Interpretive Resource

Examination: Pissarro's Late Style

An overview of the late phase of Camille Pissarro's career, with an examination of his paintings The Place du Havre, Paris, Haying Time, and Eragny, a Rainy Day in June.

Book: French Impressionists
Brettell, Richard. French Impressionists. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987, p. 111-112.

PISSARRO’S LATE STYLE Unlike his other Impressionist colleagues, Camille Pissarro was deeply affected by the theories and techniques of Georges Seurat. From their first meeting in 1885, Pissarro and Seurat worked closely together, and the older painter played a major role in the genesis of Seurat’s masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Yet, it was the influence of Seurat on Pissarro that was infinitely the stronger, and the older painter’s career during the second half of the 1880's must be read as a studied response to the art of Seurat. Pissarro abandoned the complex, variable brushwork of his Impressionist period to adopt the regularized dot or "divisionist" technique of the younger artist. Even his compositions took on the rigor and organization-al clarity so evident as a component of Seurat’s cerebral art.

Yet, this late phase of Pissarro’s career was not altogether an easy one for him. His production of paintings declined radically as he worked harder and longer to achieve the synthesis of observation, com-position, and surface technique that he sought. In fact, by 1890, he was all but exhausted by his experiments. His dealer was complaining that his paintings were no longer saleable. His wife and friends found his prolonged flirtation with the technique of this younger painter foolish. And Pissarro himself was filled with self-doubt and hesitation.

All of this changed in the first years of the 1890's, when Pissarro seemed to return to Impressionism. His brushwork regained the informality and richness of his earlier work, and his paintings once more began to spin one from the other with a seeming effortlessness and ease. Like Claude Monet, Pissarro started to work on canvases in series, choosing as his motifs views from his studio in Eragny or from various hotel rooms in Paris, Rouen, Le Havre, and Dieppe. He often worked on six or seven canvases simultaneously, discarding one temporarily when the light or his mood shifted. All of them were worked on in front of the motif, in the manner perfected by the Impressionists in the early 1870's. Yet, they were all finished in his studio, where he could study them in groups, struggling to achieve a collective harmony among various canvases.

Pissarro’s motifs of the 1890's are perfectly summarized in the three paintings reproduced here. The two landscapes were made in the village of Eragny, where the Pissarro family lived from 1883 until the painter’s death in 1903. Indeed, Eragny was to Pissarro what Giverny was to Monet. Yet, how differently each artist treated his domestic landscape. Monet chose to transform an ordinary orchard and vegetable patch into an exotic, enclosed floral garden that he used as a pictorial laboratory. Pissarro left his farm as it was, painting the orchards and fields as simple, rural landscapes, unadorned with flowers and untouched by gardeners. The irregular rhythms of the apple trees interact in the paintings with the elegant linear patterns of the poplars that divide the fertile fields.

In Haying Time, peasants harvest the ripened grain in the late summer sun, working to create the kind of haystack Monet had so recently and carefully studied. The general green tonality of the painting is enlivened by red, orange, yellow, purple, blue, and violet, all of which are woven inextricably together rather than applied in discreet dots or separate touches of paint. The final effect is of a gently vibrating colored surface that has an irregular or, in a way, natural texture, in contrast to the almost mechanical paint application of Seurat and his closest followers.

For Pissarro, the golden light of summer illuminated a rural scene that is at once elegiac and Arcadian. Time at Eragny was not the urban dweller’s experience of momentary or immediate sensation, but rather was measured by the seasons. In Pissarro’s view the crops grow and are harvested by contented men and women who work in harmony with nature’s laws.

In a later composition, Eragny, a Rainy Day in June, the painter was less fascinated with the cycle of seasons than with the weather. Like many of the Impressionist painters, Pissarro sought to entrap in paint the most fleeting of nature’s moods, and the depiction in paint of rain was among the most elusive goals of the Impressionists. Here, Pissarro, at the age of sixty-eight, succeeded. This rural landscape was observed from the painter’s studio on a rainy day and is, for that reason, unpeopled. As viewers, we stand next to the painter, looking over the landscape. The painting thus communicates a subtle distance between the viewer and the world in the painting, and it is difficult for us to imagine that we could simply walk into the picture. Instead, rain falls gently over a lush, Norman landscape that we can appreciate from the comfort of our room in our time.

An image of the urban world by Pissarro, painted five years earlier, is quite the opposite. As with Eragny, he painted the city in rain and shine, winter and summer, night and day. Yet, while the plants and peasants of his rural home respond utterly to season and weather, the structures and crowds of Pissarro’s cityscapes seem oblivious to time or climate; the streets, plazas, and quais are ceaselessly dissonant and congested. The Place du Havre, Paris is alive with noise and movement as trains, carts, and pedestrians flow like worker bees in a busy hive. The facades of the buildings are dappled in light so that they seem to pulsate with energy and motion. Seldom has the city been treated so grandly and with such sustained attention as in Pissarro’s late urban views, and the Art Institute’s Place du Havre is not only among the earliest, but among the best of his great pictorial investigations of what his friend, the novelist Octave Mirbeau, called "the spectacle of urban life."

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