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.