Rachel Cohen

Pissarro in March, in memory of Richard Brettell

Pissarro in March in memory of Richard Brettell

Camille Pissarro, Mardi Gras on the Boulevards, 1897. Fogg Museum of Art / Harvard Art Museums. All photos Rachel Cohen.

In 1897, Shrove Tuesday fell in March, and, in Paris, the annual Mardi Gras parade came down the Boulevard Montmartre on a blustery day. At a window overlooking the Boulevard, Camille Pissarro waited, brushes at the ready. The previous month, in February, he had begun an ambitious project, which would result in sixteen paintings of the Boulevard Montmartre, showing winter giving way to spring. Pissarro painted in the mornings, the afternoons, and the evenings; he painted in snow, rain, and the rare sunshine; he painted grey, and, when it came at last, he painted green. And he painted people – hailing cabs, rushing down the street, pausing to talk, cleaning, shopping, loitering.

Three of the sixteen canvases in the series of the Boulevard Montmartre show the parade crowd from that Shrove Tuesday. In the first, there is a thick column of organized marchers, the second also has a very large volume of people filling the street, and this last one, which belongs to the Harvard Art Museums, seems later in the day, when the people were more scattered about, the onlookers fill the sidewalks, the trees were festooned with confetti, and afternoon brightness could be discerned in certain pinks. I saw it at what I still think of as the Fogg Museum while we still lived in Cambridge, probably in 2015. I was already very interested in Pissarro; I was only beginning to realize how interested.

A little before that, in the summer of 2014, I had given a talk at Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount, and at the dinner after the talk met the director of the Robert Sterling Clark Museum. I told him that I was working on a project about painting and time and Impressionism, and he said I should come and talk to Richard Brettell, who was in residence at the Clark that season, and he set it up for me. We were only out in the Berkshires briefly, and the next day we went to the Clark, and looked at a few paintings, and I was admitted to the research area, and sat at a long table with Richard Brettell, notebook out, and I asked him cloudy questions about time and Impressionism and he answered briskly and with seeming enjoyment. Though I did not know his work then, I at least had the good sense to say that this was all in formation and a happy opportunity offered by the museum’s director and his good will. He told me to read Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art, which I subsequently did, and found very helpful. Somewhere I must have the rest of my notes from the conversation.

Later, I bought the catalogue of a profound show that Brettell co-curated at the Dallas Museum of Art, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Royal Academy in London, called The Impressionist in the City: Pissarro’s Series Paintings. The only time that Pissarro’s great series paintings from the city, more than 300 canvases in 11 series, have been seen together. Not even in his lifetime were they so exhibited. The show was in 1992-93; I was in college, knew nothing of such things. The painting I would later see at the Fogg, Shrove Tuesday, Boulevard Montmartre, was presented. They were able to assemble twelve of the sixteen works from the series. Paging through the catalogue this morning, I felt MARCH. I felt the trudging grey of February give way to the wet windiness of March, felt the people eating their last feast and going out into the streets for the complicated celebration of their coming atonement, felt the thinning out of Lent and March, which is not our religion, Pissarro and I are both Jewish, but is one accompaniment of this season, one interpretation of this season.

This morning I looked around all the bookshelves in the house until I located another book I had found, after meeting Brettell, a catalogue for a show called Pissarro’s People, 2001, which he wrote the text for. I bought it in anticipation of a future when I would learn more. I think it is probably a great book on Pissarro, the culmination of many decades of study. I just tore the plastic wrap off this morning.

Knowledge is so fleeting. The thin crackle of the plastic wrap between my dry garden-hardened fingers, and as I crumpled it up to throw it away, I had the illusion that that was the meeting, the rich hour and exchange of few emails from the summer of 2014, crinkled up and fleeting away.

Richard Brettell died in July of 2020, of cancer, at the age of 71. I learned of his passing earlier this winter. I go on learning about Pissarro.

Winter Gardening Pissarro

Winter Gardening Pissarro

Photo Rachel Cohen

Yesterday it went up to 39 degrees in Chicago, which is warm right now in January, and it was a lovely day, sunny and quiet. Looking ahead to many cold days, I had seen this one on the horizon and planned to use it for a pleasant task in the garden, cutting the dry Northern sea oats. These are beautiful grasses with very lovely seeds in a pattern like a short bit of wheat. They are already in profusion in our garden, and the dry stalks need to be cut in January or the seeds are too successful and take over the garden.

