PISSARRO AT MARDI GRAS
Boulevard Montmartre, Mardi Gras Afternoon, 1897, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Calif. PDRS 1163
Pissarro’s return to Paris in February 1897 was encouraged by Paul Durand-Ruel, his dealer who quickly purchased six paintings the artist had made the previous month in the city’s Saint-Lazare Quarter near the train station. This time Pissarro stayed at the Grand Hôtel de Russie in a room that gave him a view of “the whole length” of Boulevard Montmartre. During the nearly three months he stayed there, Pissarro made sixteen paintings, twelve of which were quickly bought by Durand-Ruel.
On March 2, Fat Tuesday (the day before Lent), Boulevard Montmartre was the scene of the Mardi Gras parade, the Promenade du Bœuf Gros (Procession of the Fat Ox), a huge procession more than two kilometers long featuring carnival floats surrounded by men and women in costumes. Spectators who came to see the parade were also in costume, and those watching from the top floors of apartment buildings threw streamers of red, white, and blue.
Pissarro prepared in advance, writing his son Lucien on February 13: “Here I am installed [in my hotel room] coating large canvases [with paint]; I shall try and prepare one or two for painting the crowd on Mardi Gras; I don’t yet know what it will be like, I’m very much afraid the streamers will be a problem.”
Nearly two weeks before the celebration, Pissarro wrote Lucien again: “It will be a matter of painting Mardi Gras, the crowd, for the effect will last only one day. I’m told the boulevards will be crowded one, even two days before.”
While his other paintings of the Boulevard Montmartre portray light carriage traffic and few pedestrians, the painting he made on Fat Tuesday is vastly different. The scene is covered with people; in the center the parade moves forward while spectators spill off the sidewalks into the streets. Each person is a tiny brushstroke or two, but among the mass of black and white coats are lines of red or blue, probably uniforms of groups in the parade. The facades of the buildings and the bare tree limbs are engulfed in a mass of streamers, each one a tiny brushstroke spreading a thin wash of paint over the scene.
No doubt Pissarro’s knowledge of Pointillist technique came in handy as he applied the multitude of tiny brushstrokes. The sharp contrast of bright white points among the darker colors creates a sense of movement as the parade marches forward. His painting was obviously a success because Durand-Ruel bought it from the artist in May and three months later sold it to a collector in Rouen. The painting is now in the collection of the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Calf.
*Information for this post is from Pissarro: Critical Catalogue of Paintings, vol. III by Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, 2005.
the book that reveals how Pissarro initiated the techniques that became modern art, is now available online: