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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul

Camille Pissarro – His 192nd Birthday

The Red House, Portland (Ore.) Art Museum, 1873, PDRS 307

This bright summer day was captured by Pissarro after he moved back to Pontoise following the Franco-Prussian War. He had painted scenes of the Oise river, roads around Pontoise, and even the nearby railway crossing. But this painting shows nothing of great scenic interest—just fields with a couple of (probably new) houses near town.

Its great appeal comes from the brilliant harmony of color and composition. The calm blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds provides cooling to the yellow and light green fields below where the heat of summer midday is almost palpable. The foreground, a mélange of dark gold and yellow, is dotted with red blossoms boosting the temperature. Just above is a large triangular area of pale green with touches of medium green, reflecting the strong sunlight. Relief comes in the center of the painting with a large tree whose triangular crown promises coolness. Two horses rest from their labors in the dark green shade.

Why would Pissarro place a simple tree, albeit a lovely one, in the exact center of the canvas? He seemed to enjoy doing the exact opposite of what was expected by academic artists, who had taught for generations that paintings should provide an important focal point, generally in the center. This painting has no central focal point at all. The tree is not important enough to hold the viewer’s attention, and which house is more important? Neither are large chateaux or important landmarks. And the golden yellow grass in the foreground relentlessly pulls the eye away from the horizon. If this painting were described in contemporary terms, it would be an “all over” painting, which forces the eye to move around the canvas providing no resting place.

New houses were being built on the outskirts of Pontoise during this time, and these two may have been among those. Pissarro adds to the symmetry of the painting by placing them equal distance from the centered tree. Rather than provide details of the modern cottages, he presents them as flat blocks of color, with black rectangles for doors and windows. While the red roof on the left adds intensity to the heat, it complements the dark green of the trees.

This painting was owned by Jean-Baptiste Faure, a famous opera singer who supported the Impressionists. His collection in 1902 including twenty-four paintings by Pissarro.[1]

Pissarro was 43 when he painted this summer day in France, and he knew a thing or two about heat and intense sunlight. After all, he was born on July 10, 1830 in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas where the heat of the summer sun is a given.

[1] Kathryn Rothkopf, Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape (Baltimore: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 2007), 170.

Look for this marvelous new film about Pissarro, which covers the two recent exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum, Basel and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Here’s the link to the trailer:

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I am honored that my latest book, Abstract Pissarro, was included in a review by David Carrier for Hyperallergic

Abstract Pissarro is available online at Bookshop, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

Visit my website for more information on Pissarro and my books:

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