- Hardcover: 216 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press (September 26, 1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0300043368
- ISBN-13: 978-0300043365
- Product Dimensions: 11.6 x 10 x 1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,480,329 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape Hardcover – September 26, 1990
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Brettell starts out with the useful reminder that an examination of Pissarro's landscape painting is an investigation into the painter's perceptions of and attitudes toward reality, into the relationship between "pictorial reality" and "actual reality." We know what the pictorial reality is--that's what we have in the paintings--but how do we reconstruct the "actual" reality that was the model in order to understand the relationship between them? Brettell is dissatisfied with the method of comparing photographs and paintings, because the photographic image is abstract and detached and not commensurable with human perception, and in any case Pissarro's paintings are such obvious alterations of their sites that a photographic comparison is not very useful. And even a brilliant survey like Paul Hayes Tucker's "Monet at Argenteuil" does not, for him, overcome the feeling that Monet's paintings ARE what they represent. Rather than comparing a painting of a little corner of nature with the little corner itself, Brettell says, we can learn much more about Pissarro's perception of reality in Pontoise by learning as much as possible about Pontoise itself in all its details: "maps, photographs, historical accounts, guidebook entries, newspaper articles and statistical tables" (9) can help us understand the actual reality from which Pissarro constructed his pictorial reality.
And with that comes the logical progression of Brettell's chapters. The first, "Pontoise: The Landscape Itself," examines the town in a way not often encountered in art history books, namely under rubrics such as "Economic Activity, 1840-1880," "Industry," and "Fields or Gardens: The Agricultural Economy of Pontoise." The idea here is to see what the stage looked like: who were the people, what did they do, what kinds of buildings were there, what did the fields look like, were the roads good, how many churches were there, etc., i.e., What WAS Pontoise? Chapter Two, "Pissarro's Pontoise [the possessive here means "pictorial" Pontoise]: Omissions and Admissions" deals with something like Pissarro's filter: What did he dislike about what he saw in the actual reality and thus "omit" from the pictorial, and what did he like and therefore "admit" into it? (This is a completely conscious and willful choice, and for my part I would have preferred stronger verbs like "exclude" and "include.") What turns out to be excluded are the extremes of both wealth and poverty, i.e., any hint of class struggle; the appearances of religion, including Pontoise's prominent churches (when they show up in the paintings they are greatly designified); mills and quarries and other features of "the functional landscape," which smacked too much of the romantic and had become motific cliches. Included are things like certain aspects of the agricultural landscape and the river for transportation (not recreation), etc. As Brettell puts it, Pissarro's response to the landscape was "political and social as much as pictorial" (30). And so on in subsequent chapters which deal with Pissarro's perceptions of the factory, the home, the figure in the landscape: the actual reality vs. the pictorial. Some of the results are surprising: Pontoise emerges not as a peasant hamlet but as a provincial town populated both by rustics and fancily-dressed petit bourgois types; the rural staffage (inherited largely from Corot) plays "a minor role in the landscape"; the peasant character of Pontoise was largely "mythical" and in fact the original peasantry had already been turned into a work force of paid agricultural workers among whom Pissarro lived as a bourgeois keen on maintaining his status as "other." This manner of comparison also affords Brettell the opportunity to discuss aspects of Pissarro's aesthetic as the topics arise: his predilection for the "coin" rather than the broad "vue"; his general distaste for "motifs" and preference for ground painting and concepts of balance and pictorial unity (but sometimes a factory IS a motif, but then it is designified by something--factories are both admitted and omitted: vacillation is the hallmark of Pissarro's art).
The longest section of Brettell's book is its concluding chapter, "Progressions and Regressions," which closely traces the painter's development during the Pontois years, which approximately coincide with the heyday of Impressionism. And here again our view of Pissarro's development during this period as being fairly linear and logically progressive--a view which was widely accepted since its formulation by critics in the 1890's--must be revised. Pissarro was not simply the most conservative of the Impressionists (although surely the most stalwart), nor was he merely responsive to the artistic innovations of others: he was both. Brettell suggests the word "fitful" as being the most appropriate to characterize this phase of Pissarro's career, in which there is a virtually constant vacillation between modern and pre-modern styles, between Monet and Barbizon, as it were. Stimuli for his paintings seem to come less from the sites themselves than from the rural tradition established by Corot and Millet: the powerful visual impression that is supposed to be of primary importance to the Impressionist painter seems to have been less important in the formation of his aesthetic than the advice and examples of others. In order to marshal all this material and clearly delineate the phases of the painter's Pontoisian period, Brettell has graphed the frequency of motif types and mapped the spots in which Pissarro painted landscapes in any given year-- unusual methods, he admits, "more in keeping with the statistical approach of many sociologists and social historians," but useful here because "they set unified periods of time into clear relief" and "abstract the analysis from the level of . . . connoisseurship to the general typological cataloguing of many works of art" (145). The strength of Brettell's approach lies in the combination of these unusual methods with the customary methods of detailed stylistic and iconographical analysis in such a way that general arguments can be clearly concretized in the descriptive analysis of a single work. This is a remarkably productive procedure: twelve "painting-point" maps guide us through the author's discussion of Pissarro's sometimes sudden and dramatic changes of palette, facture and iconography; his progression toward a more modern aesthetic and then retreat from it; his dedication to Corot's value-based coloring and then his foregrounding of the hue instead, to name a few examples; and it is largely the maps that help us differentiate the seven Pontoise periods that Brettell identifies. Brettell has maintained an excellent balance between social and aesthetic analysis, an equilibrium in emphasis that one finds lacking in many socially-oriented art historians. Pontoise comprised only seventeen years of Pissarro's fifty-year painting career, and one would really like to see Brettell's methods of analysis extended beyond this one period, especially as it was only in the later years in Pontoise that Pissarro started to work in the formal realm of figure painting. In fact, it is the new dichotomy between landscape painting and figure painting that the author points to in concluding his fascinating and excellent study. One can easily imagine a more comprehensive treatment of Pissarro's landscape painting, but as far as the Pontoise period is concerned, Brettell's book is not likely to be surpassed.