Walking Figure, Entering a Village, c. 1862, Private collection, PDRS 64.
Pissarro was a 24-year-old working artist in 1854, making and selling paintings, in Caracas, Venezuela. When he moved to Paris the following year, his father insisted that he submit paintings to the Paris Salon. While Pissarro opposed the formulaic painting directives of the French academy, he submitted paintings and many were accepted.
At the same time, Pissarro was also making paintings that expressed his own “sensations;” paintings that can only be described as unconventional, testing the limits of brushstrokes, composition, paint application, and the palette knife. The fact that these are signed and dated indicates that Pissarro intended them to look as they do. These radical paintings are, in Pissarro’s eyes, finished works.
This painting, Walking Figure, Entering a Village (c. 1862) [PDRS 64] bears little resemblance to earlier paintings that reflect Corot’s influence. The notion of “entering a village” is one that Pissarro explored time and again throughout his career. In this case, no specific location is given, and this commonplace motif has no distinguishing features. In the foreground, shades of brown and dark tan form the first diagonal stripe. Another olive-green stripe partially covers the lower layer, its loose brushstrokes revealing the brown underneath. This is topped by a bright creamy beige that widens on the right, focusing attention on the sketchily drawn man and tree. Above that is a line of buildings with no windows or doors, executed in broad flat strokes. The only possible identifying feature is the pair of tall vertical strokes that might be smokestacks. The whole assemblage appears to be totally flat, like a cutout, functioning as just one more strip in a composition of layered colors. The hazy sky is light blue, brushed over with light gray and white strokes. The large tree at the right provides a strong perpendicular that holds the layers together. Its foliage is defined with short “constructive” strokes, a form of the stroke that Cézanne adopted for his own use in later years.
Because our eyes are accustomed to seeing visible brushstrokes, this painting may not look unusual to us. However, the French academic standards in the mid-1900s required brushstrokes to be completely smooth and invisible. Structures should be painted with proper volume, and figures no matter how small should be carefully drawn.
That is why in 1862, this painting would have been radical compared to those of other artists. Some would have called it unfinished, but Pissarro’s signature in the lower left corner indicates that he considered it complete. The extreme simplification of the subject, the abundant evidence of visible brushstrokes, the flatness of the buildings are all techniques used by today’s abstract artists. While this painting loosely represents a scene, it focuses on the paint and the surface of the canvas. It was created in an abstract manner.
ABSTRACT PISSARRO, the book that investigates the abstract elements in the paintings of Camille Pissarro, will be available in late March or April. Watch this blog for additional information.