Rachel Cohen

13. Pissarro and Public Spaces

Frederick Project: Commons

pissarro detail

Camille Pissarro, The Public Garden at Pontoise, 1874, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday in Chicago the lake front and many of the public parks closed. A day or two earlier, there had been a beautiful warm day, and too many people went out to the places we always go to. Jackson Park was closed, too, where the children and I have been going to keep track of spring, and to run around the perimeter of what they call ‘the circle garden.’ This morning, I am thinking about the relationship between museums and public parks, places whose colors we see, year in and year out, changing and constant.

Camille Pissarro was one of Impressionism’s great painters of urban spaces – streets of Paris seen from a balcony in snow, on days of parades, traffic circulating, barges at work along the river. There is a wonderful book about his work on city life, the monograph from an exhibition, The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro’s Series Paintings, by Richard Brettell and Joachim Pissarro.

This morning I happened upon a few photos I took of a Pissarro that's at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Public Garden at Pontoise, 1874. This beautiful space is connected to the person walking through it, her dress and the feet we can't see in the upper right.

Pissarro was, to my mind, the most radical person in the Impressionist group. Born to Portuguese-French-Jewish parents on St. Thomas, which was then the Danish West Indies, living in Venezuela, then in Paris, a figure whom many historians think held the French Impressionists together, by the breadth of his vision and the kindness of his heart, an appreciator of all their individual talents, probably the one among them with the deepest commitment to portraying working people, the mentor Cézanne needed in the period he most needed it, going ahead into neo-Impressionism with Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, writer of beautiful letters to his friends and his children, a person I have sometimes wished to write a book about.

This is just spring, taking the air on a simple day in Pontoise, one hundred and forty-six years ago. I last saw it in the fall of 2013, on an overnight trip to New York without our daughter, then one and a half. I missed her physically, missed the stroller I would have been pushing had she been there.

This morning I miss our parks through the children, the way the tree bark feels under their hands. This will be such a different spring than any other we have had. Without the places of common discovery.

In Chicago

In Chicago
We have moved to Chicago. I went to the Art Institute soon after we arrived and was happy to see that the museum has a wonderful Berthe Morisot. I have wanted to keep thinking about her. I find that I remember vividly each experience I’ve had of her work in the last few years: two watercolors from the Clark, an exhibition at the Met that had several of her paintings, a visit to the Musée Marmottan while M played with S in the public gardens. The peculiar density of atmosphere that Morisot achieves seems like something to learn from. Perhaps I am affected by knowledge of her biography, and her early death, but it feels to me as if she knew there might not be much time, and that she put everything she knew, about a person, a child, a garden, a hat, into each painting.    

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One thing, I think, is that she is able to keep everything in motion.  This morning, a first day of school, the perpetual motion of everything and everybody – all our objects, all the four of us, all our places and people – feels overwhelming, but look at how she brings the garden to the dress, the fan away from and toward the dress, the dress itself toward blue, toward purple, toward the body and the air.  

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I don’t think it is a photographic accident that the face of the woman becomes clearer and more meaningful when looked at with the hat and figure of the child behind her. Morisot has done something with the beige and white shades of their two heads and hats that allows my eye to make a relation between the two figures. The woman’s face becomes less ghostly, I see what she thinks about and how she feels happiness and even love across those green strokes to the child.

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When I look back at our pictures of the summer, I see that we were often sitting where sand or green plants or water made a continuousness between us and the children. I feel I will miss this in the greater distinctness of fall.

In summer there is the challenge of making meaningful and definite that which is blurred by heat and continuity and abundance. Morisot has not forgotten the work of it.  This morning, I am especially fond of that rake, like a paintbrush, like a pen, to one side.  

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