Posts Tagged 'Cezanne'

PISSARRO in Copenhagen

Palm tree painting

Landscape from the Antilles, rider and donkey on the road, 1856, Ordrupgaard, Charlottenlund

Copenhagen feels a special connection with Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), and rightly so. The artist was, after all, a Danish citizen his whole life. And his early life was marked by a close connection with a Danish painter named Fritz Melbye (1826-1869). It was their friendship and their influence on each other which inspired the recent exhibition, “Pissarro, a meeting in St. Thomas” at the Ordrupgaard in the outskirts of Copenhagen.

Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830 in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. At that time, St. Thomas and its neighboring islands St. Croix and St. John were the Danish West Indies, a colony of Denmark. Thus, Pissarro was a Danish citizen at birth, and though he spent all of his adult life in France, he never became a French citizen.

After attending school in France, the young man was expected to enter the family business in the Caribbean. But he wanted to be an artist. It was while working on the docks at Charlotte Amalie that he met Fritz Melbye.

Because Melbye was four years older than Pissarro, it might be assumed that he had much to teach the young artist. But Pissarro’s early drawings and paintings show that his technique was already well advanced. What occurred was a collegial sharing of ideas and interests.  They traveled together to Venezuela where for almost two years they worked side-by-side, exploring the mountains and maintaining an art studio in Caracas where they painted and sold their works.

This exhibition brought together a large number of Pissarro’s early drawings, watercolors, and paintings, pairing them with drawings and paintings by Melbye. A large portion of the exhibition was based on work done previously by Richard Brettell on a cache of works that Melbye had left with Frederick William Church (1826-1900) in Olano, New York. Another sizable portion included Pissarro’s early drawings from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK, which were catalogued by Brettell and Christopher Lloyd.

One new discovery was the early Pissarro painting, “Landscape from the Antilles, rider and donkey on the road,” (1856), which was not included in the recent catalogue raisonne by Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005). It may have been bought in France by Anton Melbye (1818-1875), artist and brother of Fritz, and taken back to Denmark at some point.

Pissarro’s drawing, “Rio de Maiquetia,” (1852) shows his skillful use of simple pencil marks to create form and volume. He uses parallel lines, not only to create light and darkness, but to shape the planes of the rocks. Later, he used a similar technique in painting with oils, one that Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) later adopted and developed into his signature technique.

mountains drawing

Rio de Maiquetia, 1852, Private collection.

This early watercolor, “Bridge in Caracas” (1854), much more than a sketch, is a complete painting. Pissarro and Melbye may have made paintings like this to sell in their studio.

new bridge wc

Bridge in Caracas, 1854 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The painting, “Mountain landscape with a cabin,” (c. 1854) leaves no doubt as to Pissarro’s capabilities.  It may have been painted en plein air during one of the trips Pissarro and Melbye took with friends into the mountains that surround Caracas.

hut painting

Mountain landscape with a cabin, c. 1854, Private collection

In our minds, Pissarro has a bald head and a long white beard. But we forget that he was once young and had a full head of hair.  This self-portrait (1857-58) shows him as he must have been during his sojourn in Venezuela—a handsome young man looking earnestly at us with just a hint of a smile.

self=portrait early

Self-portrait, 1857-1858, National Museum of Art, Copenhagen

The value of this exhibition is that it reminds us of the artist Pissarro was before he became an Impressionist.  His work was quite advanced, and he was already experimenting with new ideas and techniques. This inventiveness is what he would carry with him throughout his life, creating some of the most intriguing and beautiful paintings of all time.

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.

1 plaza mayor

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.

EPSON MFP image

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.

railroad-to-dieppe-1886.jpg!Large

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.

Pont-Neuf-1351

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.

REPORT FROM THE PISSARRO EXHIBITION AT WUPPERTAL, GERMANY

La Place du Théâtre Français 1898   PDR 1208 Los Angeles Count Museum of Art

La Place du Théâtre Français
1898 PDR 1208
Los Angeles Count Museum of Art

The exhibition at Wuppertal, Germany, “Pissarro, Father of Impressionism,” is an extensive retrospective of Pissarro’s lifework, including a wide selection of paintings and works on paper from his earliest days as an artist. This painting, “La Place du Théâtre Français,” is one of several he painted during a long stay at the Hotel du Louvre from December 1898 to Spring 1899.It was about this time of year—the leaves were off the trees and people were bundled up in coats and hats.

Pissarro had the capacity to focus closely, and it served him well during this painting expedition. Paris was sharply divided over the Dreyfus Affair. Earlier that year, Émile Zola had published his famous letter “J’accuse,” which had incited public demonstrations. At night, anti-Semitic mobs were filling the streets, and as a Jew, Pissarro may have been in danger. Some of his colleagues and dear friends turned against him, including Renoir, Degas, and Cézanne. Through it all, he calmly painted the daytime scenes, portraying business as usual.

From his suite of rooms on the front of the Hotel Louvre, he had an excellent view straight down the Avenue de l’Opera to the fashionable new Opera Garnier. He did not usually paint famous sites or important buildings, and in the ten paintings he made of that street, the magnificent building is barely visible.

In this painting, he ignores the street and buildings to concentrate on the busy, traffic-filled intersection directly in front of the hotel. There is no horizon line, no sky, not even edges to the painting. The traffic literally runs off the canvas. Traffic is going in every direction with no regulations apparent. Pedestrians walk in the middle of the street among carriages, wagons full of produce and filled omnibuses. Pissarro gives order to the scene, using the largest omnibus to anchor the composition on the lower edge.

As he does sometimes, Pissarro uses the tallest tree to divide the canvas. On the right is a large pedestrian island and a small red building. Behind that and near the top of the canvas are white columns that indicate the presence of a large building. To the left of the tree is the helter-skelter of heavy traffic, regulated slightly by the small circle holding the tall street light and a larger circle at the top of the canvas with a fountain.

The whole scene looks like miniature figures on a tilted table, almost as if they are sliding into our lap. To emphasize the motion, Pissarro created a line on the street beginning at left corner and extending to the head of the brown horse pulling the omnibus. To the right, the street is lighter compared to the left. Is there a shadow on the street? There is no way to know because we can see neither the sky nor the buildings that might be blocking the sun.

If a contemporary artist made a painting like that today, we would call it an all-over abstract painting. It goes beyond the canvas edges on every side and it tells no story. This is another example of how far ahead of his time Pissarro was. The techniques he developed more than a hundred years ago now seem very ordinary to us, and we forget that he was such a radical and inventive artist.



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