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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul

Pissarro’s 189th Birthday-July 10th: A Personal Note

488 La Cote des Boeufs

Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise, 1877, The National Gallery, London, PDRS 488

Many people have asked how I came to write my book ABSTRACT PISSARRO. It all started with this painting, Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise. Many years ago, when I first began studying Pissarro, I found this painting puzzling.  Books and exhibition catalogs had taught me that Impressionist paintings include a picturesque (pretty) scene, bright colors, and a clear focal point. This painting had none of those characteristics, and I could not figure it out.

A few years later, I found myself in front of a painting by Jackson Pollock, whose work I had never before liked. I began to understand the use of colors in layers that made my eye weave in and out of the pattern, never resting, and finally accepting the “overall” composition as a whole.

For the first time, I understood Pissarro’s Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise. Pissarro was doing the same thing in 1877 that Pollock did in the 1950s. Then I discovered similarities between another Pissarro painting and a Rothko. The most amazing comparison was Pissarro with Picasso—two paintings that are incredibly similar, both with obvious cubist characteristics. My search for the abstract in Pissarro’s paintings was on; there was no turning back. The result is my book ABSTRACT PISSARRO.

In Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise, there is no focal point—no church, no bridge, nor bank of flowers. The background is blocked by a hill and the houses are virtually hidden by a screen of tall trees, forcing the eye to work through a maze. The trees are obviously not the focal point because all the viewer sees is their cropped middle portion. Most of the treetops are cut off by the upper edge of the canvas, and their roots are hidden by scrubby bushes. Indeed, there is no focal point at all. Obviously, Pissarro meant the viewer to see the overall painting—together as one unit made up of linear, abstract elements—forcing the eye to wander without guidance in and out of the trees, through the houses, and up the hill to the sky. Though the motif suggests depth, the intensity of the colors pushes the background forward, flattening the perspective and making the view appear shallower than one would imagine. In History of Art, Janson called this a “surprisingly abstract composition.”1

Enchanted Forest, 1947 (oil on canvas)

Jackson Pollock, Enchanted Forest, 1947, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice

In Pollock’s Enchanted Forest, thin painted swirls resemble Pissarro’s curvaceous tree branches. The underlying layers are warm earth tones dotted with small thin splashes of rusty red. The upper layers are a tangle of green, beige, and black arches and curves, which forms an effective screen. As with the Pissarro, there is no focal point. The eye wanders restlessly in and out of the swirls and beneath the various layers to locate the painting, which can only really be seen in its totality.

In 1955, Clement Greenberg gave this phenomenon the name “allover” painting,2 and Abstract Expressionists used the technique to banish representational painting. Eighty years earlier, Pissarro was already using allover painting with no focal point. In fact, allover painting became a feature of many of Pissarro’s landscapes and cityscapes.

Though Pissarro was the first to use many of the artistic elements we know today as abstract, he has never been properly recognized for the seminal role he played in the creation of modern art. ABSTRACT PISSARRO was written to set the record straight.

1. H. W. Janson, History of Art, 5th ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 706.

2. Clemenet Greenberg, ” ‘American-Type’ Painting,” Partisan Review 22, no. 2 (1955): 179-96.

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