Oil on canvas
Camille Pissarro's Four Seasons
By Joachim Pissarro
Camille Pissarro's Four Seasons constitute one of the most ambitious, daring and paradoxical projects ever undertaken by the artist.
The cyclical succession of the four seasons--spring, summer, autumn, winter--has long offered substance for one of the most abiding allegories of life--childhood, youth, maturity, and senior age--throughout the history of the arts. This particular theme gave way to countless interpretations and variations, in all fields of the humanities: from the antiquity to the 19th century, the Four Seasons remained an abiding trope alluding to the waning and waxing phases of life. As pointed by Richard Brettell (in Pissarro and Pontoise, New Haven, 1989), Pissarro was certainly well aware of the imposing treatment given to this theme by Nicolas Poussin, which Pissarro would have seen and, probably studied at the Louvre. In all periods, media, and genres, major artists reinterpreted the same theme. Closer to Pissarro, two artists whom he greatly admired also gave this universal trope their own imprint: Jean-François Millet (fig. ___, p. ___), and Pissarro's younger, and rebellious colleague, Paul Cézanne. It is fair to say that Cézanne's own treatment of the theme of the Four Seasons (fig. ___, p. ___), painted on four tall and narrow panels, gave this allegorical theme one of its most baroque, and quasi-caricatural treatments that one could imagine. The young artist executed this theme as a decoration for his parents' house--and it is fair to say that this was the earliest--and the only--commission ever received by this revolutionary artist. There, at the hands of the youthful Cézanne, the allegory of the Four Seasons received a new twist: it turned into something of a caricature--a joke, almost--at the expense of this literary and mythological tradition. As one sees it, one ceases to wonder why the artists' parents attempted their best to discourage their son to pursue his dream to become an artist. Even before the young Cézanne decided--against his father's will--to move up north to Paris in order to study art at the French National School of Fine Arts (whereupon he was then going to meet Pissarro, who was nine years older than him), it is possible to see in this young, inexperienced artist's treatment of the Four Seasons, someone ready to take on the art school system and challenge it to the core, to take the sacred tradition of painting to task, and to tear asunder the whole aesthetic and value system of French academy. Cézanne was going to deliver, with great pungency, every promise held in this strange, and almost hilarious, group of four paintings. The anarchist Pissarro was to associate himself wholeheartedly to this cause, and the two artists, as is now well known, were going to become inseparable as they forged along a new language for painting.
Pissarro never saw Cézanne's Four Seasons at his parents' home: he never traveled to the South of France--but there is hardly any doubt that the two artists would have spoken about this, especially given the fact that Pissarro executed his own group of four works for his patron, Achille Arosa, at the very moment when Cézanne relocated from Paris to Pontoise in order to work closely with Pissarro. In 1872, Cézanne, his girl-friend, and their six-month old baby, took on a house on the Oise river--across the bank where the Pissarros lived. From that point on, the two artists became inseparable. As Cézanne settled near Pissarro's house, Pissarro was in the process of working on his Four Seasons. We know this because Pissarro began working on this project while still living in Louveciennes in 1871--indeed, the first panel, the winter scene, depicts rooftops in Louveciennes; the other three panels represent landscapes in and around Pontoise where Pissarro moved in 1872. The artist, therefore, carried over his project from Louveciennes to Pontoise and worked on this from the winter of 1871 to 1872. At the time both artists, Cézanne and Pissarro, decided to work together, and began to see each other daily in 1872, we can be certain that Pissarro was in the midst of working on his Four Seasons.
Contrary to Cézanne's allegorical treatment of the Four Seasons, Pissarro's paintings are no jokes at all. They are serious paintings, and demonstrate--even two years before the creation of the impressionist group--that Pissarro (who was by then between 41 and 42 years old) had acquired an artistic poise, and a maturity that clearly appealed to the younger Cézanne. As he came into closer contact with Pissarro, borrowed a painting by the older artist, painted in Louveciennes (where Pissarro executed his winter scene). Cézanne later returned Pissarro's painting of a landscape in Louveciennes, having produced his own version after Pissarro's canvas.
