Posts Tagged 'First Impressionist Exhibition'

Pissarro: Impressionist or Abstract?

290-ploughed-fields1873-copy-2

Ploughed Fields Near Osny 1873 Private Collection PDRS 290

Many of Pissarro’s paintings fit the expected Impressionist “mold,” but his œuvre is full of paintings that do not match that style and are difficult to explain. For instance, the painting, Ploughed Fields Near Osny, made one year before the first Impressionist Exhibition, seems almost strange compared to most Impressionist paintings. While it depicts an imminent change in weather, there is none of the lightness and “prettiness” we have come to expect from the Impressionists.

What it offers is far more interesting—an earthy grid of colors and texture—large rectangles—one of deep purple in the foreground fading into brick red and then light salmon, others of different shades of green. The areas are further defined by varying brushstrokes—tiny repetitive up-and-down strokes next to circular forms and in the next section, short puddles of paint that create a mottled effect. While it appears to be a commonplace study in perspective, the genius of Pissarro places the view at a slight diagonal and curves the horizon line ever so gently. The farmer following two white horses and the three trees are just window-dressing for this captivating painting based on an abstract pattern.

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WHERE’S THE FOCAL POINT?

La Côte des Jalais, Pontoise 1867    PDR 116 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

La Côte des Jalais, Pontoise
1867 PDR 116
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

At first glance, this painting looks very much like any other Impressionist landscape in museums. But what if I were to tell you this is an extremely radical painting? One critic who wrote in 1868 about this painting said, “It is painted with great simplicity; the details, executed in groups, give one the impression they were studied singly. There is a great pictorial talent here, to be sure; unfortunately, it lacks a subject.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Today, we look at abstract art and are totally unconcerned that it rarely has a subject. We don’t even expect it. But historically, paintings were “pictures of something,” a church, a river, a person, or a group of people. In fact, the most favored paintings at the Salon were expected to show famous historical or mythological scenes. Landscapes were much less important to them, and it had to have a focal point—one thing that is the center of attention. The focal point was prominently positioned, a brighter color, or larger than other elements. In other words, it was obvious what the artist wanted you to look at.

This large painting (34.2” x 45.2”) by Pissarro was exhibited in the Salon of 1868, where reportedly it was hung too high to be seen properly. But the critic could see it well enough to determine that it has no focal point. In the lower foreground, two women dressed in fashionable dresses are seen on the path. In a painting by Monet or Renoir, they would probably be the focal point, but Pissarro makes them so small, we cannot even see their faces or distinguish any details of their dresses. Additionally, they are dwarfed by the tall trees directly behind them.

Just left of the women is a group of houses, but they do not provide a focal point. They derive their importance only by their proximity to each other. They are fashioned with few brush strokes, and get their only sense of depth from the roof lines. The right side is dominated by a large dark wedge; it is impossible to distinguish bushes or trees in the tangle of dark green brushstrokes.

The curved lines of the fields are the only clues that there is a deep valley between distant horizon line and the women. The fields are painted in broad swaths of color that flatten the background and make them look closer than they would in reality. Pissarro, who had already proven himself to be proficient in painting accurate perspective, has chosen to flatten out this landscape. He never intended to make a perfect photographic replica, as the Realistic painters did. He was painting a composition of different colors and shapes set side-by-side.  He simply used the real motif as a spark for his own personal sensation.

No one would call this an abstract painting—too much is recognizable, but the flatness of the painting and the broad swathes of color are abstract elements. But radical for its time—yes, indeed.  And this was seven years before the first Impressionist Exhibition. Pissarro was using artistic techniques that were different from all other artists before that time and those who were his friends.

Much of the information in this article is from Pissarro:Critical Catalogue, Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005).

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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