Pissarro's prints: light, atmosphere and "plein air"
The late 1870s were among the most trying years of Camille Pissarro’s life. Never wealthy enough to live in Paris, yet reliant on the patronage of the urban bourgeoisie, Pissarro was hit hard by the economic downturn then sweeping through Europe. His dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, flirted continuously with bankruptcy (the market had not yet warmed to Impressionism) and was unable to offer Pissarro a stable income. Struggling to provide for his wife and three sons, the middle-aged painter considered giving up his practice entirely. “I have many difficulties to surmount … And no sales in sight, a deathly silence hangs over art,” he wrote to a friend in August 1878. “Anyway, what need is there for art, you can't eat it, can you? No. So there you are!”
Luckily for us, Pissarro did not abandon his vocation. Instead, he launched a new phase of aesthetic experimentation — not in oils but in copperplate etching, a medium with which he had only glancing experience. Two dozen plates produced between 1879 and 1880, from which Pissarro pulled some 200 prints, several of which are in the National Gallery of Canada's collection, carry rural motifs familiar to the painter’s interest: peasants at work and rest, haystacks at sunset, village markets in full swing and views of the landscape around Pontoise, the township north of Paris he called home.
It is no accident that the most successful image from the series, Wooded Landscape at the Hermitage (Pontoise), literally mirrors an eponymous painting from the same year, now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The oil painting shows the buildings of Pontoise nestled in a valley against a distant sky. A screen of trees dominates the foreground; their serpentine branches, evocative of birds in flight, partially obstruct our view. Flattened against the vertical tree trunks, the rooftops of the village leap forward in space and punctuate the greenery with hits of red and blue. A figure tromps into the undergrowth in the lower righthand corner and appears to dissolve into the gestural brushwork.
The etching depicts a nearly identical view, but the figure tromps instead at lower left. Rooftops and other architectural details are reversed, as are the curves of the trees and the line of the horizon. These details strongly suggest that Pissarro composed the plate directly from observation of the painting, which he likely would have executed en plein air. The mirror effect is a product of the transfer of ink from copper to paper; the final print becomes an impression of an impression, bringing Pissarro's landscape ever closer to formlessness. Tree branches fracture into swirling shards, the undergrowth becomes a cloudy haze and the town of Pontoise all but disappears.
Art historian Michel Melot writes that Pissarro’s 1879-80 etchings “mark the high point of the Impressionist style. With the greatest clarity they reveal a new way of drawing and printing and, above all, a new concept of reality.” This was a reality that had been fundamentally reshaped by 19th-century advances in photography and novel techniques of mass printing. The latest scientific insights regarding optics, the nature of light and the inner workings of the human eye profoundly impacted how the Impressionists (and, later, Post-Impressionists) understood vision. Referring to the etched version of Wooded Landscape, Melot compares Pissarro’s eye to a “telephoto lens,” an apparatus that captures the world en bloc, as a non-hierarchical mass of visible energy — a concept deeply at odds with the strict schemata of the official académie.
Pissarro’s etchings from this time also mark his unlikely bond with Edgar Degas, a fellow member of the Impressionist group that exhibited together between 1874 and 1886. Degas lived comfortably on Boulevard de Clichy, just south of Montmartre, and weathered the era’s boom-and-bust turmoil largely unscathed, thanks in part to his family’s holdings in the New Orleans cotton trade. Significantly, he also owned a printing press, which Pissarro used on his visits into town. Degas even pulled some of Pissarro’s prints himself, marking them in pencil: “imprimé par Degas / pour Pissarro.” One of the Gallery's prints, an 1879 proof of Twilight with Haystacks inked in reddish brown (the Gallery also has a blue version of the same print) to evoke a twilight-saturated farmland, is signed: “C Pissarro / imp. par E. Degas.” Much later, Pissarro would reminisce: “Those are the years that we remained good friends."
The two artists were far from a natural fit, however. Pissarro, the anarchist with utopian ideals, known for his kindness and gentle demeanour, nurtured the careers of younger artists like Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne. (“He was a father to me,” Cézanne once said.) The reactionary Degas was notoriously irascible, rude to his models and fellow Impressionists, and known to start arguments over who should be in or out of the group. Pissarro had little formal training; he’d honed his craft chiefly by painting outdoors. Degas, meanwhile, disdained the practice of plein air, preferring to take his easel to the Louvre, where he never tired of copying Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo.
To compare Degas’ print Leaving the Bath with Pissarro’s Twilight with Haystacks, both created around the same year and both in the Gallery's collection, is to witness two very different sensibilities occupied with the same unconventional techniques. Pissarro’s experiments with Degas in soft ground etching stuck with him throughout the 1880s and 90s, long after the Impressionists broke up. As for their friendship, good will between the two men vanished during the Dreyfus affair, when the fervently anti-semitic Degas publicly disowned the Jewish Pissarro. By this time, though, thanks to the bourgeoning American art market, Pissarro had attained financial solvency, enabling him to buy property in Éragny, near Pontoise, where he lived and worked until his death, in 1903.
Works by Camille Pissarro are on view in C213 at the National Gallery of Canada; for further works, see the Gallery's collection online, and prints by the artist can be viewed by visiting the Gallery's Prints, Drawings and Photographs Study Room. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.