HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PISSARRO, born on JUL
The Pont-Neuf, Overcast Sky, 1902, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon (France) PDRS 1416
Just five days before his birthday in 1898, Pissarro visited the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. Could he have imagined then that this museum would have one of his masterpieces 100 years later? This painting of Pont-Neuf was made four years after his visit to Lyon. It was given to the museum in 2000 as part of the Sara Lee Corporation Millennium Gift. It is the only Pissarro painting in their collection, according to museum staff.
He captured this view of the bridge from the window of his apartment on the Ile de la Cité in middle of the Seine. Though the weather is grey, there is a warmness to the painting from the subtle touches of ivory and pale coral. Flashes of red and blue along the storefronts provide an anchor for the tall buildings and diagonal sweep of the bridge. The grayness of the painting is tempered by the dark green of the river with its splashes of white. While traffic creates a busy scene, it cannot compare with the lively brushstrokes on the canvas. Those marks that our eyes see as people and carriages are, in fact, blobs and splashes of color skillfully applied as this detail shows. Seen on its own, it looks like abstract art.
The Pont-Neuf, detail.
Though this painting came to the Lyon museum more than 100 years after Pissarro’s visit in 1898, there was plenty of good art for him to enjoy. He wrote his son Lucien from Lyon on July 5, 1898, that there was “a fine museum” with some “superb primitives, works by Tintoretto, Veronese, there is a Greco, there are things by Claude Lorrain, etc. . .” He even had plans to go back the next day to see some other works. “. . . in fact, it is the museum which interests me most.”
When I visited the museum just 22 days ago, I had no idea I was following in Pissarro’s footsteps. I saw and took the time to study some of the same paintings he saw.
Danaë, Tintoretto, c. 1570
Bathsheba Bathing, Veronese, 1575
El Expolio, El Greco, 1581-85.
What did Pissarro notice in these paintings, all made around the same time 300 years earlier? He was probably unimpressed by the strong narrative element in each of them since he did not favor storylines in his own paintings. But he must have noticed the use of light by each of the artists, particularly the “spotlight” in the Veronese and the El Greco. The bold use of red in each of the paintings might have caught his eye as he looked for (and found in each case) complementary greens (dark green of the maid’s towel in the Tintoretto and bluish green in Bathsheba’s covering in the Veronese).
With his keen eye for composition, Pissarro must have appreciated the strong diagonal of the Tintoretto created by the nude’s twisted position and repeated in the bend of her maid toward her. He must have noticed the inverted triangle in the Veronese with Bathsheba at the bottom, the old man towering over her and a male nude statue on the left. In the El Greco, Jesus is the focal point because of his center position and the brilliant light on his face, but the arrangement of figures in the crowd behind him may have interested Pissarro because of the many scenes he painted of busy market places.
What Pissarro did not see (nor did I) were visible brushstrokes. All of the surfaces were smooth as if color had magically flowed onto canvas. How different that is from the surface of Pissarro’s painting that hangs just a few galleries away (see the detail above). Pissarro was one of the first to celebrate and accentuate the visible brushstroke and the texture of thick paint on canvas—the materiality of art.
Knowing that Pissarro studied these 16th century masterpieces, it is easier to understand how futuristic his innovations were at the time, pushing toward what we now call abstract art. In just 12 years, it will be time to celebrate his 200th birthday. Now is the time to take a new look at his paintings, acknowledge the innovations he used so boldly, and find new appreciation for all of his paintings, especially the ones that do not fit in the convenient Impressionist template so often used to judge his paintings.
 Sara Lee Corporation, which had a large collection of Impressionist masterpieces, gave 40 paintings valued at about $100 million to museums, most of them to U.S. museums.
 John Rewald, Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien, 1995.