Some thoughts about two different paintings of the artist’s house and the role of the spectator within the painting.
Rubens ‘Het Steen’, 1636 and Pissarro’s ‘The Côtes Saint-Denis’ or ‘The Côtes des Boeufs’ 1877
First thoughts: a clearing of the ground until we work out what might be said, after a few visits with some time in front of each painting and some preliminary reading
To what extent are these both paintings about journeys? Not just the implicit artists journey to get this far perhaps to live in the houses we can see in each work; more obvious certainly in the Rubens, but also the journeys within the worlds depicted. Our couple going off to the Market, or the two peasants walking down the path through the trees at the Hermitage. Are we walking that path with them to pick soft fruit, do we walk out to Het Steen, or join with the hunter or down through the trees over the stream to the cows being milked?
‘An autumn landscape with a view of Het Steen in the Early Morning,’ 1636,
painted as one of a pair (same view in the late afternoon)
Where and who is the internal spectator?
What is the role of vision denied, particularly noticeable in the Pissarro
What do these two works celebrate? Apart from a joy in examining the visual qualities of the overlooked, the edges of brambles and ordinary trees. These are both worked landscapes, although the Ruben’s is of course much grander, the light is more golden. That working in Ruben’s case appears to celebrate his possessions as he moved to the seignory of Steen, a sixteenth century manorial castle. The perfect working land, not dissimilar to the well ordered space celebrated by Gainsborough in his image of that glum couple, Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews. In fact he only lived at Het Steen for less than five years: between November 1635 (moved in) and died in Antwerp 30 May 1640
The space in the Rubens seems to depend on some of the tricks of the Northern Renaissance, scale changes eg the partridges and the cattle, are we taking the position of the man with the gun seen bottom left of centre. Involves a hunting figure, he painted many hunting scenes for aristocratic patrons, but apparently didn’t hunt himself. This is a fertile, sustaining land
Rubens a Catholic, against Pissarro’s understated Jewishness
It is large painting, history painting size. Ruben’s landscapes made on all sorts of odds and ends of wood, grains running in all directions, probably not made for sale, and one of eighteen landscapes in his studio at his death. He paid great attention to landscape painting towards the end of his life apparently; and it is probable none of his landscapes were commissions.
The physical painting suffered the real effects of climate when it fell apart in the great frosts of 1947, all those bits of wood parted company.
One of a series of paintings featuring carts moving, images of vehicles under way
Villa in the country, the retreat from the town, Pliny?
Het Steen is a Mediaeval Manor, the tower, which turns up in many other images of the period, including a mediaeval capricchio, has now been demolished. Noticeable that our viewpoint seems to be equally high up, the height of a tower window.
That high up panoramic viewpoint could be seen to be part of the Netherlandish tradition you can trace back to the first real landscape painter: Joachim Patinir (1515-24). One of Patinir’s characteristics was the view as if from a mountaintop or passing bird, showing the curve of the earth (as indeed one can see on Het Steen’s horizon. Patinir shows us a world view, suggesting in his religious paintings, the hugeness of God/ nature and the smallness of us. In Rubens perhaps this is the other way around. The internal spectator is God. Patinir’s system eg The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (which incidentally features a building amongst the trees on the left) was developed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of whose landscapes was owned by Rubens (Flight into Egypt 1563) perhaps one could make a comparison of that painting with Het Steen later,
Scene and place: Autumn and at dawn
No extant drawings for this, in fact ‘only twelve drawings from nature by Rubens are known’, probably worth comparing with Rembrandt here.
The tangle of roots and brambles, a drawing for the study of a tree 1615 and a fallen tree also 1615, Netherlandish significance of the fallen tree?
Thinking of the different ways we see things, perhaps get a genuine oil painted version/ copy/ print of each painting, how do the remakers of each image/ change/ reconstruct/ dilute their subject?
Pissarro, Cotes des Boeufs
also one of a series, though less obviously programmatic than the Rubens pair, Most of the paintings of this subject, eg the Musee d’Orsay version presumably sited slightly to the right and in brighter sun than the National Gallery version. Set near Pontoise. The Pissarro does not reproduce well, most of the details get lost.
