Posts Tagged 'Philadelphia Museum of Art'

Camille Pissarro’s Birthday – July 10, 1830

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

SO WHERE’S THE TRAIN?

The Dieppe Railway 1886 PDR 828 Philadelphia Museum of Art Philadelphia, PA

The Dieppe Railway
1886 PDR 828
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia, PA

Pissarro painted The Dieppe Railway in 1886, following the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in which he showed his Pointillist works. You have to look closely to even see the train, just to left of the canvas center. The train itself is not important—it is simply there as a reference point in a composition of geometric shapes and color blocks. In many of his paintings, Pissarro used sketchy trees and figures to make what are essentially abstract compositions look more like familiar scenes.

Some 25 years later (around 1911), Pablo Picasso who created Cubism, talked about including familiar objects in his abstract paintings, calling them “attributes,” to characterize the subject matter. He said, “The attributes were the few points of reference designed to bring one back to visual reality, recognizable to anyone.”*

While the actual location of this painting is not important, I believe this scene was near the Éragny railroad station just across the highway from his home. This current photograph shows the railroad track, the contours of the fields, and the same blue hills in the distance.

Eragny train7

We usually expect a painting to show something important or at least something pretty, but there is not much distinctive about this particular space. Rather than a typical subject, Pissarro chose these oddly-shaped color fields.

In the large foreground, he created a golden field with points of color, ranging from light yellow to gold, coral to red, and a bit of light green. To the right is an odd shape composed of green and dark blue spots, flecked with a little gold. It is obviously a shadow but we do not know its origin (possibly the old train station that is no longer there but appears in historic postcards). The green fields in the distance, made of light and dark green dots, are edged with golden fields of the same intensity as the foreground. Even the distant hills are blue dots of different shades mixed with ivory flecks. The cloudy sky absorbs the ivory points and mixes them with dots of yellow and coral. Above the clouds, light blue dots fill the top of the canvas with blue.

Pissarro must have made this painting as a showcase for Pointillism and fields of color. The composition and use of paint are far more important than the picture of the train. When we look at this painting today, we can say it is virtually abstract—Pissarro couldn’t do that.  In 1886, the word abstract had not yet been used in relation to art.

*Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection (2013) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 139



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