Rachel Cohen

Vuillard and Vegetation

Vuillard and Vegetation

Édouard Vuillard, Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, 1899, Art Institute of Chicago. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

This week I want to think about vegetation and growth. I have been reading a long poem by Francis Ponge from Le Parti Pris de Choses, which my friend Massimo sent on to me – happily, since I cannot find my copy of it. In the poem “Faune et Flore” I find the line: “Il n’y a pas d’autre mouvement en eux que l’extension.” Extension is their only movement.

It has rained enormously over the last few days. The last five springs have been the rainiest five years on record in Chicago and the surrounding farmlands. It is impossible to continue to grow certain crops, like apples, at these rates of rain, and this is accelerating the closure of family farms in our region. Apple-picking is a part of the fall for Chicago children, but last year, there was nowhere to go.

This morning, the door to our back garden was still steamy from the rains. Through the thick dripping mist, I could see that the garden has grown inches and shades – the solomon seal, the ferns, the goat’s beard, bittersweet, and climbing hydrangeas have all shot upward and outward, the space between the plants has filled in and overlapped, dirt is almost no longer visible, and the whole garden has darkened and come into a mid-spring green, where yellow is less prominent, but not yet the darker shades of summer, an intense middle green, like the greens of grass, with some gray and white, here and there red undertones.

The Vuillard, Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, from 1899, was meant to invoke a tapestry. The borders and edges are deliberately handled to remind a viewer of medieval and Renaissance tapestries, with their areas of flowered ground, their banners and undulant terrain. It is made in textures of growth.

Today I am struck by the urgency of vegetal growth. The plants making themselves out of the soil in phenomenal bursts. That color green which is so sensitive to light, and derives extraordinary propulsivity from light.

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.

Poussin on Earth Day

Poussin on Earth Day

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with St. John on Patmos, 1640. Art Institute of Chicago. Photos Rachel Cohen.

It is Earth Day, and I want to think about the earth’s time.

My colleague Kathleen Blackburn, who writes about the environment and works with the Fresh Water Lab at the University of Illinois, has drawn my attention to a book I have been thinking about without yet having read, Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. The thought is that we can understand and respond to crises with an immediate time horizon, but that we have a very hard time acting as if, even perceiving that, we’re in crisis when something is prolonged.

This is one of the many aspects of this very strange sheltering season where it is possible to see deep connections between our responses to the flu pandemic and our environmental consciousness.

What is a slow crisis – and what kind of sensory perception and intellectual clarity do you need to attend to it?

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I started looking at Poussin because Roger Fry thought his paintings were wonderful, and I thought Roger Fry, especially his book on Cézanne, was wonderful, and I had never liked Poussin’s paintings at all, found them strange and, with their often mask-like faces and statue-frozen physical poses, even a bit repellant, and I thought if Roger Fry was so into them, and I disliked them so fervently, there must be something there and I would take the challenge. It was probably competitive, to be honest, if this was the most difficult painter, damned if I was going to be left behind.

Around 2005, I had cobbled together enough money to stop working for a few months, and to go to Paris, and I went to the Louvre every week. It took most of that time, but eventually I got it. And then it was just like it so often is when you ruefully look back at your former self – it wasn’t so hard really, it just took patience, practice, letting go of certain assumptions, being a little simpler, more tender, growing up a bit.

They are learned paintings. Carefully built around stories from the bible and classical literature. Set in idealized landscapes that combine layers of history in the way Rome itself does. Poussin spent most of his career painting in Italy, which is how he got qualities of light that the French love but usually can’t do, though Cézanne could get close, by living in the South and looking a lot at Poussin.

The light may be one way in.

For me it was the greenery, and the great self-portrait at the Louvre, which I’ll show, even though I have no photos of my own.

Nicolas Poussin, Self-Portrait, 1650. Musée du Louvre.

I spent so many days standing with this painting. He came to be a living person for me. I believed in the expressions of his face, that he had the depth of human knowledge that I saw there. I used to imagine him looking through the eyes of his self-portrait at the gallery of his paintings at the Louvre, and that helped me, too, to imagine what he might have wanted from paint.

The heroic and tragic paintings set in cities took the longest, and I still sometimes get repelled by them. But the landscapes, oh the landscapes.

After that, to see a Poussin was always a beautiful day, a banner day. I lived with the ones at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a prolonged way, years of weekly visits. And then came the great show at the Metropolitan, which defined Poussin for a generation, Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions. This was the chance of a lifetime. Poussin thought about the human relationship to the landscape. He already knew what we now understand: that there is no landscape on earth that is independent of human life and perception. And that if you take a long view, holding many layers of history in mind, you get a different kind of visual perception, and that you can then act differently, move differently.

When we moved to Cambridge, it was like a gift from the gods that there was a great, very late, possibly unfinished Poussin at the Fogg Museum. By then I was taking photographs of art, and I took so many photos of it that I learned to photograph Poussin. You don’t want it too sharply in focus, or it becomes like an architectural model, all the layers built out of plywood and all the artificial trees poking up.

