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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul


603 Houses at l'Hermitage 1879

Houses at l’Hermitage, Pontoise, 1879, Private collection PDRS 603

July 10th is the 190th anniversary of the birth of Camille Pissarro. The year 2030, just ten years from now, will be his 200th birthday. By then, perhaps there will be a fuller recognition of his leadership in the creation of Modern art and acknowledgement that he was the first to use many of its artistic innovations.

The painting above, Houses at l’Hermitage, Pontoise (1879), is a superb example of many of those innovations. At first glance, it appears to be just a lovely landscape of pastel-colored houses against a peaceful hillside, like those of many other artists.  But it is so much more! This one virtually demands that you look  closely at the canvas itself with the rough brushstrokes, flatness, and lack of perspective that sets it apart as a radical work of art.

By 1879, landscapes were deemed more acceptable by the Paris Salon as long as they portrayed picturesque vistas like grassy areas, flowers and distant hills. Pissarro’s scene does the exact opposite! It features plowed fields—just dirt—in the foreground. Instead of proper buildings with volume and shadows, Pissarro painted his little cluster of houses with no dimension, perfectly flat on the canvas with heavy brushstrokes that are easily visible. The way he stacks the houses on top of each other suggests Cubism.

Most artists of this period painted landscapes that portrayed distant views with less detail and lighter colors. Pissarro contradicts that practice, painting trees and cultivated fields at the top of the distant hill with rough crisscrossed brushstrokes in colors as vivid as those in the large tree in the foreground. This has the effect of pulling the hillside forward, flattening the entire painting. The fact that Pissarro signed and dated the painting indicates that he considered it to be finished. Everything he did was done with intent and purpose.

These tactics were not new to Pissarro in 1879. He was already using these techniques in the late 1850s when he moved to France to begin his artistic career. As he made friends with other younger artists, he shared his secrets and Impressionism was born! Too often these radical ideas are attributed to other artists, but careful research into Pissarro’s early paintings reveal that he was the first to intentionally use these techniques.

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