The Shy Museumgoer


Pissarro’s unforgettable conversation

When the Prussian Army marched on Paris in 1870, Camille Pissarro began packing up his family’s belongings and shuttering their house in Louveciennes, a small town near the capital. It would be safer to move away than to stay.

Off in the distance he could hear the rumble of artillery. A trade magazine for artists published a warning:

We think it is our duty to warn artists that it is dangerous to make any drawings, sketches, or studies after nature in any part of France. The local people fancy they see Prussian spies everywhere.

The Conversation, Louveciennes portrays a fleeting moment during these harrowing weeks. Pissarro’s wife, the woman with a blue ribbon in her hair, is talking with a neighbor. Are they discussing the alarming events in Paris? Are they planning the family’s move to England? Pissarro’s daughter Jeanne-Rachel sticks close to her mother while she watches her father paint.

Camille Pissarro, "The Conversation, Louveciennes" (1870)
Camille Pissarro, The Conversation, Louveciennes (1870)

The dirt road is empty except for a family walking down the middle of it, enjoying the calm that often precedes a storm. Soon enemy troops will break into and occupy the Pissarro home. When the artist writes from London to inquire about the condition of the house, his landlord’s wife replies:

I assure you the word house is poorly chosen. Stable would be more accurate. Horses were kept in the small room beside the living room. The kitchen was used as a sheepfold. We have some of your paintings well taken care of, however, those “gentlemen” used a few of your paintings as carpets.

Pissarro moved to Louveciennes for its small town motifs

A socialist at heart, Pissarro had no interest in the grandiose historical and mythological themes favored by the French Academy of Fine Arts. He chose to paint ordinary people and rural laborers exactly as he saw them: as unassuming yet integral parts of the French landscape.

The focal point of this seemingly impromptu scene is Pissarro’s pregnant wife, who turns her back on us, a compositional choice that is clearly anti-Academy. So is the wagon wheel leaning against a shed, a motif the conservative critics called the equivalent of depicting garbage along the side of a road.

Pissarro painted with quick, visible brushstrokes. Whole sections of the canvas appear unfinished, especially on the far right side where everything dissolves into sunlight and air. We don’t see door knobs, panes of glass, or any other fine architectural details. Nor do we see buttons, freckles, or any other fine figural details. Pissarro is focusing on shapes and textures.

Warm sunlight streams in from the left side of the canvas, tinting the white buildings across the street. The reflected light creates colorful shadows — green shadows on the road, blue shadows on the wooden fence — a technique that will become a hallmark of Impressionism.

Was Pissarro the first Impressionist?

Notwithstanding the Franco-Prussian War, the year 1870 was remarkably fruitful for Pissarro. He produced at least one painting per week, probably more when you consider how many were destroyed during the enemy occupation of his home.

He advised younger painters not to be afraid of putting on color: “Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.” One admiring critic called Pissarro “basically the inventor of this new style of painting.”

Camille Pissarro, "Quarry Near Pontoise (1874)"
Camille Pissarro, Quarry Near Pontoise (1874)

One of Pissarro’s favorite motifs is a path. Usually it’s a rustic, winding road that implies a leisurely stroll or rural labor. In The Conversation, Louveciennes, the path leads directly to Versailles, the royal residence of Emperor Napoleon III, who will be captured by the Prussian Army on September 2, 1870.

But for now, the dirt road in front of the Pissarro home at No. 22 Route de Versailles is quiet and covered with evanescent patterns of light and shadow. The leaves of a tree are turning orange, and a taller tree bends in the breeze. The season is about to change. A family’s life is about to change. Pissarro has captured a fleeting moment: The calm before the storm.

Epilogue . . .

Before sailing to London, the Pissarro family fled to the home of Adèle and Ludovic Piette, dear friends who lived in Montfoucault, France. The Piettes developed a special affection for Jeanne-Rachel, whom everyone called “Minette.” After the war, Pissarro gave them a portrait of his now seven-year-old daughter as a thank-you gift.

Camille Pissarro, "Portrait of Minette" (1872)
Camille Pissarro, Portrait of Minette (1872)

One year later, Jeanne-Rachel died of a respiratory infection. The Piettes generously returned the portrait to her grieving parents.

During World War II, this precious work of art was one of thousands stolen by the Nazis. In 1944, the Allied Armies recovered Portrait of Minette from a Nazi train. May her memory be a blessing.