Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep, 1886
It is good news when great paintings remain available to be seen by the people who love them. In the agreement between the University of Oklahoma and the Holocaust survivor’s family, this incredible painting by Camille Pissarro will remain in museums, rotating between France and Oklahoma. For the full story on the agreement, please see the article in the New York Times. (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/university-of-oklahoma-agrees-to-return-pissarro-painting-looted-by-nazis/)
This painting is not as well known as some of Pissarro’s paintings, but it is extremely interesting for many reasons. Just a year before, Pissarro had been introduced to Paul Signac and then later to Georges Seurat, who was in the process of developing a new scientific way of making paintings by placing tiny dots of contrasting colors close together. None of this was new to Pissarro, who had for several years been experimenting with color division based on the works of Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood.
In this painting, Pissarro uses tiny brushstrokes of varying colors to form the image. For example, look at the woman’s green apron, which includes several shades of green, blue, pink, and even dark blue to form the shadow on the side.
Look at the left side of the painting at the wall between the edge and the door frame. You will find pink, yellow, gray, blue, salmon, and even light green composing the mixture that looks like bright yellow. As early as 1881, well before he met Seurat, Pissarro was using these color techniques to create luminosity in his paintings.
The composition of this painting is most interesting, as well. Everything feels pushed together with the overlapping of the small cottages in the background. Even the fence to the left of the gate seems to be leaning forward. It feels as though everything in the background is pushing the young woman so that she is almost “bursting” through the gate. (Incidentally, did you notice the proud rooster behind her?)
The timid sheep, shyly sticking their noses forward, create tension by pushing in the opposite direction. Though you know the woman wants the sheep to come in the gate, you worry that her momentum will just overpower their forward motion. The poor little sheep themselves look more like wooly stuffed toys than real animals. Though we see the young woman’s shape, her facial features are almost nonexistent so we have no sense of her as a real person.
So what was Pissarro really painting? To be sure, it is an interesting picture of an everyday task performed in countless villages in his day. But it is a superb demonstration of the use of a mixture of colors to create light and shadow. And it is a fascinating study of the push and pull of opposing forms, even when those images tell a different story. No wonder those who have seen it become attached to it.