When we moved to Chicago, I went right away to see the Poussin that I had already often visited at the Art Institute, of St. John on Patmos, with the eagle who was the symbol of his gospel.

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My favorite news stories in this time are the ones about the animals coming into the centers of cities. Sea lions near shop windows in Argentina, deer in Nara, Japan, mountain goats on city streets in Wales, herds of buffalo walking down highways in India. There are coyotes on the streets of Chicago.

This season, we are seeing what the earth looks like slowed down.

Poussin would know how to paint this.

There are eagles just behind us.

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.

Cézanne and Ponge: Wooden Table

Frederick Project: Tableau

Ceacutezanne still life

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Commode, 1887-88, Harvard Art Museums, detail photos Rachel Cohen

The painting is called Still Life with Commode. It’s from 1887-88, a strong period of Cézanne’s work. He was fighting hard with his canvases, and able to do some of what mattered to him.

He made two very similar versions of this painting, which was unusual for him; there is only one other still life pair where he worked through the same arrangement twice. So, the elements and their arrangement here were of unusual interest to him.

The back of the picture is the commode.

Which is very wooden. The brown is so rich with this green.

Illuminated with the jar and its underlaid white, the yellow and rose.

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Yesterday, my friend Massimo Warglien sent me a note that was partly about Cézanne, about Merleau-Ponty and ideas of space and time. Massimo also mentioned the poet Francis Ponge, and a line from one of Ponge's poems that he thought went together with the Cézanne of Merleau-Ponty.

"I recently read a series of radio conversations by Merleau-Ponty (translated in English as “The world of perception”). Discussing the work of Cézanne, he claims it captures “a world in which regions of space are separated by the time it takes to move our gaze from one to the other, a world in which being is not given but rather emerges over time.” I like to connect it, as a kind of non-human mirror, to Francis Ponge: “Le temps des végétaux se résoult à leur espace” - again, resolving, a word I found in your notes on Cézanne."

I might translate that line of poetry: The time of growing plants resolves itself in their space. Ponge, the poet of things – of soap, shells, asparagus – trailing back and forth across the border we usually make between the animate and the inanimate. I love Ponge's poems, and I have thought of the work of Ponge as part of thinking about still life, but I don't think I have ever thought of Ponge and Cézanne together.

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I woke early this morning. By my bed, a tiny book that has been there for months, a new translation of Ponge’s book The Table. Translated by Colombina Zamponi and published by Wakefield Press. It is in the form of a notebook. Meditations on the table, written and written again in 1968 and 1970.

In the second entry, Ponge remarks on the etymological relationship between la table and the French word for a painting or picture, le tableau. A painting is directly derived from a table, a rectangular area of consideration. I thought of the Cézanne I had set myself to think about this last few days.

The planes of wood are so evident. And the others almost hidden away.

I feel sure Cézanne noticed the resonance between his table and his tableau.

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Ponge writes over and over about writing and tables, how he cannot write without a table, or a tablet, how the horizontal plane is an absolutely necessity. He says the wall on which the first paintings were made has come down to be the table. The second part of an entry from 23 Oct. 70 reads:

The Table is (also) the reversal from back to front (from behind man to his front) of the wall, its position no longer vertical but horizontal. (oblique, in fact: the way Braque's billiard table is broken from horizontal to an oblique vertical.)

In La Table, Ponge mentions two painters: Braque and Picasso. How Braque’s billiard table "is broken from hoizontal to an oblique vertical.” Braque studied Cézanne very closely, and the spatial inventions of Cézanne are always described as the foundation of Cubism. In Cézanne, it is almost as if the painted objects stutter around their edges and this lets them be true and independent without losing touch with one another. [A student of mine used the word stutter about a visual work last fall, though I can no longer remember which student, and I think that student in turn picked it up from an essay by Valeria Luiselli called "Stuttering Cities."]

Ponge’s writing in La Table is especially, deliberately, broken. It also stutters, rephrasing, underscoring, giving different possible iterations, going back the next day to extend or work through again.

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It was still almost dark this morning when I woke, and I turned on the bedside lamp to read. Still lying down, I opened the little book at random, and Ponge wrote:

The Table

If not a table (—considering I'm writing this in bed, (and many other texts have been written in the underwoods or on the riverbank)—a tablet at the least is {necessary / indispensable (for this very piece of writing)} (notepad with a cardboard backing, rigid notebook, or, as I have been in the habit of using, a clipboard)}:

A tablet, therefore still a table.

I turned to the first page, to read through in order. I was moved that for Ponge, too, to begin was this time of day. Early in the dark morning. A time that it seems all my friends are in, very gray, where we are putting one foot in front of another, very uncertain.

