Rachel Cohen

If you think of each act, Pissarro

If you think of each act Pissarro

Camille Pissarro, Landscape with Flooded Field (at Saint-Ouen l'Aumone), 1873. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

If you think of each act. I mean, every time a person comes into contact with someone else or a living being, or the life of the world. Every time she talks to the cashier as she pays for groceries at the store, or calls the pharmacy about a prescription, every time she does or doesn’t nod to a person she passes as she’s out walking, every time she puts out bird seed or chases away a rat who has come to eat the bird seed, or decides to bring in the bird feeder for now and moves a dry leaf so a fern can struggle on. Every time she answers the children with a laugh, and every time she answers sharply, impatiently, every time she writes a note back, every time she doesn’t.

If you think of each act as a drop of rain. Then every life would have millions. Millions and millions of tiny acts. A vast ramifying sky of rain pouring down.

This morning it is raining torrentially. Rain is pouring in cataracts across our windows, and seeping in the back basement door to run down the cement floor, rain is pounding on the windows and the roof.

My old friend’s mother has died. Not of coronavirus, of other long illnesses. He and his siblings couldn’t go to her. She died in the night of May 12th becoming May 13th. I never met her, but my friend is a kind, insightful, brilliantly perceptive person, formed in the rain of thousands upon thousands of her tiny acts, kind and unkind, and so I know something of the weather she carried.

When my father died, seven years ago, the weather was so present to me. It was in storms that I felt he was closest again. I looked to the sky for signs.

Three Pissarros Over Time

Three Pissarros Over Time

Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

A Pissarro landscape has a special quality. As in a Monet, the vegetation has a lift, but this is even a bit more pronounced, so that there is a strong space around the leaves, which have a kind of brio.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

As in a Sisley, there are glints, and the overall effect is quite bright, but the strokes are not quite as thin as Sisley’s.

Camille Pissarro, Cotes des Grouettes, near Pontoise, probably 1878. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

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To understand the painter who emerged in the 1870s, it is useful to look back a little into his history. Like all of the central generation of Impressionists, Pissarro followed Manet through the 1860s. Paint is smooth and areas of color fairly large, as here, in 1867, Jallais Hill. Beautiful, and with a certain opacity, something the eye moves over, but there is an incipient sense of through.

Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867.

Pissarro and his companion, later his wife, Julie Vellay had to flee Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. When they returned in 1872, they found that the Prussians had destroyed more than 1400 of his paintings done over twenty years. So the record of his early understanding of landscape, and of paint, is incomplete. Some think that these destroyed paintings would have shown the birth of Impressionism. This one from the Met is one of only 40 that remained, and becomes important in showing the great spatial and geometric clarity that underlay all his work.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867.

By 1874, look how the mass is made with freedom and movement. How many colors are stippled through one another. This is how form and space are made.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

1874 is the year of the First Impressionist Exhibition, brought about in large part by Pissarro and his activity, his work as a uniting force. He was a primary articulator of the injustice of the old Salon system; he was always strong in his defense of working people as subjects of art; having grown up a child of Jewish shopkeepers in St. Thomas, he understood the dynamics of the colonial world and its cosmopolitan capitals, and this allowed him to see landscape, its cultivation and its colors, with a different kind of eye.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

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Pissarro, ever alert to new developments, joined Seurat and Signac in the pointillist movements of the 1880s, taking color juxtaposition to an extreme. Perhaps these theories felt like a confirmation of convictions he’d had all his life about how to make space by the application of small areas of color; he would say that he preferred the scientific to the romantic. The three landscapes I am looking at here are not from this pointillist period, but they are not disconnected from Pissarro's steady experimentalism.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Going back through my own entries on Pissarro, I find that it was seeing these landscapes in 2013 that first allowed me to start my own method of photographing the details of paintings. Pissarro himself was not as interested in photography as Degas and Caillebotte and others who were serious photographers. But he was very modern.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Landscapes by Pissarro might seem a little less than Monet, not as powerful in their color, not as complete and radical an accomplishment as Monet's great series paintings or his late abstract works. What makes them so strikingly modern is a little hard to identify.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, Cotes des Grouettes, near Pontoise, probably 1878.

What I see thinking about these three paintings today is a definiteness and clarity, a structure in space that emerges over time, and comes not in spite of gentleness or nuance, but somehow together with these qualities.

Detail from Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874.

