Saturday, March 5, 2011

Camille Pissaro - Wash House at Bougival

Camille Pissarro, Wash House at Bougival, 1872,
(Musee d'Orsay)
"A work of art is a corner of creation viewed through a temperament."  - Emile Zola

Camille Pissaro was working at Bougival, just a little further down the river from where Monet and Renoir had painted La Grenouillere.  Instead of depicting Parisians at their leisure, Pissaro concentrated on the landscape with the local people that actually belonged on it.  He was very interested in the lives of the peasants and liked to depict them in their natural environment, occupied in honest labor.  In Wash House at Bougival, we see a young woman standing by a tree, on top of a hill, holding a white cloth or towel. Her dress and apron are not new or pristine clean. The wash house is a little further down, right on the river, occupied by women already at work.  In the background are the factories and the boats carrying people to Paris. There is nothing idealized or glamorized in this painting, only reality.  It does not have the dynamism nor the  frivolity of Renoir's work, only a quite dignity.

Claude Monet, La Grenouillere, 1869 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The appeal of Renoir or Monet's work to a city audience was not to be found in Pissaro's paintings.  His work was more connected to the older tradition of Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet.  All the figures fit into his landscape creating a harmonious whole. Critical audiences saw Pissaro's art as simple, tonal, naive, harmonious and above all, attuned to the faculty of vision.  Impressionists' works were about the impression of a quick look while Pissaro required a more stalled vision.  In order to absorb the details of his painting, one has to stop and contemplate what is before him.  Pissaro gives us a corner of nature, as the art critic Theodore  Duret wrote in 1870, "a faithful and exact reproduction of a natural scene and the portrait of a corner of the world that actually exists."1

Pissaro is depicting the landscape in the fall using a darker pallet in a limited range of earth tones.  He is still interested in the effects of light but not to the extent of obsession like Monet. He has chosen a time of year that would be grayer with a lot less light.  The river is not the blue green patches of color as in Renoir's La Grenouillere but it is still sketchy dabs of colors shimmying down the stream as shadows. Like his other compatriots, Pissaro was also influenced by the Japanese prints that were all the rage in Paris at the time, he claimed that he liked the calm, subdued radiance of these prints.

Pissaro was an actual outsider, he was Jewish and born in the West Indies but he was also the most staunch supporter of all the young artists. He had a different point of view, was a revolutionary through his portrayals of the 'common man.'  Pissaro expressed a different aspect of contemporary life with his paintings which help us identify a broader perspective about French society in the second half of the 19th century.

1.  Rachel Ziady DeLue, Pissarro, Landscape, Vision, and Tradition, The Art Bulletin 80, no.4 (Dec 1998) p. 719, 724

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