In the first entry, Ponge writes of the emergence of color in things:

It is daylight, light to read (enough to read) and write (writing comes a bit earlier) about an hour before the sun (that can be seen out here, over the summits of the Roquefort or the Rouret) rises. (which is to say, at 8 a.m. on the dot)

No star left visible, not even the brightest.

Only Venus (and the Moon) still shine, but (as we know) with a light only lent to them.

The colors start to come through more or less around the same time

(first the reds

then the golds, the yellows

then the greens and finally the blues

(8 or 10 minutes

later) Venus is still shining

Broad daylight at 7:15 a.m.

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Now I am sitting at my desk, which is a long piece of wood, an old door that Matt turned horizontal. On it, is my computer, the screen at an oblique vertical. Here is my notebook, showing writing and pictures, table and tableau at once.

Weekend Glimpse Cézanne

Frederick Project: Glimpse

Weekend Glimpse Ceacutezanne

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Commode, 1887-1888, Harvard Art Museums, photos Rachel Cohen.

It is the weekend again, and I am leaving a few images from a Cézanne still life at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts for anyone who might pass by and be in need of a fine green, a modulating brown, yellow apples, and a sense of achieved stability.

Wishing you peace, health, tranquility, resolve.

A little more late Manet

Frederick Project: Fortitude

Yesterday, I began from Manet’s morning glories and nasturtiums to arrive at a letter he sent to Marthe Hoschedé, with a water color of a horse chestnut on it.

Letter to Marthe Hoschedé, Decorated with a Chestnut, October 10, 1880, private collection.
Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

In the exhibition, at the museum, next to the letter with the horse chestnut, there hung a watercolor of plums. Today I’m going to begin there.

Three Plums, 1880. Collection of Cecille Pulitzer. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Believed to have been made for an autograph album or a collector, but still with the casual, personal quality, watercolor on paper, a line of inscription.

Mostly, I just want to show the layers, the colors.

Notice the definition of the space just below and between the two fruits on the left, that unexpected red over blue.

In the show, two rooms later, there was one of the great assemblages, perhaps a dozen still lifes from the very last years, when Manet was exhausted and ill and alone. In 1880, the same year he sent the watercolored letters, he painted these plums:

Plums, ca.1880, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

The still life has a long association with mortality, from the vanitas paintings of the Dutch tradition that Manet had studied intently, to the nature morte (literally translated dead nature) paintings of the French tradition, especially those by Chardin (1699-1779), who was one early father of Impressionism, and whose wonderful still lifes still impart tenderness, domestic fortitude, and courage. Manet, perhaps thinking of Chardin:

Topaz of the background:

Notice the space between, the definition in blue this time:

Manet had painted huge revolutionary canvases, the Déjeuener sur l’Herbe, and the Bar at the Folies Bergère, paintings that had provoked battles and schisms and had their place on the barricades. When he was dying and saw very few friends, and loved them, he painted these.

Late Manet

Frederick Project: Unfinished

Manet Morning Glories 1881

Édouard Manet, Morning Glories and Nasturtiums, 1881, McNay Museum of Art, San Antonio. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Last summer, the summer of 2019, the Art Institute of Chicago had a Manet show, Manet and Modern Beauty which I reviewed for Apollo Magazine.

The paintings in the show were mostly from the late 1870s and early 1880s, a period when Manet’s touch and palette were lightening, he was interested in flowers and fashion, and he was also dying of complications of syphilis. Thus the tone was an odd combination of lightness, fluidity, melancholy, and decay.

It was a very sad show. I had not realized that Manet was only fifty-one at his death, and he had not been one of my favorite painters, more a painter whose accomplishments and influence I recognized, so it had never really occurred to me to wonder what more he would have done if he had lived through the 1880s and 1890s when many of the paintings I love best – by Cézanne, Morisot, Monet and Pissarro – were made.

This painting, Morning Glories and Nasturtiums, 1881, from the McNay Museum of Art in San Antonio, was left unfinished, or was finished in a radical way, with areas of canvas still open and showing through. It leaves much to the imagination. To my eye, it is more like a sketch of thoughts and intentions. Ideas about the meaning of plants and the space around them.

In the show, it was in a gallery with many beautiful letters that Manet wrote to his friends as he was increasingly confined by his illness. He decorated these with water colors of flowers, fruit, bees.

Here is a letter that, in palette and meaning, seems related to the Nasturtiums of 1881. The letter has a watercolor of a horse chestnut. Manet had sent it to Marthe Hoschedé, the year before, in 1880. It belongs to a private collector.

Marthe's father Ernest Hoschedé had been a very important art patron for Manet and others. Ernest Hoschedé went bankrupt in 1878, and moved his family in to a household with the painter Claude Monet and Monet's family. Monet’s beloved wife Camille died the next year, in 1879. By the time this letter was sent to Marthe Hoschedé, her mother Alice had formed a new household with Monet and all of their children.

Layers of death, resilience, odd greens, empty spaces around them.

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.