Pissarro wrote a volume of letters to his son Lucien, a volume now famous, but at the time a strong record of the running thoughts of a gifted and impoverished man. [My edition is the one edited by John Rewald in 1943, and later translated by Lionel Abel.]

On November 20, 1883: Remember that I have the temperament of a peasant, I am melancholy, harsh and savage in my works, it is only in the long run that I can expect to please, and then only those who have a grain of indulgence; but the eye of the passerby is too hasty and sees only the surface. Whoever is in a hurry will not stop for me.

Weekend Countryside Pissarro

Sunshine today put me in mind of three Pisssarros at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Camille Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1874. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

And, second:

Camille Pissarro, Jallais Hill, 1867. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Third:

Camille Pissarro, Cotes des Grouettes, near Pontoise, probably 1878. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos Rachel Cohen.

May the weekend bring you sunlight and repose.

Pissarro in Snow

Out of Season

Snow this morning.

This painting – Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow by Camille Pissarro, 1879 – is a regular point of reference for me, one I visit fairly often at the Art Institute. I had thought that writing of it would wait until next year. (Will we be inside again? There are questions and predictions about future waves of the disease. Hard to grasp what the year will be.)

Most winters I write a little about snow and painting because snow is painting in nature.

Pissarro was a great snow painter. He painted nearly a hundred paintings in which snow was a central theme. This winter, of 1879, was an especially severe one in France, and there are many great snow paintings from that year.

The snow over the rabbit warrens gives this a hummocky shape.

One of the difficulties with painting layered white is that you get too much opacity and a painting loses its depth. Besides the quality of actual snow is not of airlessness. There have to be other colors layered in to get the feeling of the snow.

I remembered – walking out this morning to fill the bird feeder, to see how the daffodils were managing bent under their burdens – that to enter a landscape of snow seems almost like entering paint.

Some paintings are seasonal. To feel the air in them out of season is like trying to pack for a trip to a different climate, you can’t really guess with your body how it would feel.

The snow is already melting here as I write this. And I notice this odd bright green that Pissarro used. Perhaps the painting too is of snow early or late, stretched beyond its season.

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.

Second in a Series

Second in a Series

The Bath, Mary Cassatt, Fogg Museum



The Bath is a print, or a series of prints, made by Mary Cassatt in 1891 – at the height of her powers and at a moment when her interest in Japanese prints opened a wonderful set of visual ideas in her mind.

Her powers were considerable.  When Pissarro visited her studio in April of that year he wrote of her work to his son Lucien (the two Pissarros had been experimenting with prints themselves.)

You remember the effects you strove for at Eragny?  Well, Miss Cassatt has realized just such effects, and admirably: the tone even, subtle, delicate, without stains on seams: adorable blues, fresh rose, etc…. the result is admirable, as beautiful as Japanese work, and it’s done with printer’s ink! [Letters to Lucien, p158]  

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Many of Cassatt’s prints are now regarded as technical masterpieces.  She pulled sheets herself in her studio, and also had the help of an extremely talented printer, Modeste Leroy, whom she took the unusual step of crediting, as is the Japanese tradition.  The prints are marked Imprimée par l’artiste et M. Leroy / Mary Cassatt.  

At the Fogg Museum right now, one may see a sequence of nine versions of The Bath, the first print in a set of twenty-five.  Cassatt worked on The Bath in a great many stages because, as she said, “I was entirely ignorant of the method when I began.” [Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, p45]  The whole series originally had the subtitle “an attempt at imitating Japanese printing,” although she later dropped this description.

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Cassatt had studied Japanese prints for twenty years, and owned many of them by the time she undertook the series; her interest in Japanese style had been given new point by an important exhibition of Japanese works that took place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890.  In a well-known letter to Berthe Morisot, Cassatt exhorted her to see the exhibition:

… you could come and dine here with us and afterwards we could go to see the Japanese prints at the Beaux-Arts.  Seriously, you must not miss that.  You who want to make color prints you couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful.  I dream of it and don’t think of anything else but color on copper.  [letter from Cassatt to Morisot, quoted p36 of Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints.]

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The Japanese influence on The Bath is evident right away.  You can see it in the particular shade of blue that makes the basin of water a significant equal weight in the picture, in balance with the mother and the child; it is in the pattern on the yellow dress that has gone from being penciled in to being part of the plate; and it is in the outlined figures that seem almost cut out and then laid over the background.

