of many of his landscapes and cityscapes.

Though the Pissarro motif suggests depth, the intensity of colors push the background forward, flattening the perspective and making the view appear more shallow than one would imagine. In the Pollock painting, the impasto of the multiple layers suggests that the painting has depth. Yet the swirls and splatters contain the eye within the shallow view.

Pissarro and Pollock also used color in similar ways. In Pissarro’s landscape, the earth tone colors are nearly the same value, low keyed to suggest the shade of the trees and perhaps late afternoon shadows. Even the blue sky is hazy, with grayish white clouds and no obvious sun. Similarly, Pollock used earth tones of close values, low-keyed and shadowy along with black. The hints of red are a muted brick. The green of the drippings is low-key, fitting into the earth tone palette.

Both paintings use color and thickly applied texture to define layers. Pissarro used brushes to build thick masses of pigment on the canvas. Pollock used heavy coats of paint topped with swirls and splatters. While the two paintings are decidedly different, the effect they achieve is amazingly similar.

Pissarro pushed his innovative layering and all-over painting to the limit in the 1870s, but it had no name until eight decades later when Pollock and other abstract expressionists refined the concept.

* PDR – Number of painting in the Pissarro:Critical Catalogue of Paintings. Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, 2005.
Varnadoe, Kirk. Jackson Pollock. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998, pp 23 and 47.
Lloyd, Christopher. Pissarro. New York: Rizzoli Interntional Publications, Inc. 1981, p 110.
Lloyd, Christopher. Camille Pissarro: St. Thomas to Paris. London:Stern Pissarro Gallery, 2003, p 44.
Greenberg, Clement. “American-type” Painting. Partisan Review. 1955; 22:179-196.


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