The world thinks of Camille Pissarro as an Impressionist. And indeed, Cezanne called him “The First Impressionist.” But long before that, Pissarro was a highly skilled artist. This painting, which is the first listed in the catalogue raisonne (Pissarro-Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, 2005), is dated 1852-54 and was painted in Venezuela. [Earlier works may have been destroyed when Pissarro’s house was occupied by enemy troops during the Franco-Prussian War, 1870] It clearly demonstrates his knowledge of perspective, figure painting and the effect of brilliant sunlight.
Market Scene on the Plaza Mayor, Caracas 1852-54 PDR 1 Presidential residence, La Casona, Caracas
Two decades later Pissarro was at the forefront of the Impressionist movement, creating innovative ways of painting. This painting from 1873 was shown at the first Impressionist exhibition. While it uses the effect of sunlight and the clear colors of Impressionism, it is so much more. We barely see the trees and bushes and man because our eyes are captured by the multitudes of lines and angles and the play of color dividing one section from the other. Specifically, we can’t help seeing the giant X created by lines from the treetop on the left through the bushes at center and continuing along the top of the dark orange section. It is crossed by a line from the tree on the right though the center bush and down the other side of the dark orange section. We do not see this as just a reproduction of early morning frost. We see how paint is used on canvass, the contrast of light blue and orange in a geometric grid. This painting may be called Impressionist, but it is no less than an abstract painting.
Hoar-Frost at Ennery 1873 Musée d’Orsay PDRS 285
At the age of 56, Pissarro was working in the Pointilist style and made this painting near his home in Éragny. The melange of dots placed closely together produce the different colors, but that is not what draws your attention. The sharp geometric structure create color blocks of yellow and green and blue. It is almost irrelevant that a tiny steam engine is pulling a train into our vision. The shapes look like flat puzzle pieces that fit snugly together. To make sure our eyes stay on the color blocks, Pissarro paints in a neutral cloudy sky above with nothing to distract us from the totally abstract design beneath.
The Dieppe Railway 1886 Philadelphia Museum of Art PDRS 828
In his later years, Pissarro often painted from windows in order to protect his eye which frequently became infected. He spent winters in Paris in various locations. In 1901, he was living at Place Dauphine on the Île de la Citė where he had a splendid view of the Pont -Neuf leading over to the Samaritaine, the large department store on the Right Bank. The painting is warm and lush with golden sunlight bathing the buildings and reflections in the turquoise water.
The Pont-Neuf, Afternoon, Sunlight (First Series) 1901 Philadelphia Museum of Art PDRS 1351
The buildings, which should suggest substance and mass, look instead like flat theatrical sets. The road, a flowing mass teeming with carriages and pedestrians, is only contained by the side of the bridge with its familiar circular spaces glistening bright white creating a strong diagonal line from the bottom of the canvas to center right. While we can’t see the other side of the bridge, we do see another glistening white horizontal block which almost meets the diagonal of the bridge, drawing our eyes to the Samaritaine. When we get there, however, there is almost nothing to see, a rather shadowy building, less distinct than the others, and not even flying the flags that were customary over Samaritaine. Just to balance the strong acute angle and give it stability, Pissarro uses the quai across the river to complete the horizontal. However, he diminishes its importance by making it the same color as the building above it and draws our attention to the reflections in the breathtakingly beautiful turquoise water, which cools down all of the buttery yellow blocks and white hot diagonals.
This painting is clearly a scene we recognize, and it still looks the same today (though some of the Samaritaine buildings were reconfigured under a single facade many years ago). Though this picture is clearly representational, something easily recognized, the power of the abstract geometric elements captures our attention.
Perhaps as we acknowledge Pissarro as the First Impressionist, we should begin to acknowledge the importance of abstract elements in his paintings. Dana Gordon, a New York City artist, said it first and best:
Pissarro traditionally was known as a great landscapist, a translator of nature into art. Pissarro showed that painting’s basic qualities — colors, brushstrokes, materiality, lines, shapes, composition—were meaningful in their own right, and transformed paint into purely visual poetry. He was, in essence, the first abstract artist.