Cassatt’s color prints are stylized and also about style.  Here style is not ornament.  The hallmark of these prints may be their tenderness, but here style is paring down and juxtaposing in order to achieve a kind of force.

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Toward Spring

Toward Spring

Pissarro, The Public Gardens at Pontoise, 1874



In The Times this morning, an item suggesting that blossoming in the New York City parks will be unusually overlapping this season.  I remember this from certain springs.  In general it would be so carefully painted in Central Park – first the yellow forsythia, then delicate whites and rose of cherry and dogwood, then the heavier magnolias.  But that occasionally these would run together.  The effects could be beautiful, but sometimes I remember thinking that the palettes jarred, and that I preferred the slow procession, each tree gravely taking its turn to step forward.

Here, though, we long for spring, hurried or deliberate. Three brave clusters of dark purple crocuses in our yard, in a particularly sunny and warm place close to the house, are the only flowers I’ve seen. Today, when the baby and I went out to the country for a walk, we saw forsythia so tight and ashen that it seemed weeks away from bloom. Staring now out the study window, by dint of straining, I can begin to pretend that the faintest shade of yellow-green limns the edges of the severely closed branches.  

Struggling to recall the sensations of public parks in spring, I was put in mind of a Pissarro I looked at last year at the Met. The Public Garden at Pontoise painted in 1874.

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Perhaps those massed bushes would be rhodedendrons?  And lilacs?      

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The people do not seem especially joyful – their faces are deliberately not given in detail.  But they move about in an air that is full of leaves and flowers, and the people, too, look at the coming-and-going clothes of the boy on the left, are not bound tightly anymore but are carried by the fullness of spring.

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And when they climb to the heights of the hill to look out across the water, the light among the treetops is radiant.

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In a different spring, from Paris, Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien -- it was the first of March, 1884 -- of how he looked forward to being in the house that they had taken in Eragny. It had a garden and fields. “It is about two hours from Paris.  I found the country much more beautiful than Compiegne, although that day it was still pouring torrents.  But here comes the spring, the fields are green, outlines are delicate in the distance.”  

I have been imagining how that delicate green arrival felt to him.  Look at this, from the lower left, where the painting becomes a pure study of color:

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Quotation from Pissarro, Letters to his Son Lucien, edited by John Rewald and translated by Lionel Abel, p58.


Snow

Snow

Camille Pissarro,
Pontoise, the Road to Gisors in Winter,
1873, iphone detail


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At this time last year, in the days when my father was dying, it snowed and snowed.   From the hospital windows, it had its beauty.  The hallway near the elevators had windows that looked down on to a sort of large courtyard, not rustic, but still made precise by the snow. People crossed and you would see dark footprints.  These would then be covered.  The footprints and their being covered, traces of particular steps and shoes, then again white -- the tiny brevity of each passing figure, of the length of time in which the marks each made were visible, and then the snow.  


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The Impressionists painted snow -- in cities, in villages, over fields -- and snow itself seems their subject.  The Dutch painters made snowy landscapes for tiny figures to skate in, but the Impressionists gave the element pride of place. They must have loved snow, which is, itself, painting. (In the time I've been writing this the pine tree outside my window has got light traces of white on every outside branch.)  And it is painting as the Impressionists thought of it -- stroke after stroke, strokes themselves visible, paint as paint, so that you watch the illusion accumulate and marvel.  And the snow's relations with light -- at once so wide and so complex -- to absorb, dampen, reflect, sometimes seemingly to generate.  Outside my window it gets whiter and whiter, and the dark of the looming sky finds its balance in the intensification of white on the ground.  

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Time is slower in the snow. You can see it passing before your eyes.  Discrete white that you can follow just long enough to feel that you were following it before it was lost, but over and over so that the seconds fill, and the minutes.  


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A man in a blue hat, walking vigorously -- I can see his head and shoulders beyond the fence with its white lines, through the scrim of white air -- passes the stop sign, makes his way along the road, goes behind the pine tree now more white than green, leaves the visual field.    



