Throughout his career as a landscape painter, Camille Pissarro produced just over one hundred canvases during winter in which snow, or a variant of snow such as hoarfrost, white frost, or ice, plays a major role in the composition. Some of these works depict quiet village roads with townspeople on their way to or from their homes while others concentrate on the heavy, peaceful quality of a large snowfall on an isolated farm. These views were painted in a variety of locations, including Louveciennes, London, Pontoise, Montfoucault, Osny, Eragny, and Paris, and include suburban, rural, and city images of life in the late nineteenth century. Pissarro began this long series of works during the winter of 1868-69, and he continued to address the many complex issues of representing snow on canvas with oil paint for over thirty years, until the end of his life in 1903. Despite the wide variety of content and composition, these winterscapes have in common Pissarro's enduring love of nature, his great fascination with light and shadow, and his interest in humanity; in virtually every painting he includes a reference to human-kind — a house, a fence, or a small figure.
The Impressionists are, of course, best known for their landscapes of late spring and summer, full of lush foliage and fragrant flowers. However, this group of modern painters also explored these landscape on less pleasant days of the year, when weather conditions were cold and uncomfortable. Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Pissarro were the three Impressionist artists who produced the most snowscapes. Despite the relatively large number of winter paintings in Pissarro's oeuvre (approximately eight percent of his entire output), he is not best known for his snowscapes, and little has been written about them. He was, however, extremely proud of his effet de neige compositions and exhibited at least nine views of winter at the eight Impressionist exhibitions held periodically from 1874 to 1886. With relatively few breaks over the course of his career, probably caused by warmer weather conditions (1880-81, 1883, 1896) or by changes in painting style (1886-88), Pissarro painted a least one canvas each year that celebrated the quiet and serene quality of a frosty winter day, and therefore he can be considered the most dedicated winter painter of the Impressionists. These views vary from true effets de neige, with substantial amounts snow on the ground, to lighter forms of winter precipitation, such as frost.
Pissarro's first winter landscape was The Banks of the Marne in Winter of 1866. It is not an effet de neige painting, as there is no snow on the ground, but it is the first example of his interest in depicting the coldest season of the year. Pissarro was still under the influence of the Barbizon painters in terms of style and general subject matter, but he had shed the anecdotal and narrative quality of their landscapes for a more honest view of the natural world. The painting was accepted into the Salon of 1866, and the critic Emile Zola had a positive reaction to this new style:
“M. Pissarro is an unknown and probably no one will talk about him. ...Thank you, Monsieur, your winter landscape refreshed me for a good half hour, during my trip through the great desert of the Salon. I know that you were admitted only with great difficulty and I congratulate you on that. Besides which, you ought to know that you please nobody and that your painting is thought to be too bare, black. So why the devil do you have the arrant awkwardness to paint solidly and study nature so honestly?
Look, you chose wintertime, you have there a simple bit of road, then a hillside in the background and open fields to the horizon. Not the least delectation for the eye. A grave and austere kind of painting, an extreme care for truth and rightness, an iron will. You are a clumsy blunderer, Sir — you are an artist that I like.”
Pissarro became immersed in painting snowscapes three years later. He and his family had moved from Pontoise to Louveciennes, a close suburb of Paris that was easily accessible by train. Monet and Renoir lived nearby, and Pissarro probably settled there to be close to his colleagues. Although he may have painted his first snowscape during the winter of 1868-69 in the forest in Marly, it was near his home on the route de Versailles in Louveciennes during the following winter that he became inspired by the infinite range of possibilities winter subjects offered.
Much like Monet and Renoir who had formed a close relationship during the previous summer when painting together at La Grenouillere, Pissarro and Monet worked together on a series of canvases that depict the route de Versailles, which runs through the center of Louveciennes. Pissarro and his family lived at 22, route de Versailles, and after a large snowstorm in December 1869, when Monet stayed with the Pissarro family, the two painters produced a remarkable collection of views of this street. In all of Pissarro's versions of this street blanketed with snow, he included at least one figure walking on the road, making his or her way through town. This adds a narrative element to his works that one of Monet's two versions does not have, as Monet left his canvas unpeopled and concentrated more on the drama of the views of the sunset on the wintry landscape. Pissarro went on to produce several more views of the route to Versailles in different types of weather. This group of works by Pissarro and Monet looks forward to the series paintings that both men did as mature artists in the 1890s.
Unlike Monet, who occasionally traveled to distant and exotic places for inspiration for his landscapes, Pissarro did not enjoy being away from home. He kept his painting trips to relatively close destinations in France (Rouen, Le Havre, Dieppe, Paris) or combined them with family or social visits (Montfoucault, London). When the Franco-Prussian War began during the summer of 1870, Pissarro and his family first escaped to Montfoucault, located in the Mayenne region on the border between Brittany and Normandy. There they were welcomed by Ludovic Piette, a fellow artist and intimate friend of Pissarro who owned a large farm. After several months, the family traveled to London, where they stayed for the remainder of the war.
