This wooded hillside, called the Côte des Bœufs, was close to Pissarro’s home in the hamlet of L’Hermitage, near the market town of Pontoise, where he lived for most of the time between 1866 and 1883.
Although Pissarro was a leading Impressionist, this painting signals his move away from the fleeting atmospheric effects of Impressionism. Instead, he is primarily focused here on the structure of the composition, which he has carefully arranged using counterbalanced vertical and horizontal lines. The thickly applied paint and densely worked surface, which he built up with multiple small brushstrokes, is also quite distinct from the swift fluid brushwork and sketch-like qualities of Impressionism.
This shift to a more structured version of Impressionism foreshadows the concerns of the next generation of Post-Impressionist artists, particularly Cézanne and Seurat.
Some buildings can be seen on a wooded hillside called the Côte des Bœufs, which was close to Pissarro’s home in the hamlet of L’Hermitage, near Pontoise, where he lived for most of the time between 1866 and 1883. A busy market town 30 kilometres north-west of Paris, Pontoise and its surroundings offered Pissarro access to quiet rural areas dotted with traditional farm buildings, which were locations for many of his paintings. The same hillside appears in at least one other work by him and was also painted by Cézanne when he visited Pissarro in 1877, the year in which this picture was painted.
The choice of a relatively large canvas – almost double the size Pissarro typically worked with – suggests this was intended to be a monumental painting with a carefully planned composition. Pissarro has used the rows of slender tree trunks to divide the painting into a sequence of narrow vertical bands which are counterbalanced by the near horizontal lines of the hedges, roofs and distant hilltops. A path in the lower left corner leads us into the landscape, but the picture space is quite shallow. This spatial compression is enhanced by the relatively high horizon that contains the sky within just the upper third of the picture.
Despite being a leading Impressionist, Pissarro was never entirely comfortable with the swift, fluid brushwork that characterised much Impressionist painting of the early 1870s, even though he had adopted its methods. Perhaps looking to the work of his younger friend Cézanne, he was moving away here from the fleeting atmospheric effects of Impressionism to focus on construction. As he wrote in a letter the following year, ‘Create good paintings, don’t exhibit sketches.’ This shift to a more structured version of Impressionism foreshadowed the concerns of the next generation of artists, particularly Seurat, whose pointillist technique Pissarro was later to adopt.
Pissarro’s rejection of Impressionist sketchiness can be seen both in the formal complexity of this composition and in the application of the paint. Although the picture may have been painted partly outdoors, it was completed in the studio, where Pissarro gradually built up the densely worked surface with a mesh of small brushstrokes. The paint in The Côte des Bœufs at L'Hermitage was applied so densely in some areas that the canvas had to be lined to give it extra strength. Indeed, only when you look closely can you see two people, walking on the left, who almost blend into the foliage that surrounds them. Above them, the tight pattern of twisting tree trunks forms a screen through which we can only glimpse the buildings beyond.
Unlike academic and official Salon painting with its smooth glazes, many of Pissarro’s rural views of the mid-1870s have heavily textured surfaces, which he may have considered appropriate for painting rural and peasant life. Like Courbet, Pissarro saw paint as both a substance in its own right and an optical equivalent to the physical and social world it depicts. By this time he had moved some distance from the brightly lit open spaces and clearly defined architecture of The Avenue, Sydenham, painted just six years earlier.
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