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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul

Abstract Pissarro in 1865

103 Banks of the Marne at Chennevieres 1865

Banks of the Marne at Chennevières, c. 1865, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh [PDRS 103]

To appreciate a Pissarro landscape, you first have to get over the fact that it looks like a landscape. Later, after seeing everything else that is there, you will be amazed that it does look like a landscape.   Dana Gordon, abstract artist, New York City1

Those words provide an apt description of Pissarro’s beautiful 1865 painting Banks of the Marne at Chennevières. A picturesque scene like this would ordinarily suggest a narrative or storyline. Instead, Pissarro created a canvas that displays an array of artistic techniques that were totally unacceptable at that time. He used the palette knife to forcefully  spread thick impasto on the canvas. The houses are just slabs of paint sitting on the flat canvas surface. The reflections in the water are mere suggestions of the village. Pissarro constructed trees with back-and-forth strokes, the “constructive” stroke that Cezanne would later adapt, and grasses with thick, heavy streaks of paint. The tiny boat crossing the river is too insignificant to be a focal point, which leaves the painting without a narrative.

Pissarro used this scene to describe three distinct abstract shapes—the bright sky layer at the top; the dark center section including the village, the mountain, and the dark part of the water; and the light reflective band of the water. The darker center section creates a “negative” space in this abstract composition. This effect demonstrates that Pissarro was focusing on forms and the surface of the canvas, revealing movements of the paintbrush and palette knife. The landscape merely provided a design pattern for his unconventional execution. Joachim Pissarro said of this painting: “In fact, his treatment of much of the landscape and the buildings moved very close to abstraction.” 2

1 Dana Gordon, “The Moses of Modernism,” unpublished manuscript (2005).

2 Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), 48.

Taken from the new book ABSTRACT PISSARRO. For more information,

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