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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul

Pissarro in Rouen

Rue de l’Epicerie in Rouen, Effect of Sunlight, 1898, Metropolitan Museum of Art, PDRS 1221

On his trip to Rouen in 1898, Pissarro made three paintings of the rue de l’Épicerie, one of Rouen’s oldest streets lined on each side by sixteenth-century gabled houses. A large open-air market on Fridays had been held continuously in that place since the thirteenth century. This painting shows the street at midmorning, bustling with shoppers and vendors. Though the towers of the Cathedral Notre-Dame appear at the top, little is seen of the south doorway which melds into the façade of nearby buildings. The center of the painting is full of long vertical brushstrokes heavy with paint which ignore any detail. Smaller buildings on either side are composed of flat blocks of paint stacked haphazardly in almost cubist fashion. The people filling the street are mere brushstrokes, clothed in various colors. While there is no clear focal point, the sheer verticality of the church towers, multi-storied buildings and movement of people in the street push the eye up and down again. Another painting of the same scene (not shown here) portrays a rainy morning with few people on the street.

Rue de l’Epicerie in Rouen, Late Afternoon, 1898. Private collection. PDRS 1223

Perhaps the most dramatic of the three paintings is Rue de l’Épicerie in Rouen, Late Afternoon (1898) showing deep shadows cast by the setting sun. With the few pedestrians relegated to the sidelines, Pissarro focused on the cobblestone street in the foreground, flattened buildings on each side providing framework. The doorway of the cathedral, a major focal point for other artists, is reduced to simple brushstrokes, suggesting the Gothic arches Pissarro so admired. Rushing from its portals are a series of color blocks on the cobblestones filling the foreground. The largest one, slabs of paint ranging from dark blue to gray, is nearly rectangular, extending from the cathedral door to the lower edge. A large triangle of red, dark orange, and tawny beige fills the lower-left corner. A similar segment lies to the right of the blue section. Slicing across the right corner is a small, bright-yellow triangle, shading into orange. The whole geometric effect is one of primary color blocks, giving importance to blue, bordered by reds, and accented by a touch of yellow— obviously the abstract pattern Pissarro wanted to highlight.

Chapelle de la Fierte de St. Romain, Rouen, photo by author, c. 2010

While making these three paintings, Pissarro may have stood on the steps of the Chapelle de la Fierte de St. Romain, a small elevated chapel built in 1542. According to legend, St. Romain saved Rouen from a monster with the help of a criminal. Beginning in 1210 on Ascension Day, the cathedral was allowed to release a prisoner who then carried the saint’s relics up to the chapel and raised them three times before the crowd of people. The practice ended in 1790 during the Revolution.

Rue de l’Epicerie, photo by author c. 2010

During World War II, many of the historic buildings on the street were destroyed. Miraculously, the historic chapel remained safe though the building behind it was damaged heavily. During the rebuilding process, the old marketplace became a public parking area and modern buildings now line the ancient street leading to the cathedral. Though much has changed, it is still possible to experience the general contour of the motif that Pissarro painted.

I am honored that my latest book, Abstract Pissarro, was included in a review by David Carrier for Hyperallergic

Abstract Pissarro is available online at Bookshop, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

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