The Shy Museumgoer


Pissarro’s unforgettable conversation

In the late summer of 1870, as the Prussian Army was advancing on Paris, Camille Pissarro packed up his family’s belongings and shuttered 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 Prussian artillery. A trade magazine for artists urged extreme caution:

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 (1870) portrays a tense moment during these anxious 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? Or planning the family’s move to England? Pissarro’s daughter, Jeanne-Rachel, sticks close to her mother but looks at her father and, by extension, at us.

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

The street 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 his house, the landlord 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.

Who decides what….and how….an artist should paint?

Pissarro had moved to Louveciennes for its small town motifs. He had no interest in painting the historical and mythological themes favored by the French Academy of Fine Arts. He wanted to portray peasants and rural laborers exactly as he saw them: as unassuming yet integral parts of the French landscape.

Pissarro painted The Conversation, Louveciennes in quick, visible brushstrokes. Whole sections appear unfinished, particularly on the far right side of the canvas 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 fine figural details. He’s concentrating 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.

The focal point of this seemingly impromptu scene is Pissarro’s pregnant wife, who has turned her back on us — a compositional decision that is clearly anti-Academy. So is the wagon wheel leaning against a building, a motif the Academy called the equivalent of painting garbage along the side of the road.

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’s best not to lose the first impression.” Critic Paul-Armand Silvestre called Pissarro “basically the inventor of this new style of painting.”

One of Pissarro’s favorite motifs is a path. Usually it’s a rugged, winding path that implies a leisurely stroll or rural labor. In The Conversation, Louveciennes, the “path” is a road that 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 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 seven-year-old daughter as a thank-you gift.

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

A year later, Minette died of a respiratory infection. The Piettes generously returned the portrait to her grieving parents.

During World War II this treasured painting was one of thousands stolen by the Nazis. It was recovered from a Nazi train in 1944 and now can be found in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut. May her memory be a blessing.

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