The year 1885 marked the beginning of what has come to be known as Pissarro’s neo-Impressionist phase. The artist, who was living near Paris, Eragny-sur-Epte followed the studies of Seurat and Signac whom he had met through Guillaumin. These studies aimed at developing a new technique based on scientific principles such as breaking down colors into primary and secondary and applying them to the canvas in small dots of pure, unmixed pigment to render the true values of light. Closely placed points – or dots – of color create an effect of greater luminosity that Pissarro defined as an” optical mixture”. In any event, in Pissarro’s work the scientific rigor of Seurat and Signac is limited by his tendency to “build” space and by the subjects’ emotional intonation which, as in this case, directly recalls Millet’s The Gleaners.
Bords de la Marne en Hiver
A native of the Antilles, Pissarro returned to the Caribbean after studying in France as an adolescent. He stayed in the islands until 1855 when he definitively moved back to Paris. The tropical experience had stimulated an interest in landscapes and the matter of light. His return to Paris coincided with the Universal Exposition where he was able to admire the art of Corot and the Barbizon painters, as well as the famous Pavillon du Réalisme set up by Courbet in conflict with the organizers of the Exposition. These are the dominant references in this picture that he painted on the banks of the Marne – where he had moved in 1863 seeking a direct rapport with nature, free of esthetic concessions. This painting was shown at the Salon in 1866 and aroused the admiration of Emile Zola for its “austere and grave” truth.
The Hermitage at Pointoise
Pissarro always spent considerable periods in small towns, far from the big city. Excluded from the 1867 Salon, along with other artists, Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Bazille, he signed a petition to reorganize the Salon des Refusés, which in 1863 accepted the paintings that had been rejected by the official event. The rejection of academic tradition as promoted by Courbet was picked up by Pissarro who, with a series dedicated to the hamlet of Hermitage à Pontoise, began using the spatula in a way that created a new constructive tension. The views of Pontoise, where he had moved in 1866, are broad and luminous, constructed according to a strong equilibrium of the parts and they reveal his intention to create a large image of the whole that reveals nature in all it power.
Louveciennes: The Road to Versailles (Snow)
In 1869 Pissarro and his family moved from Pontoise to Louveciennes, a town located east of Paris where he worked with Claude Monet. In this phase the vibrant effects of light became increasingly relevant as proved by the fact that he painted the same scene over and over, changing the season or time of day in order to analyze the changes of light and hence color. The gray bulk of the buildings and perspective of the street remain “firm,” creating an unusual combination of geometric shapes made by man and natural shapes. Many of the works dedicated to Louveciennes were lost in 1870 when Pissarro’s home was occupied and damaged by Prussian troops during the war with France.
Factory at Pontoise
Upon his return from London in 1871 (where he had fled during the Prussian invasion of France) Pissarro left Louveciennes to settle, once again, in Pontoise where he spent the next ten years. Contact with the English environment had led to a change in his work that was now more aware of the urban world and signs of industrial progress such as trains and factories. For this reason his landscapes began to be populated with more and more of these signs of humanity where the presence of man is not rendered by figures but by the results of his achievements that are set into the natural landscape, and change it. This can be considered a true iconography of the modern landscape.
Farm at Montfoucault
This painting dates from one of Pissarro’s several sojourns on the farm owned by the painter Ludovic Piette at Montfoucault, between Brittany and Normandy. In this phase, due to financial problems and the lack of union among the Impressionists, who had been introduced by the photographer Nadar, Pissarro needed to revive his relationship with uncontaminated nature far from civilization In 1873 his contacts with Cézanne had become more intense (they had met for the first time in 1861) and led Pissarro to a more constructive definition of his landscapes in which the short Impressionist brush strokes were gradually transformed into larger and thicker strokes arranged in blocks, and his colors became bolder.
The tangential relationship with the works of Cézanne is evident in this painting that was done when the artists were working together at Pontoise. Both had a volumetric vision of the landscape that could not be reduced by atmospheric values: the effort, in fact, lay in reconciling the rigor of the structure with chromatic harmony. The artist aimed at penetrating the multiple aspects of nature and so he constructed his landscape with blocks of pure, overlapping color to give a sense of depth.
Young Peasant Girl with a Stick (The Shepherdess)
Pissarro’s closeness to Degas, starting in 1879 led to a new focus on the human figure. The poses and movements of Pissarro’s servants, farm girls, and shepherdesses, are related to Degas, somewhat like photographic cuts that show a detail, often viewed from above. However, the technique is different. It is finely developed with small touches of pure color and the sense of immobility, of tranquil observation of nature, far from the often heavy and solemn urban atmosphere of Degas.
Peasant Girl with a Straw Hat
In this phase, a renewed interest in portraits once again reveals the naturalistic vision of Pissarro’s work that is indeed removed from any idealization or emphasis of shape. His subjects, taken from the world of farms and peasants, are rendered with an introspective sense which places them in profound harmony with the surrounding landscape. It is a harmony that excludes all forms of drama. This was quite evident in the Impressionist exhibit of 1882 where Pissarro showed thirty paintings – most like this – that contrasted with the troubled atmospheres of Toulouse-Lautrec’s brothels.
Boulevard Montmartre: night
Starting in the eighteen-nineties, the theme of the city, crowded streets and glimpses of neighborhoods became part of Pissarro’s repertoire. He painted series – changing the time of day and weather conditions. In his Impressionist phase Pissarro had already painted landscapes, changing the season. He alternated sojourns between his rural Eragny, Paris and the port cities of Rouen, Dieppe and Le Havre, where he had the opportunity to delve deeper into the nervous, luminous flux of urban life. This painting is part of a series of thirteen canvases dedicated to Boulevard Montmartre that he could see from the window of his room in the Hotel Russie where he stayed in 1871. The different times of day culminate in this nighttime view that emphasizes the reflections of lights in contact with the seething whirl of the city.
The Old Market-Place in Rouen and the Rue de l’Epicerie
Pissarro went to Rouen several times (1883, 1896, 1898). He was attracted by the river port that allowed him to do further studies on light, atmosphere and new perspectives. In Rouen there was a mix of Gothic architecture, the historical town and signs of industrial progress. All these elements stimulated a renewed liveliness in Pissarro’s palette. In this view we see a bit of the Medieval town, with a multitude of people, and the Cathedral that was the subject of a famous series by Monet.
In the final years of his life, even though his works were well-know, Pissarro’s paintings were selling for less than those of his colleagues. The government never purchased any of his paintings which entered the Musée de Luxembourg thanks to Caillebotte (1897), the painter who had bequeathed his collection of Impressionist works to the public collection. The purity and coherence of Pissarro’s anarchic spirit had isolated him from the market, creating constant financial insecurity. His pure art , as we can see in the Self-Portrait, that is free of any esthetic affectations while less disruptive than that of the other Impressionists was not fully understood during his lifetime and caused him long period of crisis.