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Place du Théâtre-Français, the Omnibuses, Spring, Sunlight, 1898, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, PDRS 1209
In April of 1898, Pissarro was still in Paris wrapping up his four-month series of paintings from the windows of the Grand Hôtel du Louvre where he could look down the Avenue de l’Opéra to the Opéra Garnier. He stood in those windows to make this painting and the one featured in the previous post, Place du Théâtre-Français and the Avenue de l’Opéra, Sunlight, Winter Morning. Both of these were purchased by his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel on June 2, 1898 along with ten other paintings of the 15 he made in that series.
His earlier paintings described the winter in Paris—fog, rain, heavy snow, and the occasional clear day with thin sunlight golden on the streets. But by the end of April, spring had no doubt arrived, and Pissarro celebrates its freshness and vitality in this painting. Looking straight down from his windows, he had a perfect view of the omnibuses loading their passengers. These large double-decker carriages seated as many as 18 or 20 people each and were pulled by two or sometimes three horses. The curved stairway on the back allowed access to the upper deck. (Details from historic postcards.)
The omnibuses are the focal point, of course. Who could resist watching the arrival and departure, the loading and unloading of people? But Pissarro, in his characteristic way, puts all the action in the lower left corner of the canvas, not in the center. Furthermore, he cuts the canvas in half with the two tall trees in the center, reserving the right side for a few pedestrians beneath another tree solidly rooted in the lower right corner. Its leafy crown dominates this side, almost covering the red building and obscuring the sunny façade of the apartments across the way. Meanwhile, the waiting omnibuses vibrate with color, ready to rejoin the hustle and bustle of Avenue de l’Opéra traffic on the left.
The painting is a tour de force of brushwork technique—from the tiny sharp slashes that make the carriages bounce to the short multi-directional leaves and the long smooth parallel strokes of the shadows. The people appear as individuals though each one is only one or two short strokes. The carriages in the distance are distinctive, some open-air and others closed, but none are more than a small touch of paint. Pissarro’s repertoire of brushstrokes was immense, and he used every technique to achieve a singular purpose.
Likewise, Pissarro carefully balanced the colors in the painting—two complementary sets, each in its own space. The greens of the trees, from deep forest green to almost yellow green, a sharp contrast to the red store front below and red and white awnings at the top center of the canvas. Close inspection of the leaves reveals spots of red that heighten the intensity of the green. Small slashes of white among the green leaves may well represent the white blossoms on chestnut trees blooming this time of year in Paris. On the left side, the lavender shadows are complemented by the pinkish yellow of the sun on the street, providing a delicate balance and unity to the painting.
It is interesting to know that Pissarro’s view is still available at the Grand Hôtel du Louvre in Paris, now a property of Hyatt. When my book Pissarro’s Places was published seven years ago, I took a copy to the hotel and was delighted when they offered me an opportunity to see the rooms where Pissarro painted this series. The view is amazingly the same except for the traffic. The hotel is proud to offer the Pissarro Suite, acknowledging the great artist who created masterpieces from these rooms. (Photos from the website of the Grand Hôtel du Louvre in Paris)
ABSTRACT PISSARRO and PISSARRO’S PLACES, books about Pissarro’s paintings are available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
If only we could all be in Paris this April to see the chestnuts in blossom, but our place right now is at home. Stay safe and be well.