Night vision

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Under cover of darkness, Pissarro created a vibrant impression of a wet boulevard in Paris. Donald Short reports

This small picture, now in the National Gallery, London, is one of a series of 13 painted in 1897 of the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris. A tree-lined boulevard is seen from high up with the perspective disappearing into the middle ground. It is possible to see the silhouettes of carriages along the street and people passing along the wide pavement, which is wet and reflects them. In February of that year, Pissarro, then in his late 60s, took a room in the Hotel de Russie on the corner of the Boulevard des Italiens and Rue Drouot. Here he set up his easel at the window with the intention of capturing the busy street below at different times of the day and in different weather conditions.

To the east lay the Boulevard Montmartre, to the west the Boulevard Haussmann, named after Baron Haussmann, a civic planner and Prefect of the Seine during the Second Empire (1852-1870). Haussmann, following orders from Napoleon III, was responsible for tearing down large swathes of the medieval city with its warren of streets and lanes and replacing it with the grand boulevards and parks of modern Paris. It is estimated that he transformed 60 per cent of the city, in the process displacing 350,000 people at staggering cost.

Pissarro was a great experimenter whose style changed over the years, most notably during the 1880s when he was associated with the neo-Impressionists. By the 1890s, however, he abandoned the premeditated pointillist technique of juxtaposing pure dots of colour and returned to a darker palette and a tougher, multi-layered technique, evident in the Montmartre series of 1897. He was also known for careful preparation and exhaustive reworking. One can imagine the difficulties he had in creating his daytime views of the Boulevard Montmartre - all those people milling about, all those windows, chimneys and balconies.

In this painting, however, the obscuring night affords Pissarro a freedom from representation that seems to have inspired in him uncharacteristic spontaneity, and to have resulted in a painting that moves towards abstraction in a way the others in the series do not. The palette is almost monochromatic: greys, pinkish ochre, blues and vibrant yellow and orange.

Applied in a gestured patchwork of broad dashes and daubs, the image gradually emerges to represent a milling crowd, illuminated shop fronts, passing traffic and the wet reflective street. The wonderful double-sloped mansard roofs, the most distinctive features of Second Empire architecture, are lost completely in the gloom.

Most notably, Pissarro takes great pleasure in the tiny spheres of light with their penumbras of blue paint drawing the eye into the distance. The street lamps were a relatively new feature of the city street, invented by Jablochkoff, a Russian whose "electric candle" invention was to replace earlier, less effective forms of artificial light. These lights give Pissarro's painting an additional dimension, both recording a wondrous invention and capturing its aesthetic effect, here enhanced by the wet road.

Although it has a feel of immediacy, it is clear that the painting was not created overnight but reworked over a series of evenings. There are areas, especially in the street, that have clearly been repainted. The canvas is a pale warm colour. This type of "ground" would normally be associated with daytime scenes, its warmth designed to add luminosity to the overall surface of the painting. Although in some places the light canvas works for Pissarro, adding highlights to the buildings, for the most part he is fighting to obliterate it, notably in the sky.

Why Pissarro painted only one night scene is not clear. Perhaps he craved the details lost to the night, tangible elements like all those chimney pots that fixed his mind to the business of representation. The painting was never signed or exhibited and Pissarro may have considered it a failure. Nevertheless, it is a bold and exciting work that conveys a wonderful sense of light, darkness and reflection. Moreover, it perfectly captures a modernised Paris at its most aesthetic. Pissarro himself was to say: "I am enchanted with the idea of painting the streets of Paris, which people call ugly; but are so luminous and so lively; it is the modern idiom in full."

* "Impressionist" was a pejorative term used by critics whose stale orthodoxy judged the paintings crude, sketchy and flat. It derives from the title of a painting by Pissarro's friend, Claude Monet (1840-1926), "Impression, Sunrise", shown at a Paris exhibition in 1874. Conspicuously, Impressionists tried to record transient effects of light and colour.

Principal painters were Claude Monet, Pierre August Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Berthe Morisot. Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne and Edouard Manet were also associated with the group in the 1870s.

Donald Short teaches at Moyles Court School, Hampshire

Camille Pissarro 1830-1903

Camille Pissarro was born in the Danish island of St Thomas in the West Indies and moved to Paris in 1855, where he studied with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, one of the most influential painters of the first half of the 19th century. He was part of the group of artists who became known collectively as the Impressionists: he exhibited at all eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886.


Art and history

Using brightly coloured crayons for outlines and points of light create a night-time street scene. Wash blue ink mixed with a little black over the drawing to create the final effect. The crayon wax will resist the ink, creating a night-time effect.

Use a digital camera to take pictures of a town or city street. Use Photoshop or similar software to manipulate the brightness and colour saturation in the image, transforming it into a night-time scene. Further enhancement can be made using the filtering tool that superimposes a range of painterly effects on the darkened image.

Compare this painting with others in the Montmartre series. How does it differ? What can be seen or what has been lost from view? Using the internet, find a map of Paris and locate the boulevard. Find out some of its history. Make a one-point perspective drawing of a similar view. Using a square viewfinder isolate a part of the painting and make an abstract colour study in paint or oil pastel.

Use conventional photography to make a study of night-time scenes, manipulating exposure times for the best result. Use the images as the basis for further study, for example sources for paintings. Consider the problems Pissarro had, making his picture on a light-coloured canvas, and make a series of preparatory works trying to find a better solution.

Collect secondary sources of night-time scenes using photography and sourcing images from the Internet. With the aid of a torch or caver's headlamp, make primary source images using ink, watercolour or oil paint.

Use these experiments in creating studio-based work. Using Photoshop, crop and enhance isolated parts of the painting and develop them into a large-scale abstract work. Combine aspects of photography with painting and perhaps even sculpture for your final piece.

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