Notice the pictorial structure, the strong verticals. There are two echoing curves here, a long right left curving trees set just in front of the forward line of poplars. This curve takes the eye from where second upright poplar from the right hits the upright edge of the canvas to make a sinsusoidal curve (if turned through 90˚) ending on the same line as the figures walking down the path. That curve is echoed by the propped trees that dominate the bottom right of the painting, these curving trees back up against the longer right hand vertical (poplar?) in the way that Pissarro has treated the pictorial space, in fact there are several rows of fruit bushes between the pair and the first upright poplar. This pair of sinusoidal curves are flatly parallel to the picture plane. Is it too much of an act of imagination to notice that the two ruts of the track on the left hand side, leading into the pictorial space, appear to follow the same curve as the trees? So what we have are paired curves parallel to the picture plane flattening that space, marked against geometric vertical axes, contrasted with the same curves creating pictorial space as they lead into the left hand side. Is this Pissarro drawing the attention of the viewer to the process by which space is made, laying out the tools of the landscape artist as it where?
Our track is balanced by those curving, paired trees on the right hand side which form a visual route into the painting. They are a rare isolated area of detail, the strong shadow on the left hand, the behind tree that bends to the right has a strong shadow on the left side. A shadow that creates a round tubular form, but also anchors the turning almost anthropomorphic form, almost traditional chiaroscuro. Interesting to notice that curving tree form turns up often in that period, eg ‘A Gust of Wind, Pontoise’, c 1877 a far less worked up painting that features a group of trees bending in surprisingly Rococo forms in a strong wind. Richard Brettell emphasises “The wrist gestures that embody a wind bent tree”, in other words shapes that represent, by at least one distance, our ideas of trees in the wind. What he calls ‘gesturally positive’ images that stress, for Brettel anyway, the nature and act of painting, prefiguring abstractions to come. Whereas his bent, trained, wrestling sticks are specific trees described and analysed.
Trees as screens, screening what from whom? Can one relate this screening to Monet’s ‘Poplars on the Epte’, 1891 also in the National Gallery. Bright sunlight through trees, notionally similar, but, no artist’s house, a brief ‘Impression’, with no sense of texture, silver bark, the density of edges and foliage that seems to characterise thes two paintings; the jumble and muddle of the overlloked .
A technique used by Corot, ways of working with pictorial space as a way of organising his sensations?
Time of year
Pissarro: autumn? silver light blue sky top light. Complementary colours, standard impressionist practice in this case red and green. Shown at the Impressionist exhibition of April 1877? No, probably one of the paintings made in the summer with Cezanne, Pictorial structure, the student teaching the teacher. The detail and the tiny touches make this a painting about work, the industry is evident, as is the landscape which is clearly worked by man, as is characteristic of all Pissarro’s landscapes, man’s industry is always evident. Look for example at his painting of a beet factory (Factory near Pontoise, 1873), Pissarro always went for the deliberately un-picturesque. There is no obvious motif here, in any sense.
One of a series of paintings of different gardens, but these are jardins des poottagers, not the suburban flower gardens Monet painted.
Joachim Pissarro wrote about the motifs that characterised Pissarro’s Pontoise pictures: ‘These endless combinations of contrasts and variable forces lend themselves to a thematic three-part opposition – intrinsic to the suburban world – between town, country, and their limits, or the intermediary formations that bind them together: the fringe, the villages nearby, the paths that lead to the town, the river, the kitchen gardens – all forms of transitions between field and town […] Tensions of this type – rural/urban/suburban; nature/architecture/path; fields/path/building(s); city/river/bridge – are absolutely central to Pissarro’s output in Pontoise, and clearly represent the focal points of his grasp of the antinomies inherent in suburban spaces. Out of these, Pissarro composed a poetical-pictorial ensemble with resounding evocative power. There emerged several possibilities: he may be seen at times creating an equilibrium between architecture and nature; the jardins potagers (kitchen gardens) offer a privileged vantage point from which to study such contrasts, as seen in Potager et arbres en fleurs, printemps, Pontoise […] and a motif also studied by Cézanne and studied again a few years later by Pissarro in Kitchen Gardens, Pontoise .
Pissarro’s Jewishness/ outsider, hence the role of the screens?
From The Goncourt Journals 17th Feb 1883 Page 302
“looking at the Jews I know growing old around me, I am sometimes astonished at the peculiar ugliness which the years bring them. It is not our decrepitude but a moral ugliness. What is the explanation? I believe that it is to be found in purely material appetites and desires, in a life with no other object than money”
What a comparison with Rubens the consummate insider?
Rubens equally autumnal, but reached through close gold, yellow pale green tones.