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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul


Rue de l’Épicerie in Rouen, Late Afternoon, 1898, Private collection [PDRS 1223]

2030–seven years from now–will mark the 200th anniversary of Pissarro’s birth. He was born on July 10, 1830, on the island of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, then a colony of Denmark. The greatest honor that could be paid him would be a considered review of his work–in exhibitions, online presence in a website, and translation into English of the five volumes of his letters (now available only in French). Only then can Pissarro’s œuvre be fully understood and appreciated by scholars and the general public alike.

Many of Pissarro’s paintings are not easily understood in Impressionistic terms. Such is the case with the painting shown above. He made three paintings on this street, then a large open-air market held every Friday. One of the paintings shows the street at midmorning, bustling with shoppers and vendors; another shows the same street on a rainy morning with few pedestrians about. Perhaps the most dramatic of the three is this one. With the few pedestrians relegated to the sidelines, Pissarro focused on the cobblestoned street in the foreground. The flattened buildings on the sides act as theatre flats, providing framework. The doorway of the cathedral, a major focal point for other artists, is reduced to simply brustrokes, suggesting the Gothic arches Pissarro so admired. Rushing from its portals are a series of color blocks filling the foreground.

Detail of cobblestones

The largest one, slabs of paint ranging from dark blue to gray, is nearly rectangular, extending from the cathedral door to the lower edge. A large triangle of red, dark orange, and tawny beige fills the lower-left corner. A similar segment lies to the right of the blue section. Slicing across the right corner is a small, bright-yellow triangle, shading into orange. The whole geometric effect is one of primary color blocks, giving importance to blue, bordered by reds, and accented by a touch of yelloe–obviously the abstract pattern Pissarro wanted to highlight.

The cathedral door that Pissarro rendered so loosely actually looks like this today.

South door of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame of Rouen

The street that he painted, still called Rue de l’Épicerie now looks like this. What used to be an open-air market is now a car park. The area was bombed heavily in World War II, so all the buildings on each side are new, but generally follow the original street.

Rue de l’Épicerie

This photograph is taken from the street, but Pissarro’s view was elevated. He may have been standing in this tiny chapel, the Chapelle de la Fierte de St. Romain. According to legend, St. Romain saved Rouen from a monster with the help of a criminal. Beginning in 1210 on Ascension Day, the Cathédrale was allowed to release a prisoner condemned to death, who then carried the saint’s relics on his shoulders in a great procession. This chapel, built in 1542, is where the ceremony was performed until 1790. During World War II, the building behind it was heavily damaged, but the chapel remained safe and was recently renovated. It seems likely that this position provided the elevation Pissarro needed for his paintings.

Chapelle de la Fierte de St. Romain

Celebrate Pissarro’s birthday on July 10 by considering how he portrayed many different places, using color, brushstrokes, lines, and shapes to create in the words of artist Dana Gordon, “visual poetry.”

Abstract Pissarro by Ann Saul

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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