A First Glimpse of Sargent and Monet

A First Glimpse of Sargent and Monet

Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, Reflections on the Thames, 1901


In a book on Monet’s series paintings of London (between 1900 and 1904 he made almost a hundred paintings of three subjects: the Waterloo Bridge, the Charing Cross Bridge, the Houses of Parliament) I read this cursory paragraph:  

The successful portrait painter Sargent, who urged Monet to show in London in the early 1890s, may have encouraged the artist’s professional interest in London.  He was very much in evidence when Monet was in London and assisted him in making arrangements, dined with him, and provided social contacts – some of whom may have been intended as potential patrons. [1]  

They had known each other some time, apparently, and Sargent was good at, and generous about, practical arrangements.  

In a letter from Pissarro to his son Lucien written in 1891, “What you say about Sargent doesn’t surprise me; Monet had told me that he is very kind.”  Monet, though, seems to have had more feeling for Sargent as a compatriot painter than Pissarro did.  In the letter, Pissarro continued, “As for his painting, that, of course, we can’t approve of; he is not an enthusiast, but rather an adroit performer, and it was not for his painting that Mirbeau [the novelist and critic] wanted you to meet him. He is a man who can be very useful…” [2]

There he is -- Sargent -- darting about in the background of Monet's life.  Encouraging, facilitating.  Both men were extremely rigorous, both worked incessantly, both were fastidious in their artistic ideas and tastes.  What did they mean to each other?  




[1] Grace Seiberling, Monet in London, High Museum of Art, distributed by University of Washington Press, 1988, p36.
[2] Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien, edited John Rewald and Lucien Pissarro, Da Capo, New York: 1995, letter of October 6, 1891, p183.

Passages: Pissarro

Passages Pissarro

Pissarro, Pontoise, Road to Gisors in Winter, 1873, MFA.


Camille Pissarro, theorist and mentor of the Impressionist movement, was known for giving sound advice.  Here are some of his thoughts as later recollected by the painter Louis Le Bail (in Rewald, The History of Impressionism).  They’re in the order that Le Bail wrote them down in, but I’ve broken them into territories, and set them to some iphone details I took of the last Pissarro I looked at, Pontoise, the Road to Gisors in Winter, 1873, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:



Look for the kind of nature that suits your temperament.  

The motif should be observed more for shape and color than for drawing.  There is no need to tighten the form which can be obtained without that.  Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression of the whole, it destroys all sensations.  Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the brush stroke of the right value and color which should produce the drawing.  

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In a mass, the greatest difficulty is not to give the contour in detail, but to paint what is within. Paint the essential character of things, try to convey it by any means whatsoever, without bothering about technique.  



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When painting, make a choice of subject, see what is lying at the right and at the left, then work on everything simultaneously.  Don’t work bit by bit, but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere, with brush strokes of the right color and value, while noticing what is alongside. Use small brush strokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately.  

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The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything, while observing the reflections which the colors produce on their surroundings.  Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it.  Cover the canvas at the first go, then work at it until you can see nothing more to add.



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Observe the aerial perspective well, from the foreground to the horizon, the reflections of sky, of foliage.  

Don’t be afraid of putting on color, refine the work little by little.  

Don’t proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel.




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Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.  

Don’t be timid in front of nature: one must be bold, at the risk of being deceived and making mistakes.  

One must have only one master – nature; she is the one always to be consulted.


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On Photography II

On Photography II

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone photo.

[This is the second installment of visual notes on this Pissarro, documented by iphone.]

Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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Shape of path as it curves back:

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Shape of hill crest, cypressed, below sky:

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Step back to look at whole again:

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Dark paint, just dashed on, group of trees:

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Really dark, low dark hole, yellow grass across lower right corner:

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Look again at dark paint just dashed on of upper tree:

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Once having looked at these two dark areas, upper tree, lower hole, the whole right side of the picture has beautiful depth:

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Now the interior looks quite different, rougher paint:

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What would Pissarro have made of this fragmentary way of writing down the seeing of his picture?  Would he know right away that, as happened in his own time, our new tools have changed the experience of sight?  He was the great theoretician among the Impressionists, the one who articulated what they were after.  But in all the letters to his son Lucien that are such a full statement of his thought I cannot find a single mention of photography.

He does, though, indicate how important the idea of the series was to his way of thinking.  In a letter from the summer of 1895, he writes that he is sorry that Lucien has been delayed in getting to Paris for now he will miss seeing "the Monets.  This is a great pity, for the Cathedrals are being much talked of, and highly praised, too, by Degas, Renoir, myself and others.  I would have so liked you to see the whole series in a group, for I find in it the superb unity which I have been seeking for a long time."   [June 1, 1895]