Posts Tagged 'Corot'

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 LOOKS BACK AT PONTOISE

Landscape at Pontoise, c. 1879 Private collection PDR600

Landscape at Pontoise, c. 1879
Private collection PDR 600

Several wonderful Pissarro paintings are available in the Spring sales of Impressionist paintings in New York City this year. This one, “Landscape at Pontoise,” will be offered in the Day Sale on May 15, 2015 at Christie’s. It will be especially exciting to see it in person since the Pissarro catalogue raisonné (2005) contains only a black-and-white photograph. The provenance provided by Christie’s does not list any exhibitions, so it probably has not been on view for a long time.

It is a vertical painting, generally considered an unusual choice for a landscape. At that time, most artists used horizontal canvases that would give them plenty of room on each side of their focal point. This painting is also tiny, only 16 1/8 x 13 inches, a little treasure.

Pissarro uses more than half the canvas for a thick screen of tall poplar trees which prevents us from seeing the village of Pontoise in the distance. All we get is a narrow space through which we see the steeple of the church of Saint-Maclou, now a cathedral, and a couple of red roofs. Even in this close-up, the church steeple is indistinct and though our eyes are drawn to it, it is obviously not a the most important element (focal point) in the painting.

steeple detail

In the foreground, we see a woman bending over and a man in the distance. As we know, many of Pissarro’s paintings have no particular focal point–no large or important element that dominates the view. In this one, both the woman and man are mere sketches rendered in a few brushstrokes and hardly large enough to be important.

woman detail

Though the trees dominate the painting, they have no real importance–all they do is prevent us from seeing what is beyond. Pissarro developed this device about ten years earlier in his 1869 painting, “The Village Screened by Trees.” According to the catalogue raisonné, that was the first time that he used this screening device.

The Village Screened by Trees  c. 1869 Private collection PDR 134

The Village Screened by Trees c. 1869
Private collection PDR 134

We see trees used in similar ways in the paintings of Corot, with whom Pissarro had painted as a young man. But Corot’s paintings always had a focal point, and his trees were never as thick and as dominant as those in Pissarro’s screens.  Pissarro continued to use this compositional device throughout his career. Because this painting has no real focal point, we are forced to look at the painting literally as paint on canvas and enjoy the energy and movement of Pissarro’s brushstrokes.

The Lot Notes provided by Christie’s for this painting say, “Paysage à Pontoise was painted during a period when Pissarro was increasingly using small, stabbing brushstrokes of color to render his images, prefiguring Neo-Impressionism. … Pissarro has paid particular attention to enriching the painted surface with a stippling effect on the trees and the overgrown field.”

trees detail

Pissarro is painting in a way that was still very new for that time. He made this painting in 1879, the year of the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition. The art establishment of that time continued to favor paintings in which brushstrokes were invisible and the surface of the painting was smooth.  Pissarro is, once again, defying the accepted practice. Seen up close, it looks like he was applying the paint with wild abandonment–stabs of blue and white in the sky and green and dark green for the trees. A faint touch of light red among the green gives it even more brilliance.

This view of Pontoise from the nearby village of Ennery was lovely on a sunny day, but Pissarro was not interested in giving us a photographic reproduction. If all we see is the location, then we have missed the point. Pissarro used this view to provide an engaging design for putting paint on canvas.

RADICAL PAINTING CLOTHED IN SIMPLICITY

The Village Screened by Trees c. 1869   PDR 134 Private collection

The Village Screened by Trees
             c. 1869 PDR 134
             Private collection

This stunning painting, The Village Screened by Trees, (1869) seems so simple, yet it is an enigma. There is a village bathed in the crisp clear sunlight of autumn. We long to hurry through the trees to see it more clearly. But Pissarro holds us back and forces us to take a more complicated view. A thick stand of tall trees creates a screen that blocks our sight line and demands our attention. This is the first of Pissarro’s paintings to use this unique device in composition.

Some of Pissarro’s earlier paintings were similar to those of Corot in that they used rows or groups of trees to frame the view. This painting, however, does the opposite—the trees obstruct the view, forcing our eyes to wander in an out of the spindly tree trunks to piece together our view of the village. Years later, Pissarro took this device to the extreme in his painting La Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise (1877) with a screen of trees that covers the entire canvas.

We could ask why Pissarro did this, but there is no answer. What we do know is that most Impressionist paintings have a clear focal point, and the picture’s elements are arranged so that the motif is easily understood. This composition of this picture does the opposite. In 1869, five years before the First Impressionist Exhibition, Pissarro’s concept of forcing the viewer to look through a screen was totally radical.

This painting presents other puzzles as well. Most landscapes are horizontal in shape, but this one is vertical, which easily accommodates the tall trees. While the actual date of the painting is unknown, it has been placed at 1869, the year Pissarro moved to Louveciennes. Scholars say that the actual village is unknown since its particular topography does not appear to match Pissarro’s other views of either Louveciennes or Pontoise.

However, Pissarro points the way through the screen. Directly in front of us is a walkway leading to the village and a smaller path branching off to the right. Together, they form a strong V that anchors the composition. Just to be sure we don’t miss it, Pissarro places a small figure of a woman in the angle. He repeats this angle in the limbs of the tree just above her head and again in the background with the two sections of wall leading into the picture from each side.

While some might think this painting somewhat bland compared with other works of its time, it is, in fact, highly sophisticated and experimental. Perhaps if so many of Pissarro’s paintings of this period had not been lost in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-18871), he would be correctly recognized as the artist who was far ahead of his time. 



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