There was snow on the ground, a little less than an inch, enough that my boots left clear prints, a glittering soft snow that had fallen the day before but kept its whiteness, and this added to the sense of warmth and good cheer. It is a small urban garden, that seems bigger than it is because it was densely planted by the previous owner; you are never far from the house or the alley that runs behind the garden.

Yesterday, many workmen were out doing different projects and had parked along the alley, there were sounds of chopping and grinding. On the other side of the fence from me, there was a pick-up truck parked, perhaps twenty feet from where I worked, and three men were gathered near it, talking and laughing. I was a little uneasy without my mask, and I was also glad to hear people.

Our daughter had used her fifteen-minute break from online school to come out with me, but now she was back inside at her computer, and I was just cutting the grasses.

What came to mind was a winter Pissarro. Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow, 1879. I looked at it again during the brief months when the Art Institute was open – I’ve loved it and I loved it again.

Camille Pissarro, Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow, 1879, The Art Institute of Chicago. All detail photos Rachel Cohen.

You bend a hand-full of grasses and you cut them a few inches above the base. An ordinary garden clippers will cut about ten stems at a time. You try not to let too many seeds fall on the snow, but seeds fall on the snow. And look beautiful.

The Pissarro is of a man standing, on some kind of hillock, in the snow, and he is proportioned small – it is the landscape around him that matters, although he matters, too.

He was a fine man, Pissarro. He worked very hard all his life, never had quite enough, loved his large family, was Jewish, radical, Danish-French-Carribbean, born on the island of St. Thomas which was then the Danish West Indies, he was for Dreyfus, he was Cézanne’s treasured teacher, he had a long beard, and he painted with his own genius.

In the winter garden, cutting dry Northern sea oats, I thought of this landscape, and drew strength.

Yesterday, I had a message from a colleague at the Art Institute. Times are hard there, the museum has closed again and many people have been furloughed. The AIC workers have set up a mutual aid society. Many kinds of aid can be given and received at this website, and you can donate money to the group here, which I did this morning, a colder day, 14 when we got up and began to ready ourselves.

1879 was an especially severe winter, and Pissarro was one of the great snow painters. But it wasn’t the snow in Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow that brought the painting to mind, it was the sense of the thin lines of dry brush around the figure, the sense of his activity even as he holds still. In winter things are so near to death and, restrained, so active. A handful of thin lines, dry stems.

* * *

I find now that I have already written about Rabbit Warren, Pontoise in this notebook -- last April, the last snow of last winter. "Pissarro. Out of Season." When I wrote about it then, I said that I had thought to save this painting to write about later, I had expected to write about it in this winter, the winter of 2021, and that it was hard to imagine what that winter would be, and that I was writing of it in April because it had snowed. I had forgotten this when I thought of the painting, wrote of it again. So here are two moments of this pandemic year with Pisssarro -- one from an unexpectedly snowy day in April of 2020, another from an unexpectedly warm day in January, 2021, mutually reflective.

* * *

Often for these notebook pieces, I write a little dedication line at the end. While I was working in the garden, a few people came to mind. One was Richard Brettell, art historian, curator and museum director, whom I met once, and whose books on Pissarro matter very much to me. I wrote the dedication, and, imagining that I would send him a note, searched for him and found that he died of cancer in July of this past year.

Richard Brettell was a curator of European paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1980s, and so he would have known this painting well. When I have had time to think about his work and to revisit in mind the hour I spent talking with him, I will try to write about that.

The news of his death seemed to have come through the dried grasses, the sense of the painting. But his death was not what I set out to write about. I set out to tell you that yesterday it was 39 degrees in Chicago, it was sunny, there was snow around the sea oats, three men talked in the alley near a truck, and that the scene made me think of Pissarro.

For friends and colleagues, studying Pissarro, carrying paintings outside of museums, working in gardens – the late Richard Brettell, Nancy Chen, Melissa Seley, Lawrence Weschler.