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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul

PISSARRO and Impressionist Painting in Switzerland

A View of l’Hermitage, Pontoise, 1878, Kunstmuseum Basel, gift from some art lovers, acquired in 1912 with a contribution from the Basel government Inv. 871, PDRS 553

Pissarro’s painting, A View of l’Hermitage, Pontoise, was the first Impressionist painting in a museum collection in Switzerland, according to the website of the Kunstmuseum Basel.[1] When it appeared in an exhibition on French Impressionism in the Kunsthalle Basel in 1912, a group of artists and art lovers arranged for its acquisition and placement in the Basel Public Art Collection. The museum writes: “It was not only the first Impressionist painting to be included in the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel, but also the first picture of this art movement in Switzerland.”

This lovely painting depicts an area that Pissarro knew well. He must have enjoyed this particular scene; he had painted it twice before in 1874 (A Corner of l’Hermitage, Pontoise, PDRS 356) and again in 1875 (View of the Côte des Gratte-Coqs, Pontoise, PDRS 407).[2] The scene is familiar, and the eye tends to see what it expects—plowed earth in the left corner, a woman tending the leafy green vegetables, a cluster of neat village houses behind a scraggly dead tree pointing to fields on the hillside. A lovely, uncomplicated landscape, it seems.

And yet, a closer look reveals Pissarro’s determination to do things differently. The patch of dirt in the left corner is part of a circle and the first of several concentric bands that radiate all the way up the hill and into the sky. The second band marked by the woman is bright green; the third dull green one contains the standing man. Behind him, the fourth band is formed by roofs of sheds at the foot of the scraggly tree, and the crest of the hill on the horizon forms the fifth band. Even the full branch of the large tree follows the curve and points to the white clouds that continue the arch in the sky. Only the straight line of houses in the center breaks the pattern.

There’s more. A closer look reveals that the houses have no volume; they are flat as signboards. Only as the line moves to the left and one house overlaps another is there any suggestion of perspective. There are no shadows to indicate depth. There is no attempt at realism; broad visible brushstrokes form the roofs and sides of the houses as well as the roofs of the sheds, which look like flat color blocks. The workers are formed with few brushstrokes, and though the man’s face is visible, there are no features. Even the lush summer foliage of the tree isn’t real; it is simply a construction of diagonal hatch marks.

This looks like a typical Impressionist landscape because that is what the eye expects to see. In fact, it is a demonstration of composition and brushstrokes that eight decades later would become part of the abstract painter’s lexicon. Its beauty is certainly there to be enjoyed, but how much richer and more interesting it becomes when Pissarro’s radical techniques are recognized.

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[2] Pissarro:Critical Catalogue of Paintings, (2005) Vol. II, p. 379.

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