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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul

PISSARRO: Finding the Abstract in Nature

Landscape, 1874 (oil on canvas)

Fog, 1874, Private collection, PDRS 331

Dense fog can be disorienting, causing the eye to see things in a different way. The dense fog over this lumpy field suggests the unknown, a mystery yet to be resolved. This effect is evident today in a photograph taken from a window in Philadelphia at midday.

Philly fog

Foggy morning in Philadelphia, January 4, 2020

With the passage of time, 146 years to be exact, Pissarro’s painting is not startling. We now recognize this and other techniques that Pissarro invented as abstract, used by contemporary artists working today.

The simple reading of Pissarro’s painting is that of a common landscape, depicting some condition of weather. Impressionists often portrayed various types of weather, painting fog or mist in their scenes. However, most of these artists provided a recognizable narrative focal point to draw the eye.  In this painting, the eye searches for a central focal point but, finding none, settles instead on the complementary contrast of sky and land as two distinct color fields.

The composition of this Pissarro is stunningly similar to the well-defined sections of a Rothko painting. While the Pissarro does not have solid color fields like those of Rothko, the overall effect is similar. What sets the Pissarro apart from Rothko paintings are the three odd-shaped elements near the center of the canvas that look vaguely like a curved tree trunk and two people. Pissarro minimized their importance by dissolving the shapes into the background. Instead, the apparent point of interest becomes the complementary contrast between the sky and the ground, two color fields only slightly more complicated than those depicted by Rothko in his paintings.

One might argue that Pissarro just painted the scene as he saw it, and that he did not intentionally paint something that today resembles a color-field painting. However, such an explanation fails to appreciate the intellectual energy Pissarro constantly devoted to his original experimentations with technique.

Material for this posting was taken from the book ABSTRACT PISSARRO, available on Amazon.

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