PISSARRO IN 1874—CONFRONTING THE ART ESTABLISHMENT
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Harvesting Potatoes, Pontoise, 1874, Private collection, PDRS 360
Harvesting Potatoes, Pontoise (1874) is not an easy painting. Though it was made the same year as the First Impressionist Exhibition, it has few of the characteristics normally associated with Impressionism. It blatantly confronts us with its bold colors and conspicuous brushstrokes. If it is challenging to our eyes today, imagine how it must have looked 135 years ago!
At that time, there were no words to describe what Pissarro did in this painting. The motif is banal—nothing picturesque or important in the scene. There is no real focal point; the bright colors and visible brushstrokes pull our eye in every direction. The most familiar-looking details, the houses, are flattened against the hill.
The figures, especially the kneeling woman in the foreground, are simply brushstrokes.
Instead of receding, the distant hills advance in bold colors applied in the up-down brushstroke that Cézanne would later adopt as his “constructivist” stroke.
The paint on the canvas, the colors, the brushstrokes are all combined in this masterpiece of materiality.
The same techniques used by Pissarro in 1874 to make this sensational painting are being used by artists today. Back then, there was no name to describe them. Today we recognize these techniques as abstract. Though this painting was never sold, Pissarro kept it.* Pissarro had thrown down the gauntlet, and academic art would never again be the same.
* The painting remained with the artist during his lifetime and was inherited by his son Lucien. It was first shown in an exhibition well after Pissarro’s death in 1910 in Germany. (Pissarro: Critical Cataogue, 2005)
Harvesting Potatoes, Pontoise is featured on the cover of the new book Abstract Pissarro which is available on Amazon.