In the first article of this series, I showed what I mean by series paintings, defined some sub-types, and considered how and when they came about.
This article considers Camille Pissarro’s series paintings: how they developed, which major series he produced, and what he intended by painting them. You may find my previous introduction to Pissarro’s work a help.
The road to series paintings
Sadly, following destruction of almost all of his paintings prior to 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, it is impossible to see whether Pissarro was evolving towards loose series in the first decade of his work. However when in England during 1870-1 he painted multiple views (often referred to as series, but in a different sense) around the London suburbs of Sydenham and Norwood, but no series (in the sense that I have defined the term), even loose, appears to have survived.
The first evidence for loose series appears in his many plein air paintings of roads once he had returned to France, and lived in Pontoise and Louveciennes on the outskirts of Paris. Some of the paintings from this period are clearly of the same motif painted from the same viewpoint, but others are similar and not do not match as well. There is no evidence that he was consciously trying to build a series, and it is quite possible that the similarities result from the sheer number of paintings that he made in the same area.
For the next two decades, there is no evidence that I can see from his paintings that he built any further series, loose or otherwise, although as with any highly productive landscape painter there are occasional pairs of views, but nothing that comes close to my criterion of five that were very similar. However Joachim Pissarro considers that 13 works painted in Rouen in 1883 constitute an early branched series. As with those later of the Gare Saint-Lazaire, these appear to be marginal at best under my criteria.
In the later 1880s he developed a Divisionist technique which was not conducive to building series, although several of his rustic scenes from that period are closely related to one another.
He undoubtedly saw Monet’s early tight series, including the Grainstacks, as he was abandoning Divisionism, and commented critically on them in a letter to his son. However he later seems to have re-evaluated the concept of series painting, in response to Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, and when living at Éragny and working at Bazincourt from about 1892, started to assemble his next series.
I am without access to a catalogue raisoné of Pissarro’s work, and therefore have to rely on the more incomplete and less reliable collections of these available online, together with the reference listed at the end. However it has been claimed that the Bazincourt series consists of over 300 paintings (surely the largest such series, at least in the nineteenth century), which appear to constitute a loose, branched series. In any branch you can encounter quite tight sub-series, such as those shown here.
The Bazincourt series was clearly not the same as those produced by Monet, which were both tight and relatively unbranched from about 1889 onwards, and compositionally very different too.
During the period 1893 to 1903, Pissarro painted 11 series of urban landscapes, including:
- Gare Saint-Lazaire, at best a loose series of 10 paintings in 1893 and 1897. It is arguable as to whether they meet my criteria for even a loose, branched series, because of the small number in each branch;
- Rouen, a branched series of 47 paintings, in 1896 and 1898, including one branch of Rouen Cathedral;
- Boulevard Montmartre, Paris, a tight series of 15 paintings, and 2 outliers which may not belong in this series, painted in 1897;
- Avenue de l’Opera, Paris, a branched series of 15 paintings completed during 1897-8;
- Tuileries Gardens, Paris, a loose possibly branched series of 28 paintings in 1899-1900;
- Square du Vert-Galant, Paris, a branched series of 42 paintings completed from 1900 to 1903;
- Church of Saint-Jacques, Dieppe, a branched series of 9 paintings from 1901;
- Pont-Neuf, Paris, a tight series of 13 works painted in 1901-3;
- The Harbours, Dieppe, a loose branched series of 18 paintings from 1902;
- Quai Voltaire, Paris, a possibly incomplete branched series of 12 paintings in his final year, 1903;
- Le Havre, a branched series of 18 paintings completed shortly before his final illness in 1903.
(Brettell and Pissarro 1992, which illustrates many of the paintings too.)
Pissarro was a copious correspondent, particularly with his son Lucien. But he does not appear to have explained in those letters why, during the 1890s, he switched to painting such extensive series. It has been suggested that he wished to capture not just one moment, but the next, and the next, but what he painted does not appear to attempt that except in the most general way.
One physical reason which must have played a part in his decision is the fact that increasing problems with his eyes made it difficult for him to paint outdoors, particularly during the winter. His series certainly contain many views which were painted during the winter, apparently from indoors.
His ferocious drive to paint may also have been important; if you have to produce at least two paintings a week, it is hard to find motifs and, when growinging older, to travel out to many different locations.
I cannot find any art theoretical account which Pissarro wrote to justify changing his initial opinion of Monet’s series, despite Brettell’s detailed academic examination of Pissarro’s series. But Brettell writes that this would not have been unusual for Pissarro.
However Pissarro’s artistic motivations were clearly very different from those of Monet: Pissarro painted relatively complex motifs, particularly his cityscapes, with carefully chosen compositions which could vary and complement other compositions in branches of the same series. Not for Pissarro were these cityscape simple and unpopulated as Monet’s series were; Pissarro’s are rich with the bustle, motion, and noise of their abundant populations, and usually from high viewpoints to enhance their detail.
Although it was clearly important to him to ‘capture the moment’, those moments were perfectly capable of standing alone as non-series paintings. This is as well, because unlike Monet’s series, Pissarro’s were seldom exhibited as such, and the first time that they were properly gathered together in a single exhibition was in 1993, ninety years after his death.
This is the more surprising when considering the way in which he painted them. He often, perhaps usually, planned series in advance, estimating the number of canvases which he would devote to each composition or view. Although he would have several paintings active at any time, he seems to have been meticulous to paint each from observation of the motif.
There is another practical issue which must have been an influence, no matter how ‘pure’ Pissarro’s art. From his losses during the Franco-Prussian War, as he tried to support his family, his financial state was not good. It was better than Sisley’s, perhaps, but he did not achieve the same sales as Monet, who by 1891 was amassing a small fortune and living in comfort in a spacious property and gardens at Giverny.
The market had not just given Monet’s Grainstack series a favourable response, it had made him a rich man, with all 25 in the series being sold before the end of 1891, several for as much as 1,000 Francs each. In his retreat from the painstakingly slow dots of Divisionism, even achieving a small fraction of that success must have been highly alluring.
My next article in this series will review Sisley’s work in a similar manner, before moving on to Monet in the fourth.
Brettell RR (1990) Pissarro and Pontoise, Yale UP and Guild. ISBN 978 0 300 04336 5. (A thorough study based on Brettell’s thesis, with lots of information about Pontoise of relevance to other Impressionists. Available secondhand and worth the effort.)
Brettell RR and Pissarro J (1992) The Impressionist and the City. Pissarro’s Series Paintings, Royal Academy of Arts. ISBN 0 300 05446 7. (The definitive study of his late urban series paintings, available secondhand.)
Lloyd C (1992) Pissarro, Colour Library, Phaidon. ISBN 978 0 7148 2729 2. (An excellent introduction with good quality, large format colour plates, for a very modest price.)
Pissarro J (1993) Pissarro, Pavilion Books and Harry N Abrams. ISBN 1 85793 124 6. (Huge format and probably the definitive work, by his great-grandson, although few of its otherwise excellent illustrations make full use of the pages. Out of print but available secondhand.)