Rachel Cohen

Pissarro

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.


Feeling the Air, II

Feeling the Air II

Constable, Hampstead Heath with Bathers, 1821-22, iphone detail

In New York in the fall, making my way through the reorganized back rooms of 19th century European art at the Metropolitan Museum, I was pleased by two landscape recoveries.  Wonderful oil sketches by Constable that used to hang scattered in obscurity, somewhere past the Corots, have been hung together, with prominence.  And three Daubignys, for many years unviewable, now hang in a row, constituting a quiet assertion, long missing at the museum, that this is a painter worth contemplating.
    Constable and Daubigny are tied together in various ways.  An important exhibition of Constable’s oil paintings at the Salon de Paris in 1824 had an impact on the French landscape painters who were to become the Barbizon School, of which Daubigny was a part. Daubigny himself would have been seven years old at the time of this exhibition, but other contact with the work of the great British landscape painters was of significance for him at several key moments in his development.

Intersections are not only biographical.  A nice passage comparing the two painters turns up in a 1903 monograph on Constable by Robert George Windsor-Clive, earl of Plymouth.  Daubigny, writes Windsor-Clive, loved “the quiet tones of early morning and evening effects on the French rivers from a barge on the Oise or the Seine; translucent skies and clear reflections.  He seemed generally to prefer the bright though tender colours of spring and early summer, to the heavier and more sombre tones of August.”  Not so Constable, who chose “the sharper contrasts of midday light, the angry storm-clouds broken by bright flashes of sunlight, and the heavy greens of midsummer.” Nevertheless, the two had something significant in common: “both artists approach Nature with the same honest intention of painting her, so far as they are able, as they see her.” [itals mine]  This was to be accomplished “not with the warm brown foundation and limited colour-scheme of the old school, but with the full perception and enjoyment of local colour both in shadow and in sunlight.”
    The phrase “as they see her,” could be put into the present continuous to bring out something of the painters’ particular quality – as they are in the act of seeing her.  These two, I think, have an unusual genius for making the viewer feel the air. Two of the works I studied at the Met may help me to try to say what I mean.

John Constable’s oil sketch “Hampstead Heath with Bathers,” was one of about a hundred such sketches that he made in that rural location in 1821 and 1822.

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The project was to suggest particular effects of atmosphere.  The text at the Met notes a beautiful fact, that Constable “called this practice ‘skying.’”

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The museum text also points out that Constable “often included a strip of land to contribute a sense of scale and depth.”  This sounds technical, even mechanical, as if it describes a scientific manual that overlays diagrams with little black stripes of measurement. But here, actually, is no mere strip of land, but a protected cove for bathers who are to be seen standing waist-deep in the water.

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The feeling of the sketch (it is a small one, slightly less than ten inches by a little more than fifteen) is that one is oneself wading in the water while the vast sky rushes overhead.  

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The sensation comes partly from the white brushstrokes over the blue of the sky, partly from the way the water gathers and reflects the other colors of the scene, partly from some elusive but definite feeling that the painter molded the paint to reflect the day he was in. The wind was in his eyes.  He wrote on the back of the picture, “July—noon—Hampstead Heath—looking north—wind south east.”

The Daubigny, as the Earl of Plymouth might say, eschews these sharp contrasts of noon and midsummer.  Here is a first sighting.  Distracted by the frame, the shadow cast by the museum’s overhead lights, the photo has the not-knowing-where-to-look quality of the first encounter:

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[Although my iphone pictures have their awkwardnesses, I still prefer them to the Met's online reproductions of these two works, which are curiously bleached of color.  The Constable is lacking the reds and purples that give the heat and excitement of the day, while the Daubigny is missing the cool, dark greens that settle the eyes for darkness.]

In the Daubigny, as in the Constable, figures come to water.  But in the Daubigny our imagination makes us not bathers, but someone who watches the cows returning to the village in the evening.

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The water feels entirely different in the two pictures – one all salt and wind, the other mild and still, for slaking thirst and for repose.  Nevertheless, the presence of water is of great help to both these painters, wishing, as they do, to paint the sky and its movements.  Reflections give a second view, and the looker-on, measuring the sky and its image together, may find it easier to guess and enter the feeling of the day.  One of the great beauties of the Daubigny painting is the way all its gentle forces meet and are reflected back to one another in this central convergence:  

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The light has a luminous yellow arriving from the sky.  Effects of light are entirely different depending on where you look in the picture. A lovely passage of sunset is here:

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I think it is this variety of atmospheric effects within the work that eventually gave me an experience I associate with Daubigny. After looking slowly and with consideration, the painting seemed to show a later time, and to have become more tranquil.  As I became accustomed to it, it had the very effect on me that one sometimes observes in oneself in the evening.  Standing still, looking at the sky, or, especially, the sky and the water together, one feels that the world has, before one’s eyes, grown a shade darker, and that one is oneself aware of the world and a small part of it.  When I photographed what felt like my last understanding of the painting, it came to this:

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Feeling the Air, I

Feeling the Air I

Sargent, Santa Maria della Salute, 1904

I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are not that interested in painting. They say, reasonably, that in museums they are overwhelmed by the profusion, or that only really contemporary painting is strange enough to compel their attention, or that in front of paintings long and loudly admired their eyes feel veiled by expectations and history.  

It feels odd to say in the face of these large and genuine concerns that when I am at a museum I am often merely after a small, fine sensation.  The movement of light and air.  That’s all.  I know this feeling is of a family of quite ordinary feelings – on a good day one may have something like it walking to the grocery store.  But, though common in life, it is rare in art.  In very great literature, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” But not, for example, in photography.  It might be almost a definition of what distinguishes painting from photography that one does not feel the movement of the air in looking at photographs.  Even in front of Ansel Adams, what one feels is majesty, not air.  But in front of a painting the movement of light and air have held someone else’s attention in a way that lets me feel it and at the same time know myself to be feeling it.

The presence of the Sargent watercolors in Boston this season has focused my attention on how it is that painters offer this sensation to us.  Why, looking at Sargent’s quick-stroked boats along the edge of a Venetian canal do I suddenly feel the soft air?

My guess is that this sensation is one of the aspects of seeing paintings in person that cannot be rendered in iphone details, but I’m going to try to illustrate what seem to me to be two sides of the answer.

It seems first of all to have to do with things jostling and overlapping. The two gondolas to the right here are at rest, but must be bumping each other.  The figures standing on the stone are, in action, distinct but are shown overlapped by the long greenish boom of a boat, and the figures themselves and their shadows bleed into one another.

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Boats, water, Venice, all ideal for this because it is not in any of their natures to be still.

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We know the light reflected on the underside of the bridge to be dancing, as are the waves given in motion below.  Jostling, overlapping, playing over, this gives the sense of motion, permeability, change, within the picture.


On the other side, the angle and motion of the viewer are also significant.  Look at these two shots, almost identical of Portuguese Boats.  I think that the sense of motion comes across better in the photo to the left, taken at a slightly stronger angle, then in the flatter front-on one to the right, in any case, shifting rapidly between the two may give something of the sensation.

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The shift makes a small suggestion of how one sees the picture as one is oneself in motion.  Of course when you see a painting in person you cannot help but move in front of it, if only to walk up to it.  The spatial experience of a photograph changes much less as you move around in relation to it.  I suppose because of the fixed position of the camera.  The painter is constantly moving around in relation to her canvas and constantly changing the perspective.  It must be the sense that space is changing around you that you have when you walk to the grocery store.