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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul

PISSARRO – In the Midst of Turmoil

Place du Théâtre-Français and the Avenue de l’Opéra

Place du Théâtre-Français and the Avenue de l’Opéra, Sunlight, Winter Morning, 1898, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rheims, France, PDRS 1202

Paris, January 1898 – A terrible epidemic as contagious as the virus rampant in the world today—anti-Semitism–was sweeping through all of France.  It divided families, ended long-standing friendships, and sowed seeds of hate and distrust. The Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer was falsely accused, had mobs in the street. When Émile Zola published his “J’accuse!”, Pissarro sent him a letter assuring him of his support: “Know that I am amongst those who think that you have just rendered a fine service to France…” He also signed a petition in favor of Dreyfus in the newspaper L’Aurore.

Pissarro never tried to conceal his Jewish roots though he was a non-practicing Jew and an atheist. Above all, he was a committed anarchist. With his deep-set eyes and long white beard, he even looked like a rabbi. In his rooms at the Grande Hôtel du Louvre in the center of Paris, he was in the midst of the uproar as riotous crowds gathered every evening. On the 18th of January, he ventured out into the gathering mob to see his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. He wrote to Lucien about the experience: “Yesterday, while I was making my way along the boulevards to Durand’s at five o’clock, I found myself in the midst of a band of little scamps followed by ruffians shouting: “Death to the Jews!  Down with Zola!” I passed calmly through them to the rue Laffitte, they didn’t even take me for a Jew!” While Pissarro reports his good fortune in getting there safely, he obviously was aware of the imminent danger. There was little relief during Pissarro’s Paris stay. In February, he wrote: “Things have hardly improved.”

On top of the anxiety produced by the very real danger, Pissarro was still grieving for his son Félix who had just died on November 25 and was buried where he died in London. How did Pissarro cope? How did he make some of the most beautiful paintings of his entire life? At one point, he wrote: “Work is a wonderful regulator of mind and body. I forget all sorrow, grief, bitterness, and I even ignore them altogether in the joy of working.”  So he poured himself into this series of paintings, creating the masterpiece featured here.

It must have been early morning because the sunlight streaming on the buildings is especially golden and the blue shadows are still deep. Even though the majestic new opera house at the end of the avenue was already an important landmark, it is merely a shadow. Likewise, the new Hausmann buildings are sketched with few details to catch the eye. Instead, the deep shadows direct the view to the large patch of sunlight not in the center of the canvas, but well to the left, where there is almost nothing. While other artists made pictures featuring things of importance or beauty, Pissarro made paintings that pose questions and engage the intellect. This was Pissarro’s genius. And while acknowledging all that was taking place around him, he was able to continue his work creating this masterpiece.

To all those who read this blog, stay safe and be well.

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