Gaston Lévy, Paris (acquired from the above on 10th June 1927)
Seized by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, circa October 1940 (inv. no. MA-B 1085) and transferred to the depot maintained at the Jeu de Paume in June 1943
In store at Schloss Kogl (inv. no. 687/5)
Munich Central Collecting Point, received on 21st March 1946 (inv. no. 22355/4)
Repatriated to the French State on 25th September 1947
Transferred by the French Government in 1949 to Natasha [Fruma] von Fliegers (née Josefowitz), Paris & New York
Serge Fliegers (by descent from the above)
Seized from the above in 1988 by French Customs and confiscated
Assigned to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris in 2000
Restituted by the French Government to the heirs of Gaston Lévy in 2018
São Paulo, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil & Rio de Janeiro, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Impressionismo: Paris e la modernidade. obras-primas Musée d’Orsay, 2012-13
Madrid, Fundación MAPFRE, Impresionistas y postimpresionistas: el nacimiento del arte moderno, obras maestras del Musée d’ Orsay, 2013, no. 18, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Rome, Complesso del Vittoriano, Musée d'Orsay Capolavori, 2014
Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, Pissarro à Eragny. La Nature retrouvée, 2017, no. 13, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Gustave Kahn, ‘Art’, in Mercure de France, Paris, 1st March 1921, p. 520
Le Figaro Artistique, December 1928, illustrated
Paul Fiérens, ‘Causerie artistique. Pissarro’, in Le Journal des débats, 25th February 1930, p. 3
Pierre Berthelot, ‘Camille Pissarro. Exposition du centenaire 1830-1930, pavillon de l’Orangerie’, in Beaux-Arts, 20th March 1930, illustrated p. 12
Ludovic-Rodo Pissarro & Lionello Venturi, Camille Pissarro. Son art – son œuvre, Paris, 1939, vol. I, no. 722, catalogued p. 182; vol. II, no. 722, illustrated pl. 151
Dénes Pataky, Pissarro, Budapest, 1972, illustrated pl. 39
Charles Kunstler, Camille Pissarro, Milan, 1974, illustrated p. 78
John Rewald, C. Pissarro, Paris, 1974, illustrated p. 59
John Rewald, Studies in Post-Impressionism, London, 1986, mentioned pp. 26 & 108
Janine Bailly-Herzberg, Correspondance de Camille Pissarro 1886-1890, Paris, 1986, vol. II, mentioned pp. 172, 178, 179, 242, 261 & 262
Richard R. Brettell, ‘Pissarro in Louveciennes. An Inscription and Three Paintings’, in Apollo, November 1992, mentioned p. 316
Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, New York & London, 1993, fig. 186, illustrated in colour p. 171 (incorrectly captioned)
Martha Ward, Pissarro. Neo-Impressionism and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde, Chicago & London, 1996, discussed p. 307
Richard R. Brettell, ‘Martha Ward. Pissarro. Neo-Impressionism and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde’, in The Art Bulletin, March 1999, p. 171
Anne Distel, ‘Nouvelles acquisitions. Camille Pissarro, Jeune Paysanne faisant du feu, gelée blanche’, in La Revue du musée d’Orsay, Spring 2001, illustrated in colour p. 51
Joachim Pissarro & Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, Pissarro, Catalogue critique des peintures, Paris, 2005, vol. III, no. 857, illustrated in colour p. 561
Pissarro’s People (exhibition catalogue), Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, San Francisco & Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 2011-12, fig. 163, illustrated in colour p. 216
Camille Pissarro. Le premier des impressionnistes (exhibition catalogue), Musée Marmottan Monet, 2017, fig. 19, illustrated in colour p. 123
The subject that Pissarro had deemed too difficult to approach in 1870 was made possible almost entirely as a result of his successful mastery of the Neo-Impressionist style.
