Pissarro’s Not-So-Still Still Life
Still Life with Wine Carafe, 1867, Toledo Museum of Art (Ohio) PDRS 114
Pissarro had been in Paris for 12 years when he painted Still Life with Wine Carafe (1867). In many ways, it seems like a traditional still life, similar to those produced in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age.
Willem Claeszoon Heda, Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie (1631) Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.
The Dutch paintings generally included various kind of food and wine arranged with cutlery on a white tablecloth. Artists used these realistic paintings to demonstrate their skill in portraying various textures— the sheen of light on the silver compote, the translucent wine in the glass, the crusty texture of the pie crust, and the soft drapes of the white tablecloth. It looks so realistic you want to touch it.
Edouard Manet, The Salmon (c. 1868) Shelbourne Museum (Vermont).
Even in Pissarro’s time, artists were still painting still lifes in a realistic fashion. This Manet painting, The Salmon, (c. 1868) made a year after Pissarro’s still life is very traditional with carefully painted figures on the china bowl, the vivid peeled lemon, the translucence of the wine glass and carafe, and the shiny scales of the fish. Of particular interest is the smooth tablecloth, freshly ironed with its crisp folds emphasized by the tucked-up corner. The table looks realistic, just like the one in the 17th century. That’s because there are no visible brushstrokes.
Compared with the others, Pissarro’s painting is anything but realistic. As early as 1858, Pissarro was making paintings with highly visible brushstrokes. In this still life, he made no attempt to hide the brushstrokes, heavy with paint—in fact, they are celebrated almost as if he wanted you to see the paint on the canvas. The tablecloth looks as though the paint was daubed on, like frosting; the overhang of the cloth is an exhibition of strong brushstrokes, maybe even palette knife. Compare the detail below to the tablecloth in Manet’s painting.
Detail of Pissarro’s still life.
While there is sheen on the glass and carafe, there is no attempt to hide the strokes of white paint he used to create it. And look at the criss-cross brushstrokes on those apples.
Detail from Pissarro’s still life.
The brown loaf of bread is a panoply of rough brush strokes in two shades of brown.
Detail of Pissarro’s still life.
Pissarro was the first artist to make the materiality of painting more important than the narrative subject matter–that is, he intentionally drew attention to the brushstroke and paint on the canvas. Today, we recognize materiality in abstract art, but in Pissarro’s time, there was not a word for it. When he came to Paris in 1855, Pissarro intentionally rejected traditional art and the standards of the Paris Salon so that he could find his own individual expression in paint.
Art historian Richard Shiff commented on the materiality in this painting, noting the “roughness” of the brushstrokes especially in the tablecloth. Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of the artist and art historian, noted that the rough brushstrokes in the bread are examples of what Barnett Newman, abstract expressionist, called the “ugly brushstrokes” used by the Impressionists.
At the time Pissarro made this painting, other artists who would later become Impressionists were still painting in the manner of Corot and Courbet, who used visible brushstrokes only to add to the realism of their paintings. Pissarro was the first to intentionally use the rough brushstrokes in this still life and in his landscapes. We know that Pissarro generously shared his ideas with other painters, and Monet, Sisley, and Renoir quickly picked up the technique and used it to create their own personal styles. It was quickly forgotten that Pissarro was the one who pioneered the use of the rough brushstroke which is now celebrated and ubiquitous in abstract art of the 21st century.
 New York Studio School, September 26, 2018, “A Conversation with Joachim Pissarro and Richard Shiff.”
 The Jewish Museum, October 23, 2018, “Camille Pissarro and Barnett Newman.”
The book that investigates the abstract elements in Pissarro’s paintings will be published this Spring. Watch this space for more information.