While living in London, Pissarro was again inspired by the effects of winter weather. His colleague Monet had also fled to London during the war, but the two artists did not rekindle their creative collaboration of the previous winter. Instead they often met at museums in London and were impressed by paintings by Turner and Constable. Pissarro later described their separate painting interests in London to Wynford Dewhurst, an English landscape painter: “Monet worked in the parks, whilst I, living in Lower Norwood, at that time a charming suburb, studied the effects of fog, snow and springtime.” Pissarro painted at least four canvases of London under a blanket of snow; they vary from perspectival road views with figured walking in the road and with horse-drawn carts to two views of a quieter part of suburban London without the hustle and bustle of a busy street.
In 1872, Pissarro received a commission from Achille Arosa, a wealthy collector, for a series of four large horizontal paintings of the four seasons to be places above the doors in his home. The first canvas, Winter, was painted in early 1872 in Louveciennes, and the three remaining canvases were completed in Pontoise. Winter, Pissarro’s quintessential view of the season, is a remarkably modern painting in which he has created a spare, panoramic view of the landscape near his home. It appears to have been painted from above, perhaps from a window on an upper floor of a house, and the viewer looks down on an enclosed garden and the landscape beyond. He has limited his palette to a few colours - brown, ochre, grey, blue, white, and a few highlights of red - that give a real feeling for the intense cold that occurs in winter. In a letter written to his son Lucien nearly twenty years later, when all four works were offered at auction for the first time, Pissarro cited Winter as the most successful of the group, perhaps revealing his preference for this season of the year.
Pissarro’s political interests may have played a role in his subsequent decision to leave the centre of Paris. In August 1872, his family returned to Pontoise, on the outskirts of Paris. As an anarchist, he may have wanted to live a simple, quiet life, away from the extreme satisfaction of society in Paris. He later wrote that he did not have to be a peasant in order to paint an honest landscape, but he also seems to have felt that he could not paint peasant life without living near them. Although Pontoise was not a utopian society - both bourgeois and peasant classes lived there - it provided the perfect solution for Pissarro. He could easily commute to Paris to sell his works and visit his colleagues, but he lived more comfortably with those who worked the soil for a living.
Soon after Pissarro went to live in Pontoise, his colleague Paul Cézanne moved nearby to work with him. Cezanne was considerably younger than Pissarro, and admired the ‘dean of Impressionist painters’, Pissarro. They had a large influence on one another’s work, with Pissarro urging Cézanne to abandon the violent motifs of his earlier works and move to producing powerful landscapes outdoors. Cezanne only produced one snowscape with Pissarro during this stay, but the similarities in this work, Snow Effect - Road to the Citadel at Pontoise to a painting produced by Pissarro titled Street in Pontoise, Winter are widestretching. The large difference between the two recaptures Pissarro’s essence from this period, that of painting man’s relationship to nature.
In 1885, Pissarro, who had experimented with new techniques and subject matter throughout his career, met artist Paul Signac. Signac introduced Pissarro to Georges Seurat, who was experimenting with complementary colours in a dot-like style. Pissarro became influenced by the exposure, and soon modified his own painting style to reflect that of his colleagues, known as the Neo-Impressionists or Pointillists. In a radical move at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition, Pissarro chose to exhibit with these new friends in a separate gallery rather than with the Impressionists. He stepped away from painting en plain air as much, and worked in his studio, turning over much greater quantities of painting. Furthermore, in September 1888, the artist was treated for an eye infection, that didn’t cease to hinder him, and forced him to limit his painting outdoors.
Over the next few years, Pissarro moved in and out of depicting figures in his painting, and similarly altered his subject matter - moving to and from snowscapes, cityscapes, and genre scenes. Having moved back to Paris in 1893, he spent the last ten years of his life allowing the city elements to infect his painting, and and eleven series followed, some being of the Tuileries Gardens and the Dome des Invalides. In these paintings of Paris, Pissarro alternated between depicting the transient, momentary, fast-paced world of the small figures that move through his cityscapes and the permanence of the city’s architectural landmarks, the Louvre, the Tuileries, and the Pont-Neuf. In the midst of this amalgamation, Pissarro unfortunately died, with his last painting starting where he began with a snowscape, The Louvre, Morning: Snow Effect.
Despite the many changes in Pissarro’s oeuvre, both geographic and stylistic, the one constant in all these winterscapes is Pissarro’s commitment to painting man’s relationship to nature. He never created pure winterscapes like Monet, choosing instead to celebrate this relationship in his snow painting by always adding a human element. Therefore, ultimately, it is Pissarro’s lifelong dedication to exploring all the motifs of winter that distinguishes him among his fellow painters of effet de neige.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.