This is one of 14 views of the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris that Camille Pissarro painted in 1897. These include the boulevard seen in snow, rain, fog, mist and sunlight, and in the morning, afternoon, at sunset and at night. The picture is the only example of a night painting by Pissarro.
Pissarro was especially fascinated by the different types of artificial light, which are reflected on the wet pavements. The cool white of the newly installed electric street lamps along the centre of picture contrasts with the warm yellow gaslight of the shop windows and the oil-burning lamps of the cabs that line the street. The brushstrokes have an almost abstract gestural quality, as Pissarro applied the paint as a patchwork of dashes and daubs to suggest the passing crowds and traffic, and the city’s shimmering lights.
This painting is one of 14 views of the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris that Camille Pissarro painted in 1897. It is the only example of a night painting by him. In February 1897 Pissarro, then in his late sixties, took a room in the Grand Hôtel de Russie on Rue Drouot, which at the time joined the Boulevard des Italiens. The hotel was on the corner of the two streets. East of the hotel was the Boulevard Montmartre, which, despite its name, is not in Montmartre, an area in north-west Paris that was particularly favoured by artists; it is instead the most easterly of Paris’s grand boulevards. To the hotel’s west was the Boulevard Haussmann, named after Baron Haussmann.
A civic planner and Prefect of the Seine during the Second Empire (1852–1870), Haussmann had radically reshaped much of Paris. He tore down the cramped medieval quarters and replaced them with the wide boulevards and landscaped parks that have come to define the city. The new urban spaces he created, and the commercial and leisure activities they fostered, had fascinated artists such as Manet, Monet and Renoir, especially in the 1860s and 1870s. But by the end of the century, most of the Impressionists, and the avant-garde artists who came after them, had largely stopped painting urban subjects. The decision by Pissarro, who was best known for his paintings of rural and peasant life, to return to Paris specifically to paint city views may have been influenced by his health, particularly the condition of his eyes, which made painting outdoors increasingly difficult.
Perhaps thinking of Monet’s series paintings, such as Haystacks, Pissarro’s plan was to paint the Boulevard Montmartre at various times of the day and during different seasons and weather conditions – in snow, rain, fog, mist and sunlight, in both winter and spring, and in the morning, afternoon, at sunset and at night. The commercial success of Monet’s series may also have been an incentive. Writing to his son Lucien on 8 February 1897, Pissarro commented that Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who had recently bought a group of six small paintings of street ‘snow effects’, had suggested a series of the boulevards, but this time on larger canvases: ‘A series of paintings of the boulevards seems to him a good idea, and it will be interesting to overcome the difficulties. I engaged a large room at the Grand Hôtel de Russie, 1 rue Drouot, from which I can see the whole sweep of boulevards almost as far as the Porte Saint-Denis, anyway as far as the boulevard Bonne Nouvelle.’
Looking south from the window of his spacious room, Pissarro could see the Boulevard Montmartre to his left. By slightly changing his position and looking to his right, he could also see the Boulevard des Italiens, of which he painted two large and ‘terribly difficult views‘. Writing on 13 February to another son, Georges, Pissarro observed, ‘I have begun my series of boulevards. I have a splendid motif which I am going to explore under all possible effects, to my left; I have another motif which is terribly difficult, almost as the crow flies, looking over the carriages, buses and people milling about between the large trees and big houses which I have to set up right – it’s tricky… it goes without saying that I must solve it all the same.’
Clearly, Pissarro regarded painting the Boulevard Montmartre as a technical challenge to be solved, not least because he had to master the perspective from his high vantage point. In the painting perspective is defined by the diagonal lines created principally by the rooftops and pavements, which are reinforced by the rows of carriages, trees and street lamps. As they recede eastwards towards the Porte Sainte-Denis in the far distance, these lines form a series of triangles, the apexes of which meet at a point just left of the painting’s centre. The plunging ‘V’ of the night sky, its inverted shape echoed by the boulevard below, further enhances the effect of space and depth. Pissarro painted the sky using a fan-like pattern of strokes that explodes upwards from the horizon.
Perspective was not the only challenge facing Pissarro in this picture. His usual territory was the countryside, seen in daylight and predominantly in tones of green, blue and brown. Now he confronted a manmade urban environment illuminated entirely by artificial light. Even the moon and stars are absent. In the foreground, at the bottom of the picture, you can see the pale orb of an electric streetlight, which Pissarro painted using a brush thickly loaded with paint, with more lights behind it. The ‘electric candle’ arc lamp invented in 1876 was a very recent addition to Paris’s streets. Pissarro contrasted the arc lamp’s cool white light, framed by a halo of indigo blue, with the warmer gaslight of the shop windows, painted with strokes of yellow and orange. The oil-burning lamps of the cabs waiting outside the Théâtre des Variétés, painted as two lines of dots formed with tiny dabs of red, white and yellow, introduce a further source of light. Pissarro enhanced the effect of these various lights by painting the boulevard after it had been raining. His capturing of reflected light on the wet pavement is particularly effective on the right side of the picture.
Pissarro did not complete the picture in one sitting – areas have been repainted – but his application of the paint is direct and immediate. By the 1890s, he’d abandoned the highly methodical pointillist technique he had adopted from Seurat. Here his brushstrokes have an almost gestural quality, as he applied the paint as a patchwork of dashes and daubs to suggest the passing crowds and traffic, and the city’s shimmering lights. In places, especially when viewed up close, the paint has an almost abstract quality. Alive with energy, it complements the activity in the street before us.
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