Chestnut Grove at Louveciennes [PDRS 233], painted by Pissarro in 1872, is one of three Pissarro masterpieces that will be on exhibition when the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art opens their newly renovated Bloch Galleries on March 11. This painting alone makes a cross-country flight to Kansas City worthwhile.
When Pissarro returned to Louveciennes after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), he immediately began painting sites near his own home. This grove of trees must have been very close since the Marly Aqueduct, visible in the background, also ran behind Pissarro’s house.
In real life, these few trees may have looked rather ordinary, but Pissarro used them to make a painting that is no less than radical. The trees make dark slashes across the sky and dig deep into the canvas. They force you to pay attention—nothing else is important, not the pale blue sky or the smattering of houses in the background, not even the Marly Aqueduct.
The big tree in the foreground establishes its preeminence with its broad trunk, white in the sunlight, and one twisted branch reaching up to and out of the canvas at the upper left corner. From the main trunk, another curved branch makes a sharp angle to the right. Between them a large branch seemingly comes from nowhere, extending parallel to the other one. To the right, another tree is bent over at an extremely sharp angle. Its trunk, unusually straight, reaches across half the canvas to the upper right corner. The other trees merely stand by, as straight as their twisted trunks will allow. In the foreground, dark purple shadows radiate from the larger tree, crisscrossing the pale grass even on the side where the sun is shining.
This painting is a grand pas de deux in composition. These two trees command the canvas—their branches embracing the top corners, their shadows making angles on the foreground. And it all comes back to the two trunks, the big gnarly one bent slightly to the left and the slim straight one with its dangerous angle to the right.
What was important to Pissarro was the pattern made by the trees and the shadows. If in your imagination, you eliminate the background and consider only the two trees, this composition might remind you of a painting by Franz Kline, with its bold slashes and sharp angles.
This is why Pissarro was so much more than we ever imagined—even during the birth of Impressionism, he was painting in an abstract manner.