THE FOREST 1870 PDR 172 Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
In May 1870, two of Pissarro’s pictures were chosen to be exhibited with hundreds of paintings by other artists in the Paris Salon. Their titles, “Autumn” and “Landscape,” are pretty general, so art historians have not been able to definitively determine which of Pissarro’s paintings they were. (Critical Catalog, 2005) In fact, they may not have survived the ransacking of Pissarro’s home during the Franco-Prussian war later that year.
Those paintings must have been impressive, however, since they attracted the attention of highly-regarded art critics of the day. Comments by one of them, Theodore Duret writing for L’Electeur Libre, are particularly interesting.
Duret wrote, “For him (Pissarro), the landscape on the canvas must be a faithful and exact transposition of a natural scene, the portrait of some corner of the world that actually exists. […] But while we grant the theory according to which Pissarro evidently proceeds, we cannot help remarking that, in observing it too strictly, where nature itself is so unpicturesque that the artist has painted a landscape without making a picture.” (The italics and bold are mine.)
Pissarro was already known as a painter true to nature and Duret’s reference to “portrait of some corner of the world” is apt. However, the critic says that Pissarro observes this practice so carefully, depicting everyday scenes, that his paintings are “unpicturesque” or not pretty! Too bad we cannot see the exact painting he wrote about.
However, there are several paintings from that period in Pissarro’s work that illustrate Duret’s point. “The Forest” provides a good example. At first glance, it appears to be a horizontal rectangle of green, or several shades of green. Then we notice the sunlight on large tree trunks and cottages on the left. Only after looking closely, do we discover a bending woman in the left foreground. Is she picking up nuts from the trees? Almost by accident we discover people under a tree on the right. Are there two, or three, or four? There is no statue or important building, no famous person; nor does it depict a historic event or a mythical story. It would be hard to create a story about it.The scene is pleasant enough, but not memorable. Is this what Duret meant?
Apparently, this little corner of the world appealed to Pissarro for different reasons. He saw much more than thick leaves, dense tree trunks, and firm ground. In making the painting, he gives us no focal point to draw our attention. He crowds the trees together as if they are all pushing to the front. There is no sense of space or “breathing room” in the picture. Except for a tiny corner of blue, there is no sky.
Pissarro was not painting a grove of trees. He was arranging contrasts — color (yellows and greens) and paint ( thin and thick), brushstrokes (heavy and light) and patterns (dark and bright). He balanced it so carefully that we see the whole, not the parts.
Duret might not have called this landscape a picture, but it is an intriguing painting just the same. In more recent years, we have grown accustomed to works by Picasso, Klee, and Pollock that contain blocks of color, light and dark contrasts, and all-over design. Now we are able to understand what Pissarro was doing in 1870.
Abstract art had not been invented then, but Pissarro already had the eye of an abstract painter.