This is one of 12 pictures that Pissarro painted while in self-imposed exile in London from 1870 to 1871 during the Franco-Prussian war. The Avenue was a wide, tree-lined street in Sydenham, a fashionable semi-rural suburb near Crystal Palace in south London. The location can be identified today as Lawrie Park Avenue with the church of Saint Bartholomew, built in 1832, in the distance. This springtime scene would have been painted in April or May 1871, shortly before Pissarro’s return to France.
Although a painting of an outdoor location, Pissarro completed it in his studio. With the exception of the sky, he mixed much of the paint with white to reduce the colour contrasts and create a consistent light tonality throughout. The traditional use of perspective, acceptable degree of finish and picturesque motif were perhaps intended to appeal to English buyers wary of the swift brushwork of Impressionist painting.
Following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Camille Pissarro and his family left France and moved to London. This picture is one of 12 he painted while in self-imposed exile there. One of the largest paintings in the group, this springtime scene, with the trees just coming into leaf, would have been completed in April or May 1871, shortly before Pissarro’s return to France. Another London painting, Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, is also in the National Gallery’s collection.
The view here is of The Avenue, a wide, tree-lined street in Sydenham, a fashionable semi-rural suburb near Crystal Palace in south London. This is not a scene of working life; instead, we see elegantly dressed people enjoying leisurely walks or rides along a picturesque residential street. The location can be identified today as Lawrie Park Avenue with the church of Saint Bartholomew, built in 1832, in the distance. Pissarro slightly narrowed and elongated the church’s tower and also reduced the number of dark windows to create a less solid effect. He had often experimented with the traditional landscape motif of a receding path or lane, but he may also have been influenced by Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middelharnis, with its long avenue of tall trees, which was on display at the National Gallery in May 1871.
Although The Avenue seems typical of the plein-air (painted outdoors) method that was favoured by the Impressionists, this is not how it was produced. Pissarro initially made a preparatory watercolour study (now in the Louvre, Paris), and the painting itself was completed in two distinct stages. First, following a preliminary drawing of the view, he blocked out the main sections with areas of colour which did not quite touch. He then used wet-in-wet brushwork to unify the composition and add detail. Unlike the greys and browns in many of his previous paintings, Pissarro used bright blues and greens. With the exception of the sky, he also mixed much of the paint with white to reduce the colour contrasts and create a consistent light tonality throughout – a technique also used by Corot. The figures were added last with small delicate touches of paint. Even at a very late stage, Pissarro made changes – for example, a solitary woman walking towards us on the right-hand pavement (who was in the original watercolour sketch) was painted out and replaced by a small group of figures in front of the church. If you look closely, you can see a trace of her just to the left of the group.
While in London, Pissarro met the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who bought four pictures, including this one. Pissarro was keen to sell his work in England, and this painting’s traditional use of perspective, degree of finish and appealing motif were perhaps intended to be acceptable to English buyers. Durand-Ruel also put Pissarro in touch with Monet, who had likewise left France for the safety of London. Pissarro later recalled, ‘Monet and I were very enthusiastic over the London landscapes… Monet worked in the parks, whilst I, living in Lower Norwood, at that time a charming suburb, studied the effect of fog, snow and springtime’. Nineteen years later, Pissarro said of the painting, ‘there is a striving for unity in it that fills me with joy’.
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