Posts Tagged 'Emile Zola'

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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AN OBVIOUS FOCAL POINT

 

Photo by Émile Zola of Saint Stephen's Church, Dulwich 18988-99

Saint Stephen’s Church, Dulwich, 1870  PDR 181

When Camille Pissarro, Julie and their two children escaped from the Franco-Prussian war, they took shelter in London for several months, December 1870 through June 1871. They finally settled in at Upper Norwood (a town in South London), and Pissarro began painting the streets and fields around his neighborhood. 

Saint Stephen’s Church, Dulwich (PDR 181) was painted during that visit to London. Although Pissarro signed and dated the picture “70” (1870), it must have been painted in the springtime of 1871. He did not arrive in London until December 1870, and he made other paintings showing a snowy winter, not the light green foliage of springtime in this picture.

Pissarro set his easel on the side of College Road with the Sydenham Hill train station behind him. He made another painting from that same spot (PDR 190, undated), but for that one he turned to his right, looking across a field and distant hills.  The foliage in that picture is also green and fresh like this one.

Saint Stephen’s Church was a new building when Pissarro painted it. Built in 1867-68, it is a neo-gothic church with a free-standing tower topped by a spire covered in slate. That neighborhood had developed rapidly after the famous Crystal Palace (from the Great Exhibition of 1851) was moved to the area in 1834. (It was there until it burned to the ground in 1936.) The church and College Road still look very much the same as they did then.

This painting is almost unique in Pissarro’s oeuvre because it has one indisputable focal point, an element that dominates the painting, and is placed exactly in the center of the canvas.  Even so, it is not typical because the focal point is not in the foreground.  It is of course, the tall church tower with its slate-covered steeple, thin and sharp as a needle, which almost pierces the top of the canvas.  It is the one element we cannot ignore and our eyes cannot leave it.  Just in case we don’t get the point (pun intended), Pissarro places a large buggy on the road just beneath it.  Then he positions a man and woman walking toward it.  The trees frame it on either side and the white clouds provide a backdrop. Although the road does curve, Pissarro gives it a sharp angle which leads our eyes to the base of the tower.

Current photos suggest that Pissarro may have exaggerated the height of the tower just a bit, and the spire might be a little slimmer than in real life. The painting also conceals another landmark which we cannot recognize (perhaps a little of Pissarro’s keen sense of humor showing through).  Just to the left of the tower is some sort of grey structure with no identifiable marks.  Local historians who know every inch of their neighborhood’s history have identified that structure as none other than the famous Crystal Palace.

Another famous person also visited that area for a few months in 1898-99. Émile Zola, who had been sentenced to prison in France for writing his famous letter “J’accuse,” escaped to London instead.  He and Pissarro had been friends since they were both young men in Paris, and no doubt he knew the paintings Pissarro had made nearly 30 years earlier in Norwood. Zola, who was an amateur photographer, made a photograph of the exact spot where Pissarro had painted Saint Stephen’s Church.  The tower of Crystal Palace in the background is easily identifiable in his photograph.

Émile Zola's photograph of Saint Stephen's Church

Émile Zola’s photograph of Saint Stephen’s Church

Aside from the focal point, it is important to look at the light-colored palette, the fresh greens, the grey blue of the sky and the golden sunlight spilling across the road. It is a quintessential Impressionist painting and lovely beyond words. It’s no wonder St. Stephen’s Church uses it as their symbol on their website and other materials.  The painting is in a private collection.

For additional information on St. Stephen’s Church, the following websites are helpful.

http://www.raphael-samuel.org.uk/history-trails/trail-pissarro-south-london

http://www.ststephensdulwich.org/history-of-st-stephens/pissaro-at-st-stephens/

http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/74-pissarro-and-norwood.html

PISSARRO’S PLACES

The gorgeous painting featured above is not included in PISSARRO’S PLACES.  One of the criteria for that book is that all paintings be in museums or public places that are easily accessible to everyone.

PISSARRO’S PLACES is still available at Amazon.com, but you can receive a friend’s discount at the book’s website: http://www.pissarrosplaces.com

 

A Winter Landscape

The Banks of the Marne in Winter 1866 Art Institute of Chicago PDR 107

The Banks of the Marne in Winter 1866
Art Institute of Chicago PDR 107

This elegant painting by  Pissarro, which appeared in the Salon of 1866, must have looked very different from the others. It drew the attention of critics, one of whom called it a “vulgar view.” We know that Pissarro lived nearby. After he died, this picture was included in the inventory of his works and was called Landscape at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire. He and his companion Julie were living there the previous spring, when their first daughter Jeanne Rachel was born.

But why this scene, which is so bleak, so empty? It is intriguing because of its mystery—it does not tell a story, does not pamper the eye. It is a tightly-woven geometric structure of horizontal and diagonal lines that pulls you into its web. Anchoring the painting is the straight line beginning with the river bank on the left of the canvas and meeting what we assume is a road with the horse and carriage, then extends through the smattering of houses to the right edge. In the midst of the dark green ground cover, a shorter line of dark earth extends to the right side. Midway up the mountain just below the white house on the crest of the hill is another dark line, presumably a road.

These three more or less parallel lines are slashed by the strong diagonal road leading from the left lower corner, accentuated by spindly leafless trees. A woman walks the other direction to draw our attention to the carriage with white horses at the corner. There are other diagonals, softer ones—the line of trees from the crest of the hill to a house below and a renegade dark line in the clouds above.

For Pissarro, it was enough. And for Emile Zola, a writer and art critic who was seeing Pissarro’s work for the first time, it also was enough. He wrote a long glowing review of the painting including the following comments: “…you ought to know that you please nobody and that your painting is thought to be too bare, too black. So why the devil do you have the arrant awkwardness to paint solidly and study nature so honestly!…Not the least delectation for the eye. A grave and austere kind of painting, an extreme care for truth and rightness, an iron will. You are a clumsy blunderer, sir —you are an artist that I like.”

Looking at a Pissarro painting is not always easy—he requires us to think, to look closely and to question what we see.  This is why his paintings are endlessly interesting.

The quote from Zola is taken from Pissarro:Critical Catalogue, Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005).

This painting is one of 35 paintings by Pissarro featured in the book PISSARRO’S PLACES www.pissarrosplaces.com

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  One winter day while returning on the train from Reims to Paris, I saw a line of hills that looked strikingly familiar, and even more so because of a bright green ground cover of some sort that extended from the railroad tracks to some houses. I quickly checked the GPS of my phone and found, much to my surprise, I was in the very area painted by Pissarro!  



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