By 1895, Pissarro’s paintings were selling and reaching better prices than the derisory sums they had in the past. The rift over his period of Neo-Impressionist had largely healed, although the Impressionists as a group had long since dissolved. What was coming to trouble him more was his chronic eye disease, and the limits which it imposed on his outdoor painting.
He still managed to paint some views of the snowy conditions at Éragny in early 1895 including Poplar Trees, Effect of Sunlight, Winter, Éragny. This features a poorly-dressed country woman carrying a couple of pails in the snow. It was bought by Durand-Ruel in early April, and not sold on until 1910, when it was bought by an American collector.
Poplars, Éragny, Sunlight is from later in the Spring of 1895, another of his long and varied series of the poplars around his home. He didn’t sell this to Durand-Ruel until the autumn of that year, and it took even longer to find an interested American purchaser for it.
In January 1896, Pissarro returned to the city of Rouen for a second period painting there, with the aim of completing eight to ten views of the city, with which he was already familiar. These were intended for a Spring show at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris later that year. As it turned out, painting in the Hôtel de Paris that winter was little better for his eyes than being outdoors: his accommodation proved bitterly cold and drafty, but at least he was able to remain behind glass. When he returned to Éragny at the end of March, he had fifteen canvases with which to establish the urban theme for the late years of his career.
Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather (1896) is one of the finest examples of the view from Pissarro’s icy hotel room, looking out over the intense activity on and around this iron bridge which had only been completed in 1888. The artist became fascinated with the appearance of this bridge in different weather conditions, and the critics agreed both with his choice of motif and his impressions of it. When Pissarro returned to Rouen in the autumn of that year, and again in 1898, it remained one of his favourite motifs there.
This composite shows some of the accessible paintings from his loose series of urban and industrial views painted from his hotel room during his two visits to Rouen in 1896.
In 1897, Pissarro transferred his attentions back to Paris. In January, he painted from a hotel room overlooking the Rue Saint-Lazare, then in February transferred to a room with a view over the Boulevard Montmartre, where he painted some of his finest cityscapes.
Boulevard Montmartre, Spring Morning (1897) is composed primarily of buildings and streets, a plethora of figures, and countless carriages to move those people around – the ingredients for so many of his late paintings.
In the foreground, Pissarro may have formed each quite roughly, but he has painted in sufficient detail. Three white horses range in tone and colour, with highlights on the front of each head. You can see which people are wearing hats, and spot ladies in their fashionable clothing.
Deeper into the distance, detail is lost, and the carriages and crowds merge into one another. Still they have a rhythm, highlights and shadows, and form.
Pissarro must have spent day after day at his hotel window populating these busy streets.
During the period 1893 to 1903, I consider that Pissarro painted 10 series of urban landscapes, including:
- Gare Saint-Lazaire, Paris, a total of 5 from 1893 and 1897;
- Rouen, a branched series of 45 paintings from 1896 and 1898;
- Boulevard Montmartre, Paris, a tight series of 14 paintings from 1897;
- Avenue de l’Opera, Paris, a branched series of 15 paintings from 1897;
- Tuileries Gardens, Paris, a branched series of 31 paintings from 1899-1900;
- Coin du jardin à Éragny, a series of 5 paintings from 1899;
- Louvre, Pont Neuf, Pont Royal, Quai Malaquais, Paris, a branched series of 71 paintings from 1900 to 1903;
- Church of Saint-Jacques, Dieppe, a series of 6 paintings from 1901;
- The Harbours, Dieppe, a branched series of 16 paintings from 1902;
- Le Havre, a branched series of 23 paintings completed shortly before his final illness in 1903.
These differ slightly from previous estimates of Brettell and Pissarro, which were made before the publication of the latest catalogue raisoné.
These series were broken suddenly when Pissarro had to rush to his son Lucien in London, who fell seriously ill in May 1897. It was to be Pissarro’s last visit overseas: when his third son Félix died of tuberculosis in London in November of that year, the artist’s eye condition was too bad for him to travel.
At the end of that dreadful year in his family life, Durand-Ruel encouraged Pissarro to return to Paris. So he did, staying from the end of the year until April 1898, painting views of the Place du Théâtre-Français and its environs.
In his Rue Saint-Honoré, Sun Effect, Afternoon (1898), the human throng is more scattered, and the carriages and figures in the foreground rather larger.
Pissarro accordingly forms his blots and strokes to deliver more detail. A few carefully-shaped brushstrokes of a mid-browny-grey, and there’s a woman wearing an elegant hat, with a waist in her long coat, carrying a bag. The carriages have wheels, and there is a charabanc, with a group sat in the open on top.
Every stroke, dot, splodge gives the visual cortex of our brains just enough information to see in our mind the detail of an object, for it to be recognisable, even though much of what we see is hardly there on the canvas at all. This is miraculously perceptive painting: knowing exactly what, and how much, to hint at, so that our minds will fill in the rest.
From July to October 1898, Pissarro returned to Rouen, where he completed twenty canvases during his last working visit to the city.
A new motif, given the more favourable weather during the late summer, is Rue de l’Épicerie, Rouen, Effect of Sunlight, one of a series of just three paintings showing one of the oldest streets in the city as it runs between sixteenth century houses near the cathedral.
At the end of 1898, Pissarro rented a flat for his family in Paris, from where he enjoyed a superb view over the Tuileries Gardens, which, unlike Monet and Renoir, he hadn’t painted until late in his career. His first series of eleven paintings was sold to Durand-Ruel in May for the sum of 27,000 Francs. The artist then returned to the same flat to paint a second series at the end of 1899.
These two versions of The Garden of the Tuileries on a Winter Afternoon (1899) are composed almost identically to Monet’s view from nearly 25 years earlier, with the dome of Les Invalides and the spires of the Church of Saint-Clotilde in the background. Pissarro was perhaps the first to capture the appearance of the gardens when busy, as they are during fine weather even in winter. His crowds of people are as varied and minimalist as those populating his other series paintings of Paris.
The Garden of the Tuileries on a Spring Morning (1899) is a very similar aerial view, this time well into springtime, with the trees in full leaf, in their brilliant fresh green foliage. Although there are fewer people now, Pissarro affords us some delicate detail, for instance in the pram just above the middle of the lower edge of the canvas.
There are subtle differences between these three canvases which demonstrate that Pissarro’s painting was far from mechanical, and involved significant interpretation. The spring view has a lower skyline which cannot be accounted for by its being angled more to the left than the winter views, for example. However details of trees and even quite small features in the distance match very well, supporting the view that he did try to remain faithful to the real world.
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.