Pissarro's Four Seasons reveal the closeness of concerns between the two artists, as much as they reveal fundamental differences between the two artists. In his own unmistakable interpretation of the Four Seasons, Pissarro, too, lodges an attack at the core of the French academic system of painting as it was taught in the Paris art schools where both artists had met in the early 1860s. However, his attack (contrary to Cézanne's style) was not cynical: Pissarro is a peaceful, gentle, kind-hearted artist (as every single witness who ever met him tirelessly reminds us). As we see it through his version of the Four Seasons, Pissarro's own attack against the art system that he critiqued, reflects his own personality: it is soft, but cogent; it is subtle, but clear; it stems from a slow, careful, reflection that took him months to accomplish; at the same time, the result is vivid and powerful: the blow against the French official school system is lethal: it takes on one of the oldest conventions in the history of art, and turns it on its head; it takes one of the most common allegories, and rids it of allegorical contents. The way Pissarro proceeded in this is subtle, and none the less clear: he chose a quasi-universal allegory as the 'subject' for a commission. He retained the formal structure of the allegorical code but stripped bare of meaning: indeed, he retained four canvases, and a sequential narrative--based purely on the passage of time--establishes an order within the group: summer comes before autumn. There stops Pissarro's interest in the Four Seasons: upon this formal framework, none of the traditional symbols attached to this allegory can be found. The paraphernalia of conventional attributes linked to the seasons (e.g., the traditional grape harvest, or wine making scenes attached to autumn) have all gone, so that one is almost at pain to try to find clues for which is which (the exception, of course, is the winter scene, which is plainly obvious). Pissarro has carefully removed any symbolic content out of his cycle, so that every single one of these four paintings can function autonomously from the group--indeed, at some point of its ownership history, this group of paintings was split (See the Provenance in the catalogue). Whether in spring, summer, fall, or winter, field workers, in the rural world, carry on business as usual, and they are not thinking of themselves as accomplishing some lofty chores laden with symbols. The two field workers in the 'spring' scene, for instance, do not carry out any task that is distinct from what they would be doing in summer, or fall. Pissarro has expunged any symbolism out of his work in order to celebrate, instead, what the great Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called : "the humble prose of living." The ultimate irony is that, as this subtle and ambitious group of works was executed for Achille Arosa--the brother of another major collector, Gustave, who also was Paul Gauguin's legal gardian, and first boss--we know that this group of works was among the first works by Pissarro that Gauguin ever saw. The irony, therefore, is that it is through these works, subtly devoid of all symbolic meaning, that Gauguin first came into contact with impressionism before eventually turning his back to impressionism, and Pissarro, and become a leading member of the Symbolists.
The essential originality of Pissarro in his art--powerfully incarnated in this group of four works--is that Pissarro was a proponent of a kind of painting that was representational, but non-illustrative. No ulterior meaning, no symbols, no allegories, no aesthetic program, or even ideological manifestos were ever the "subject-matter" of his work. If one searches the force of these four works lies in part in the fact that they do not respond to any particular ideological program. Instead, they reflect the deeper fact that as Pissarro put it at the beginning of his artistic career: "L'art m'enchante. C'est ma vie." (Art enchants me: It is my life.) (in Correspondance de Camille Pissarro, Paris, vol. 1, p. 253).
Signed 'C. Pissarro' (lower right)
London, Prince's Skating Rink, Second Exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, May-July 1899, no. 37.
Berlin, Paul Cassirer, Pissarro, March 1904, no. 6.
Berlin, Paul Cassirer, VI. Ausstellung, February-March 1907, no. 73.
Copenhagen, Industriforeningen i Kjøbenhavn, Jodisk Udstilling, January 1908, no. 1015.
