A Spectacular Pissarro that Escaped Theft by the Nazis

By Sotheby's
Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale on 19 June featured a magnificent work by Pissarro that narrowly escaped theft by the Nazis.

P issarro’s series paintings of Paris in the late 1890s are amongst the supreme achievements of Impressionism, taking their place alongside Claude Monet’s series of Rouen Cathedral, poplars and grainstacks and the later waterlilies.

This painting has a dramatic story. Formerly owned by Alfred Sommerguth, a Jewish businessman who built his fortune through his leadership of the German tobacco conglomerate Loeser & Wolff, it nearly fell victim to the Nazi theft of Jewish property carried out during the late 1930s. While many of the works in the Sommerguths’ extensive art collection were looted by the Nazis, Alfred and his wife Gertrud managed to ship 22 of their best paintings, including this one, to Switzerland, where they were loaned to the Sturzzeneggersche Gemäldesammlung in St. Gallen in 1940 for safe keeping.

Alfred and Gertrud eventually escaped Germany, via Madrid, to Cuba, finally ending up in New York City where they lived out the rest of their days in straitened circumstances having lost everything in Europe. They never saw the Pissarro again and it is being offered at auction under a settlement between their heirs and the current owner.

For an artist who throughout his earlier career was primarily celebrated as a painter of rural life rather than the urban environment, the Boulevard Montmartre, Gare Saint-Lazare and Jardin des Tuileries series confirmed his position as the preeminent painter of the City.

"I am returning to Paris again on the tenth, to do a series of the boulevard des Italiens. Last time I did several small canvases – about 13 x 10 inches – of the rue Saint-Lazare, effects of rain, snow, etc., with which Durand was very pleased. 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"
Camille Pissarro, letter from the artist to his son, Lucien Pissarro, 8th February 1897

Depicting the busy Parisian street with its pavement, buildings and trees bathed in a warm glow of the setting sun, Le Boulevard Montmartre, fin de journée is an outstanding work from one of the most important series of Pissarro’s urban views. The excitement and spectacle of the city at the fin-de-siècle is brilliantly evoked by the artist’s handling of paint and the elegant composition.

Le Boulevard Montmartre, Paris, circa 1910 Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

The remarkable scope and variety of the Boulevard Montmartre series reveals Pissarro’s approach to a series of views of the same subject. Focused upon a single compositional device – the magnificent procession of the Boulevard Montmartre – the artist thoroughly investigated the different atmospheric conditions of the street. This variety is illustrated by two distinct determinations - the weather and the activity represented.

Thus there are festive afternoons as well as comparatively tranquil ones, sparsely populated streets in winter and conversely busy scenes, as well as a view of the street at night. The artist accomplished this triumphant series by working methodically for over two months at the window of his hotel room from dawn till dusk.

As part of the ambitious reforms Napoleon III introduced during the 1860s, Georges-Eugène Haussmann was charged with masterminding a radical reconfiguration of Paris. Many parts of the medieval city were razed to provide space for an extensive grid of straight roads, avenues and boulevards. The ‘Haussmannisation’ of Paris which is celebrated today as the precursor to modern urban planning, met with admiration and scorn in equal measure at the time - not least because of the staggering 2.5 billion francs spent on the project.

However, in another letter to his son Lucien, Pissarro extolled the artistic possibilities presented by the new urban landscape: ‘It may not be very aesthetic, but I’m delighted to be able to have a go at Paris streets, which are said to be ugly, but are [in fact] so silvery, so bright, so vibrant with life […] they’re so totally modern!’ (letter from the artist to his son Lucien Pissarro, 15th December 1897. These sentiments are also illustrated in the works of his contemporaries, such as Claude Monet and Gustave Caillebotte, whose views of Paris captured the grandeur and commotion of the modern city.

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