Pissarro was the first of the original founding members of the Impressionist group to understand and respond to the younger generation of artists who were beginning to push the techniques of Impressionism in new directions. By the early 1880s he was increasingly associating with these artists including his son Lucien as well as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac; he argued for them to be included in what would become the eighth ‘Impressionist’ exhibition and it was there in 1886 that Seurat showed his great work Un Dimanche après-midi à lÎle de la Grande Jatte (fig. 1). This painting, although initially underestimated, would come to act as a manifesto for Neo-Impressionism and encourage a significant growth of the movement. Seurat’s ground-breaking approach was the most purely scientific and rational, based on a chromatic analysis of painting. It promoted the application of pure colours, in small dots, placing the emphasis on the act of viewing. Pissarro understood immediately the benefits of this approach and described these new ideas as ‘a modern synthesis by methods based on science […]. To substitute optical mixing for the mixing of pigments; in other words: the decomposition of tones into their constitutive elements. Because optical mixing brings about a more intense luminosity than does the mixing of pigments’ (quoted in Camille Pissarro. Le premier des impressionnistes (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., pp. 113-114).
However, Seurat’s way of working was also methodical and studio-based and as such very much the opposite of both the Impressionists’ painting en plein air and their affinity to nature, or the natural. Pissarro’s approach was more intuitive; he felt the limitations of Seurat’s dots, describing them in letters as ‘meagre’ and ‘more monotonous than simple’ and although he experimented initially with this very rigid formalism he soon developed a distinctive, comma-like brushstroke of his own. These hatched, directional strokes are a distinctive element of Pissarro’s mature work, reminiscent to some degree of Cézanne’s handling. They imbue the canvas with movement and act as the best kind of compromise, allowing both for individual dashes of pure pigment and a softer, more atmospheric blending of prismatic colours. One of the most successful examples of this is his rendering of the smoke in Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu. One of the precepts of Neo-Impressionist use of colour was that complementary pigments should not be physically mixed as that produced ‘muted’ grey or brown tones; Pissarro achieved the ‘grey’ of the smoke by applying blue cross-hatched strokes, gradated using broader strokes of pure white, building to a gradual crescendo at the canvas edge. This has the dual effect of filling this passage of paint with a billowing movement and allowing the artist to render the grey smoke without losing the crisp freshness, the ‘luminosity’ of the frosty field beyond. It is a masterclass in Neo-Impressionist technique.
Some years later in 1891, and the day after he had attended Seurat’s funeral, Pissarro wrote that he thought pointillism was ‘finished’ and he went on to add: ‘I think it will have great consequences which later on will be of the utmost importance for art’ (quoted in Camille Pissarro. Le premier des impressionnistes (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 122). This was true in an immediate sense; it had a huge impact on his contemporary Van Gogh (fig. 3). In fact, the parallels between the two artists – though very different in many ways – are particularly apparent during this period: both were looking at Millet, both were intrigued by the drama of the working man as a subject, and both broke colour down to its constituent elements in order to achieve their desired effect. This approach to colour – allowing it autonomy in relation to subject – was to have far-reaching impact. Gauguin’s Breton peasants of the 1890s (fig. 4) are influenced, among other things, by this liberation of colour which would also have a profound influence on the work of the Fauves and the German Expressionists at the beginning of the following century.
Pissarro’s Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu is an important part of this history, bearing witness not just to a key artistic movement but also to one artist’s persistent and ultimately triumphant attempts to break new boundaries in art.
The Genesis of a Masterpiece
Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu is one of Pissarro’s great masterpieces. Painted in 1888 at the peak of the artist’s engagement with Neo-Impressionism and conceived on a grand scale, it is a brilliant rendering of light and atmosphere. The subject is a cold winter’s morning, the low sun casts shadows across the meadow and in these shadows the night’s frost lingers; against this backdrop a young woman and a child build a fire, the smoke rising with a heat that shimmers and eddies across the frozen landscape. In undertaking this subject, Pissarro was attempting something extremely ambitious and in succeeding he presents us with a painting that is quite unique in its remarkable nuance and subtle balancing of tonal harmonies.
