Posts Tagged 'Franco-Prussian War'

PISSARRO IN VIENNA

Rue de Gisors - 1868 Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria PDR 127

Rue de Gisors – 1868
Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria PDR 127

 

Pissarro made several paintings on the Rue de Gisors in Pontoise, but this one is unlike any of the others.  He painted it during his first stay in Pontoise before the beginnings of Impressionism.

The paintings he made of this street after the Franco-Prussian war show a different part of the street, a high traffic area looking towards the center of town.  This view appears to be the other end the street, looking toward a faraway hill.  At this point, he was still using black in his paintings, as shown by the woman in the black dress on the left. The colors appear to be dark, but this may be simply the an accumulation of residue from more than a hundred years ago.

This painting is one of the few surviving paintings made by Pissarro that date before 1872, the end of the Franco-Prussian War.  During 1870-71, Pissarro fled with his family, first to Brittany and then to London, where he stayed until the war was over.  While he was gone, his home in Louveciennes was used by Prussian soldiers to house their horses and soldiers. They used his canvases to butcher animals and to cover mud in the garden. At that time, he was in his early 40s, and nearly all of his life’s work was destroyed.  Only about 30 paintings survive from those early days.

This painting provides a special insight into Pissarro’s art before Impressionism. I had a chance to see this painting recently in Vienna and here is a little bit of what I learned. His painting was already radical. The composition focuses on the wide cobblestone street with walkways on either side which appears to go downhill. The buildings on the right side of the street are typical and are very much like buildings on that street today. It is the left side of the composition that is so curious. Beside the road on the left is a tiny house partially hidden behind a row of slender trees. In photographs, it is difficult to see the roofline behind the trees, but in person, it is barely visible. To the left is an open space showing sky and then a tiny sliver of another building. If the little trees had been on the left edge of the canvas, the composition would have looked very ordinary. As it is, your attention is drawn to the empty space instead. Other people in the painting seem to be doing something or going somewhere, but the mysterious woman in the black dress is just standing there on the grass. We might not notice her except for the white ruffle on her dress.

There is much more in this painting that is radical for its time, and I will write more about it in another post.

A VERY EARLY PISSARRO MASTERPIECE

Unloading a Barge, Sunset c. 1864    PDR 85 Private collection

Unloading a Barge, Sunset
c. 1864 PDR 85
Private collection

“Unloading a Barge, Sunset” (PDR 85) is an incredible painting, even in a photograph. Painted about 1864, it is one of the few survivors of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) during which thousands of Pissarro’s artworks were destroyed. We can only wonder how many other beautiful canvases were lost.

At first glance, we are reminded of the painting that gave Impressionism its name, Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (1872). Pissarro made this painting eight years before Monet’s painting and ten years before the First Impressionist Exhibition. It is possible that Monet saw this painting by Pissarro in Louveciennes when they painted together before the War.

Even at this early stage in his career (Pissarro had come to Paris only nine years earlier), the artist was making his own rules. The standards for art during those days was set by the French Academy in their annual Salon exhibitions. Their mandates were clear: important topics, historical or mythical; smooth finish, no visible brushstrokes; giant canvases suitable for public buildings, and more. This painting defies every dictum.

The focal point is clear—a dark, shadowy barge in the foreground, its mast pointing our eyes to the top of the canvas. It depicts a workaday scene, a man pushing a wheelbarrow down the gangplank unloading goods. On the other side, a man standing in a small skiff works with someone on deck. At the right edge, a small white sailboat describes the width of the river and emphasizes the painting’s strong asymmetrical composition. The painting is tiny by any standards, approximately 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches.

Unlike most of Pissarro’s later paintings, the title of this one does not indicate the location. But the type of boat and width of the river suggest that the location could be somewhere on the Seine River near Paris. Pissarro had made other paintings of barges at La Roche Guyon, a village near Giverny, and this might be the scene, but with the background subsumed in blue-grey shadows, it is impossible to know for sure.

The boat and all the figures are mere silhouettes against the sunset, brilliantly depicted with bold brushstrokes and heavy impasto, paint layered on as thick as butter on toast. The brilliance of the sun is masterful, created with a cool pale yellow which we see as white hot. Its heat tinges the nearby clouds with rose, coral and pale pink fading gradually into the darker blue of the overcast sky. In the dark water, shimmers of white and gold and red surround the dark reflection of the barge.

Many artists would have moved beyond the barge to give the sunset and the glimmering water the most emphasis. But Pissarro forces us to look at the boat first and makes our eyes work to get beyond it to the colors in the sky.  A radical composition and a true treasure.

——————

Many readers from this blog are from Germany—there are at least two today! Over the past few months, 348 views have been from Germany.  If you are one of those, or if you are from Belgium, France, or any nearby country, you might be interested in this Pissarro exhibition!

PISSARRO, FATHER OF IMPRESSIONISM

Von der Heydt Museum

Wuppertal, Germany

Until February 22, 2015

http://www.pissarro-ausstellung.de/

The exhibition contains nearly 60 paintings by Pissarro and an even larger number of his works on paper—drawings, etchings, prints, wood block prints and all types of media. They are paired with a large number of paintings by other painters of that time, most notably paintings by Fritz Melbye, who went with Pissarro to Venezuela, and Ludovic Piette, his very close friend and owner of Montfoucault, a large farm in Brittany where Pissarro and his family visited frequently.

There are also paintings and drawings by such artists as Corot, Daubigny, Courbet, Manet, Gauguin, Monet, Sisley, Signac, Cézanne, Seurat, and other painters contemporary with Pissarro.

There are many early paintings and paintings from private collections on view that I have never seen.  I am going to see the exhibition in early December.  If you are in Germany and plan to see the exhibition, let me know. (annsaul33@pissarrosplaces.com)

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. 

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

 



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