Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) had just completed three years of painting in Neo-Impressionist style, as a ‘Pointillist’. Although this resulted in fine paintings, some of which remain among his best, he found it slow and laborious work. Even more significantly for his family’s finances, his dealer Durand-Ruel refused to buy any of those works, and their slow rate of completion limited the number which he could offer to more enthusiastic dealers like Théo van Gogh.
One painting which was caught up in his reversion to more Impressionist style was this Landscape with a Flock of Sheep, which he had started back in 1889, when he signed it for the first time. This was based on a pastel which he had painted that year. In 1902, he undertook extensive overpainting, probably in response to a commission from the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, then signed and dated it a second time.
In February and March 1890, the Boussod & Valadon gallery in Paris – for which Théo van Gogh worked – exhibited sixteen of Pissarro’s oils, seven paintings in distemper, and four in watercolour. Critical reception was excellent, although resulting sales were less encouraging. Then in late May and June of 1890, Pissarro went to London to visit his son Georges there.
Among the six paintings which he started work on in England was this view of Charing Cross Bridge, London (1890) from Waterloo Bridge. For this he made a sketch in front of the motif, then following his return to his studio in Éragny he painted this in oils. It was complete by October, when he sold it to Théo van Gogh.
This shows the River Thames in central London, looking south-west, with the skyline broken by the Palace of Westminster and the tower of Big Ben. The powered watercraft shown are paddle steamers, popular with locals and tourists at the time.
The following year (1891), as Pissarro’s style was still making the journey back from Neo-Impressionism, he painted this bank of locally dense fog at the edge of a wood near Éragny, in Meadow at Éragny with Cows, Fog, Sunset. In early 1892, this was exhibited in Paris, where it was still considered to be ‘Pointillist’, but it was bought by Durand-Ruel in February 1892 and sold on to a customer on the same day.
This Landscape at Saint-Charles, Sunset from 1891 was also painted near Éragny, and is an instructive example of Pissarro’s use of colour in shadows. Areas of grass which lie in the shadow of the trees are intensely green, whilst those in full light are gold. This painting was initiailly turned down by Durand-Ruel, but he finally bought it in September 1891.
Pissarro’s brushstrokes were growing less staccato when he painted The Steeple and Manor-House at Éragny, Sunset in 1891.
Unfortunately, the artist’s eye problems became more severe during the middle of that year, and he had to undergo several treatment sessions and surgery in Paris, with financial help from Claude Monet. Pissarro was then advised to paint indoors, behind glass, rather than en plein air.
In January 1892, Durand-Ruel held a retrospective of Pissarro’s paintings at his gallery in Paris. From May to August 1892 the artist was in London again, this time to sort out his son Lucien’s wedding which took place that summer. After a brief stay in the city, he moved out to Kew (in the south-western suburbs, and home to the famous botanical garden), where he painted a total of eleven canvases.
Pissarro painted Bank Holiday, Kew (1892) from the balcony of his rented flat in Kew, on the summer public holiday in early August. This is the precursor of his later densely-populated urban landscapes.
On Pissarro’s return to Éragny, he continued to paint local views. These grew the series of paintings which he had started there in the late 1880s, eventually including at least 43 paintings of views of Bazincourt, which generally include the church spire and poplar trees, such as View of Bazincourt, Sunset from 1892.
That large Bazincourt series requires more careful study and analysis, but it is notable that it was started well before Claude Monet’s first tight series, of La Vallée de la Creuse in 1889. It couldn’t therefore have been a response to Monet’s first commercially successful series from then onwards.
In early 1893, Pissarro had to stay in Paris again for treatment to an abscess on one eye. His doctor gave him strict instructions to avoid exposing that eye to dust in the street, so the artist took a room at the Hôtel-Restaurant de Rome, which afforded good views of the busy junction below. From there, he started to paint the cityscapes which came to dominate this late phase in his painting.
Place du Havre and Rue Amsterdam, Morning, Sunlight (1893) is one of Pissarro’s first populous cityscapes, and a clean break from his Neo-Impressionism. He had completed this painting by March, when he sold it to Durand-Ruel.
Pissarro painted several figurative works over this period too. A Washerwoman at Éragny from 1893 must have seemed an almost timeless motif: it shows a woman labouring at a similar wooden tub to those seen in Dutch genre paintings by Gabriël Metsu and others from nearly 250 years earlier.
When in Éragny, Pissarro continued to add to his huge series of works showing its countryside. He painted The Big Walnut Tree in Spring, Éragny (above) in 1894 – a tree which had visibly flourished since he first painted it nine years earlier. Below is his view of poplars there as the autumn colours were developing, in Autumn, Poplars, Éragny from the same year.
In the summer of 1894, Pissarro visited Belgium. This coincided with the assassination of the President of France by an anarchist, which made it impossible for the artist to return to his home, because of his known political affiliation. He was eventually able to return to Éragny in October.
As Pissarro moved steadily away from ‘Pointillism’, he was able to increase both his output and sales. Although he wasn’t growing rich, and his family demands were increasing, by 1895 they were clear of poverty, and his work was becoming better valued.
Tomorrow I’ll show a selection of Alfred Sisley’s landscapes from the same period.
Brettell RR (1990) Pissarro and Pontoise, Yale UP and Guild. ISBN 978 0 300 04336 5.
Pissarro J (1993) Pissarro, Pavilion Books and Harry N Abrams. ISBN 1 85793 124 6.
Pissarro J and Snollaerts CD-R (2005) Pissarro. Critical Catalogue of Paintings, 3 vols, Wildenstein Institute and Skira. ISBN 88 7624 525 1.
Rothkopf K ed (2006) Pissarro. Creating the Impressionist Landscape, Philip Wilson, London. ISBN 0 85667 630 6.