In the spirit of noding one's homework:
Pissaro's Impressionistic Metamorphism
As seen in his Le Village d'Eragny and The Seine and the Pont des Arts, Paris
Like most artists, Camille Pissarro's style and technique developed throughout his career. His Le Village d'Eragny, which was completed in 1885 and is on permanent display in the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama, is an example of his earlier style with its short, controlled brush strokes and dabs of complementary, vibrant colors. The Seine and the Pont des Arts, Paris, however, was painted in 1901 and exhibits many changes in style, including a more limited palate, a texture created by "building up" the paint, and a more impressionistic, out-of-focus, emotional image.
Pissarro was one of the forerunners of the impressionism movement; his Le Village and The Seine represent a 16-year stylistic evolution towards what he would eventually consider one of his best works. The differences and similarities between these two paintings demonstrate the artist's transition from impressionistic to "more impressionistic," as well as illustrating the passion of a man who would be forever remembered for his work and the movement he helped to create.
After spending several months in Denmark, Pissarro returned to his longtime home of Paris, painting Le Village d'Eragny ("The Village Eragny") soon after he arrived.1 The pastoral landscape is composed with a vibrant palate of pastels, accented with short brush strokes of vibrant color. The flowers, which appear in the foreground, are brought to life with the use of dabs of bright paint placed on the lighter green grass in the background.
In typical impressionistic form, the sky above is an almost swirling mixture of blues, pinks, yellows, and reds, barely revealing the faint outline of a midmorning sun. Fighting against the movement of the sun, Pissarro's quick, short brush strokes captured the autumn hues of the trees in the background as well as the hazy images of the houses, the fence, and the meadow.
The contrast between the grass and the flowers indicate an overall trend in this piece for colors to blend together as one looks from bottom to top. While many colors are visible in the sky and the neighboring mountains and trees, light colors border light colors and darks border darks, creating the transitory effect one experiences when viewing the painting from a distance. The flowers, however, stand out in their field of green, creating the impressionist's trademark: a soft, distinguishable image arising from a canvas of simple strokes and dots.
As the colors shift from top to bottom, so does the technique of applying the paint. Strokes appear longer in the sky and into the horizon, while the grassy foreground is presented with shaper, more pixilated impressions. While multicolored whisks of paint produce the sky, a mosaic of red and yellow dabs of paint stand out as flowers amongst longer but still relatively short strokes of green grass. The result is a garden of the mind, a creation brought forth by optical tricks and illusions that draw from surrounding areas to create elaborate scenes from simple patches of paint.
Although there is evidence of past human interaction with nature, the only people portrayed in Le Village are those who remain hidden in the distant houses. A dirt road cuts through the field of flowers towards the fence, providing a glimpse at the route many of this small town's inhabitants must take when they choose to visit the city. A gray picket fence encloses the community, keeping wild animals out or perhaps keeping domestic animals in, although none are visible. The thin trail of smoke slowly rising from the chimney of one home is the only hint of human inhabitation in this quiet, small town.
Once asked by Matisse to define the impressionist, Pissarro replied, "An Impressionist is a painter who never makes the same painting twice."
Holding true to his statement, Pissarro's later work is different from Le Village in innumerable ways. Demonstrating his capacity for change, self-criticism, and artistic exploration, The Seine and the Pont des Arts, Paris is unmistakably a step deeper into the colors, techniques, styles, and emotions of the impressionistic genre.
After renting an apartment on the Rue de Rivoli so he could devote himself to painting another series of Parisian landscapes while still being able to spend time with his wife and younger children, Pissarro began work on several paintings, using the surrounding area as his subject. Eventually completing The Seine and other paintings of the same subject, the artist had finally levitated his work to the highest level, admitting, "These pictures are the best I have made."
Like Le Village, The Seine is a landscape on crisp afternoon or morning. In both paintings, the sky is cloudy but not overcast, with soft, thin clouds. The Seine, however, is a much more active piece, containing many buildings (including the Louvre), a bridge, a canal, and several people, both on the shore and in the canal in boats. People are out and about—not shut up in their homes, invisible to the viewer. Unlike Le Village, this painting shows active human interaction with the landscape, complete with large buildings that tower in the distance and small, soft impressions of three people in the foreground.
In fact, noticeable human interaction is almost inevitable in this piece due to the lack of visible nature. No trees or mountains border the skyline and only a few small pieces of sparse vegetation make an appearance throughout the piece. While the only building in Le Village that broke the skyline was the tiny church, several buildings and what appear to be the smokestacks of two factories loom in the distance, obscuring any natural horizon from view.
A color shift between the two works is evident, as well. Moving away from his liberal use of vibrant colors in Le Village, Pissarro develops a palate in which the transition between all colors is smooth and uniform. By calming his use of additional colors, the artist is able to take advantage of the various shades of blue and white, creating a sky and canal that are similar and complimentary yet distinct.
A careful eye discovers that the crests of the waves in the canal and the clouds in the sky are one. Pissarro's mastery of the combination and recombination of paints allows him to create discrete areas on the landscape while keeping his palate shallow and providing continuity through both portions of the work.
Another trend one sees in the later works of Pissarro is the building up of the paint surface to create texture. While it is questionable if the artist had yet developed this technique when he produced Le Village, it comes to full form in The Seine. Even without Pissarro's white accents on the crests of the waves, one would still be able to see the texture of the water due to the peaks and valleys created by the various layers of paint.
This technique is also visible in the sky of The Seine, with flatter, blue areas for background and raised, erratic strokes that produce the feeling and texture of the clouds. Similarly, straighter, flatter strokes differentiate the clouds from the buildings. At the same time, the strong horizontal line of the bridge is accented with thicker, straight, calculated strokes that divide the painting.
Le Village lacks these differences in texture, perhaps compensating with the use of brighter colors that stand out better amongst similar shades. It is obvious that Pissarro has begun his move towards a smaller palate even in this early painting, as one notices that both The Seine and Le Village have skies that are constructed of the colors already in use below.
In the same vein, both paintings avoid the use of the color black, opting instead for a shade of blue, green, or brown. In typical impressionistic style, the blue bridge in The Seine casts a dark blue shadow and the gray and brown houses in Le Village cast dark gray and brown shadows. Like any good impressionist, Pissarro was a slave to light and color, creating magnificent arrays of shadows, highlights, and midtones that not only reflected the beauty of his subjects, but infused them with life and emotion as well.
1. Ralph Shikes and Paula Harper, Pissarro: His Life and Work (New York: Horizon Press, 1980), p. 194.
2. Ibid, p. 311.
3. John Rewald, Camille Pissarro (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1978), p. 154.