In writing about this work, Richard R. Brettell suggests that the origins of its motif are nearly two decades earlier and can be found in a sketchbook from 1870. One sheet of this sketchbook shows a male worker with a stick and is titled The Dung Burner and accompanied by a long descriptive inscription. As Brettell goes on to explain: ‘Without its prominent and eloquent inscription, the drawing would make no sense. […] the inscription refers not to the subject but to the effect on the landscape around the man, seen through the trembling vapor of the hot air from the fire combining with the cold air of a winter day, thus creating a “natural” optical mixture of vibrating colour’ (R. Brettell, Pissarro’s People (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 214). The inscription is unusually long and complex suggesting that Pissarro was particularly struck by the possibilities of this combination but unable at this stage in his career to render it in paint. However, by the mid-1880s Pissarro had fully mastered the Neo-Impressionist style and in that found the perfect means to capture this elusive effect.
Approaching the subject again in 1887, Pissarro made six versions, more commonly titled Femme cassant du bois: a drawing, three studies in gouache, watercolour and oil, and two major oils of which the present work is one. In all of these the male worker is replaced with a female worker engaged in the visually similar activity of burning wood. Pissarro travelled extensively through the countryside around Eragny, where he had lived since he left Osny in 1884; these surroundings provided the artist with endless subjects and inspired the series of rural workers that were a particular focus of the mid to late 1880s. In making them the subject of his works – figures with landscapes, rather than figures within landscapes – Pissarro was stating his independence. His interest in painting not only the emerging bourgeoisie but also the working classes is one of the key differences between the artist and his contemporaries Monet and Renoir. These depictions of peasants necessarily recall the earlier work of Courbet and Millet – and the placement and attitude of the woman in the present work, along with the delicate treatment of light along the horizon is particularly reminiscent of Millet’s L’Angelus (fig. 7) – although as in all of Pissarro’s art he avoids any direct moralising and maintains a more bucolic tone.
The studies related to the final oils offer an important insight into the artist’s working process. The drawing, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the gouache and watercolour all show different iterations of the final composition. The watercolour is perhaps the most revealing; the child’s position is reversed, so he stands with his back to the viewer giving the impression that the viewer is placed behind both figures. In moving him to face the viewer, as he does in the final version, Pissarro opens out the composition and turns the fire into the key counterbalancing element with the child partly obscured behind it.
Pissarro seems to have begun work on the present canvas in the spring of 1887 when he wrote to his son Lucien Pissarro concerning his requirements for a large square canvas (JBH II, no. 427). By July 1888 the painting was finished and he wrote in a letter: ‘I ran into [the painter Félix] Bracquemond, who complimented me a great deal about my Girl Breaking Wood. We talked about the division of tones; he told me that he had a feeling there was something very good about my new decision, that it was no accident I was following that path, that it would bear fruit… very nice as you can see’ (quoted in Joachim Pissarro & Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., p. 561).
The work was first shown only a year after it had been finished at the exhibition of the Cercle des XX in Brussels, alongside another of the artist’s great masterpieces of this period La Cueillette des pommes, Eragny (fig. 8). The Belgian art critic Octave Maus singled out these two works, observing that ‘The Peasant Girl Making a Fire and Apple-Picking triumph […] over the other works on show due to the far-reaching sentiment of nature that pervades them’ (quoted in ibid., pp. 555-556).
The importance of Pissarro’s achievements in this painting has continued to excite. Writing in the catalogue for the major retrospective Pissarro’s People Richard Brettell considers the challenge that the artist faced in taking on this subject, trying to capture the effects of both heat and cold, and writes: ‘The convincing representation of fire, smoke and cold air is anything but easy for a painter, even an Impressionist who had long practiced similar effects by representing frost, fog and snow, and no other work by any of the artists with whom Pissarro worked can equal it in this way’ (Richard R. Brettell in Pissarro’s People (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 217).
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