Born on the Danish-governed Caribbean island of St. Thomas to French Jewish parents, Camille Pissarro arrived in Paris in time to see the immense Exposition Universelle of 1855, which included several fine-art exhibitions. Already determined to be an artist, Pissarro was essentially self-taught and open to new influences. In the display devoted to contemporary painting, he encountered the thickly textured but delicately brushed canvases of Camille Corot, a prominent landscapist whom he sought to emulate.
But Pissarro also responded to the example of Gustave Courbet, and in this large, bleak work of 1866, he boldly declared his independence from Corot, defining the vast field that occupies much of the composition’s right side in solid planes of color applied with a palette knife. A depiction of a quiet country road near Pissarro’s home in La Varenne St. Hilaire, west of Paris on the Marne River, the painting captures the damp, dark stillness of a rural, winter afternoon through the use of drab olives and muted browns.
The Banks of the Marne in Winter became Pissarro’s first major success, receiving widespread critical acclaim at the Salon of 1866. The painting seemed remarkable to Pissarro’s contemporaries in that here the artist sought not to hide a banal and vulgar subject behind a veneer of virtuoso technique, but rather to underline the very plainness of the setting through its direct, even crude execution. Lauding the work’s audacious sincerity, novelist and art critic Emile Zola characterized the somber canvas as "no feast for the eyes. It is an austere and serious painting, showing an extreme concern for the truth."
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