WHEN PISSARRO MADE A PAINTING, NOT A PICTURE
Rabbit-Warren at Pontoise 1879 The Art Institute of Chicago (IL) PDR 587
This finger-numbing winter scene was painted in 1879 atop a high hill in Pontoise. The coldness of the air is accentuated by the dark blue clouds and the patches of heavy snow on the ground. The only hint of warmth is in the dull orange chimney pots on two houses.
Like many of Pissarro’s paintings, this one has no defined focal point. At the very center is a tiny sapling not large enough or important enough to draw our attention. The man gathering wood at the right is more of a caricature than a defined person. The stand of tall trees on the left are large, but their importance is diminished because we can see neither the top nor bottom of them.There are no rabbits, and the only evidence of a rabbit-warren is the large snow-covered mound on the side of the hill.
This picture is all about a diagonal line. The big trees bring our eyes to the ground where it begins its downward slope. If the man on the right were facing into the picture, he would define a stopping point. However, he is facing out which suggests that the line continues past him, past the edge of the canvas into infinity. This gives us the feeling that we are slipping and sliding down the icy hill. This type of composition would have been radical, even during the Impressionist period ( generally considered to be 1872-1884).
This is not a picturesque snowy hill with snow layered in even brushstrokes. Pissarro uses small circular strokes of white interlaced with grey and blue for the snow and allows dark spiky undergrowth to break through its surface. The large dark patch in the left corner supports the large trees and an arrow-shaped dark patch near the center points downward toward the man. Even the houses and chimney pots reinforce the diagonal, from the left upper corner to the rooftops on the right side.
Even though we would call this an Impressionist landscape, there are many elements that define it as abstract: no focal point, strong geometrical composition, endless edges (going beyond the edge of the canvas), evident brushstrokes that call attention to the paint. In fact, if isolated from the rest of the painting, the lower left quarter could be seen as an abstract painting.
These abstract elements are not uncommon among Pissarro’s works. From the very beginning of his career in Paris, he celebrated the materiality of painting, making the painting itself as important as the scene. It’s no wonder that Theodore Duret, an art critic, had written in 1870 that Pissarro “ … has painted a landscape without making a picture (emphasis added). Instead of making a lifelike image of this ordinary place, he used the view as inspiration to make an arrangement of paint on canvas.