Fifth Approach to Rubens ‘Het Steen’, 1636 and Pissarro’s ‘The Côtes Saint-Denis’ or ‘The Côtes des Boeufs’ 1877

Thinking about what I have written so far, what stands out immediately is the need to make a response to work seen, and through that response know more about the work and the act of seeing. It is interesting that Clark (in ‘The Sight of Death’ which is of course the major inspiration for most of this) does this through poetry as well as through text. One of my major problems with many art historians is that they see paintings as merely the ‘index to the archive’. They understand so little about the hows and whys  of making something, however much they might know about technical properties of materials, and how little importance art historians usually attach to the ‘journey’ of the work. At least Clark goes a long way to acknowledge this and In Sight of Death returns to the priority of looking constantly.
I came across this from Leonardo, as quoted by Kemp recently, it was about the human figure but the central point is still relevant I think:
“With what words O writer will you describe with similar perfection the entire configuration that the drawing here does…You who claim to demonstrate in words the shape of man from every aspect dismiss such an idea, because the more minutely you describe, the more you will lead away from the thing described”
If then we are trying to get closer to the thing described, this sort of research must be ‘prolonged and active’, and I think Clark hints at this too, the form of the response should follow the form of the work studied. If working in text for example, the approach to the words written ought to follow the qualities of that written about. The vigorous confident swirl and notational strokes of Rubens, as opposed to the careful precise repetitive stroke of Pissarro. The gestures inherent in Cotes des Boeufs remind me stripping gooseberries one by one from thorny bushes. If writing about Rubens I suppose one could adopt a Will Self style, and for Pissarro someone like Alice Munro.
Witness within: Het Steen
‘The witness within’ and I suppose ‘without’ the paintings is perhaps the route to follow. For example, thinking about what I have written before, and making the role of the ‘witness without’ evident, one of the ways I have always looked at pictorial space in landscapes is to think of how a specific viewer interacts with it.
For example, the space as a walk one might be taking with a dog. Perhaps this comes from the childhood game I can remember reading about and probably playing many, many years ago. When on a long car or train journey you imagine a horse and rider parallel to the moving vehicle, the horse jumping each obstacle as it comes, at the same speed as the vehicle but with much greater grace. So looking for example at the Rubens, and transposing the game to dog walking in pictorial space, are we walking out proudly from the grand gate of Het Steen, with two sleek borzois, or wolfhounds, an elegant, tooled leather lead on either hand? It is the sort of space and colour range that makes me think we would definitely have a pair of dogs, large and lively, perhaps like the landscape, slightly tamed, but not quite in control, much like the dogs we had as children in fact. Our route would be a serpentine, ‘Lord of all I survey’ promenade, down the hill to cross the small bridge, stopping off at the cows, circling between the trees across the broad sunlit fields, past what I think are more cattle, or perhaps deer, then returning to the house. The dogs panting heavily to spend the rest of the day lying across doorways and generally getting in the way, as only large dogs can. Such an imaginative fancy gets us closer to the pictorial space as laid out in a series of gently unfolding, slightly rounded circular planes centred on that little sacred grove. The planes tilt gently down to the fertile plain, an ambulant or perhaps equine landscape, comfortable, undemanding walking; expensive wellies in the morning dew sort of place. Pushing this a bit further, I have been thinking further about the prominence of the hunter, are we being offered two forms of promenade within this work? An ambivalence or duality on the part of the artist in describing his domain. Bearing in mind that we are looking at a painting that celebrates Rubens success, and I suppose some sort of settling down, does the hunter offer another way of roaming the ground; nose in the landscape, experiencing without grandness. Our elevated viewing position shows the proximity of his prey, his hunt will be successful, easily so. There are a series of parallels one could make between the processes of hunting, as shown to us here, and the ways in which an artist makes experientially based art work; emotions recollected in tranquillity etc. As a hunter, the route one would take across the landscape, following the trail of two bouncy spaniels of course, would be different to the grand procession of the successful diplomat/ court artist. Hence the profusion of brambles, fallen trees and rough textures through which to squeeze across the foreground, and hedge bottoms to crawl along, into the distance. As a hunter you would return as the shadows get longer and longer across the plain, a heavy canvas bag across the shoulder, through the kitchen entrance at the back of the building, to proudly drop the still warm, bleeding bodies of shot birds on to the worn kitchen table. The dogs, smelling heavily of mud and filthy water, would instantly fall asleep under the table. Two ways of experiencing the land that points at something quite interesting about the painting I hadn’t thought about before, and worth pursuing, I think.
Cotes des Boeufs, by the way, seems more of the dog on a string tied to a post sort of land (in the rural, not the Big Issue urban sense by the way), there’s not much recreational strolling in a Pissarro painting. I have never seen the dogs that presumably went in dog carts, but this seems the sort of land that they would inhabit. (After a bit of searching I discover that dog carts were used in France and Belgium for delivering churns of milk from small farms to the dairy.) Although the cart track in the bottom left hand corner curves away from us, I do get the feeling that the curve is perceptual. All the walked points between places appear to be A: short and B: in straight lines. This is an efficient, hard faced, working landscape, the people who struggled in it had enough to do without taking the pretty route.
Pissarro and Propositions
Continuing further with the ‘proposition’ that Pissarro’s painting is of ‘edges’, and the worlds from which he was excluded, I find from reading his biography by Kathleen Adler that his parents marriage had been forbidden. The Pissarro family had moved from Bordeaux to St Thomas in the West Indies in the 1790’s (originally Sephardic Jews from Portugal). Camille’s Pissarro’s father had married his uncle’s widow when he made her pregnant. The Rabbi of Copenhagen and also the Rabbis of London, Paris and Bordeaux apparently declared the marriage invalid and the children illegitimate, although the King of Denmark, of all people (St Thomas was a Danish colony) gave it his blessing. The marriage was declared legal after the fourth son was born (Jacob Camille was the third in 1830), but the Pissarro’s were always isolated from the rest of the Jewish community. Interestingly Camille’s marriage upset his own family, he married a non Jewish French girl, from what was considered a lower social class, his mothers French maid in fact.
There is another obvious issue from Pissarro’s early life, Denmark had moved to gradually abolish the slave trade from 1803, France from 1847 to be complete by 1859, in other words the young Camille would have been extremely aware of slavery in all it’s forms, and of the various violent uprisings and suppressions in the West Indies. Especially in 1847 when Camille returned to St Thomas after a period in school in France.
Exhibition and useful comparisons
According to ‘Art in the Making, Impressionism’, a 1990 London National Gallery catalogue that I have, Cotes des Boeufs was shown at the 1877 Third Impressionist Exhibition. It was shown as a major painting, probably next to Renoir’s ‘Bal de la Moulin de la Galette’, I might try comparing the two. The other obvious comparison, and much made by critics is with a painting by Cezanne, ‘Cotes des Boeufs’, from the same period and almost exactly the same spot, The tree grid is, as you might expect, far more dominant and structural in the Cezanne.
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