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum (on extended loan, June 1933-April 1939).
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Catalogues van de schilderijen, aquarellen en teekeningen, 1935, no. 44-33.
Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes; Montevideo, Ministerio de Instrucción Pública and Rio de Janeiro, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, La Pintura francesa de David a nuestros dias, July 1939-August 1940, no. 105d.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art (on extended loan 1946-1971). Paris, Galerie Schmit, Les impressionnistes et leurs précurseurs, May-June 1972, no. 55 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Schmit, Aspects de la peinture française (XIXe et XXe siècles), May-June 1978, no. 48.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
21 7/8 x 51 7/8 in. (55.6 x 131.8 cm.)
"International Art Exhibition," in Black and White, 20 May 1899, p. 618.
E. Heilbut, "Die Impressionistenausstellung der wiener Secession," in Kunst und Künstler, March, 1903, p. 189 (illustrated, p. 190).
H. Rosenhagen, "Von Ausstellungen und Sammlungen. Berlin Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer," in Die Kunst für Alle, 15 April 1904, p. 338.
A. Tabarant, Pissarro, Paris, 1924, p. 34.
C. Kunstler, "Des Lettres Inédites de Camille Pissarro à Octave Mirbeau 1891-1892 et à Lucien Pissarro 1898-1899," La revue de l'art ancien et moderne, March 1930, vol. LVII, pp. 188-189.
L.R. Pissarro and L. Venturi, Camille Pissarro, son art-son oeuvre, Paris, 1939, vol. I, p. 105, no. 186 (illustrated, vol. II, pl. 37).
J. Rewald, Pissarro, Paris, n.d. [circa 1960], fig. 5 (illustrated).
J. Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Letters to his son Lucien, New York, 1972, p. 168 (letter dated Paris, 9 May 1891).
J. Rewald, "Theo van Gogh, Goupil, and The Impressionists," in The Gazette des Beaux-Arts, January 1973, p. 53 (illustrated, p. 55).
J. Rewald, "Theo van Gogh, Goupil, and The Impressionists, II," in The Gazette des Beaux-Arts, February, 1973, p. 74.
J. Rewald, C. Pissarro, Paris, 1974, p. 63 (illustrated).
C. Lloyd, "Camille Pissarro and Japonism," in Japonisme in Art. An International Symposium, Tokyo, 1980, p. 177.
R.E. Shikes and P. Harper, Pissarro: His Life and Work, New York, 1980, p. 260.
J. Bailly-Herzberg, Correspondence de Camille Pissarro, Paris, 1991, vol. III, p. 77, no. 660; p. 164, no. 728; p. 168, no. 732; p. 174, no. 737.
R. Brettell et al, A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984, p. 246 (illustrated, p. 245).
L. Jampoller, "Theo van Gogh and Camille Pissarro. Correspondence and an Exhibition," in Simiolus, 1986, vol. XVI, p. 59 (letter, 5 July 1890).
J. Rewald, Histoire de l'impressionnisme, Paris, 1986, pp. 61 and 76, fig. 20 (illustrated, p. 65).
R. Brettell, Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape, New Haven, 1990, pp. 59 and 153-158 (illustrated in color, pl. 135).
J.J. Lévêque, Les années impressionnistes, 1970-1889,
Courbevoie, 1990, p. 223 (illustrated in color).
C. Lloyd, Pissarro, London, 1992, pp. 14 and 30, no. 13 (illustrated, p. 17).
P.H. Feist and I.F. Walther, Impressionist Art: Volume I
Impressionism in France, Cologne, 1993, p. 106 (illustrated in color).
J. Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, pp. 94-95 (illustated in color, fig. 98).
C. Moffett, et al, Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 43 (illustrated in color, p. 44).
J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, Pissarro, Catalogue critique des peintures, Paris, 2005, vol. II, p. 195, no. 238 (illustrated in color, p. 196).
Achille Arosa, Paris (acquired from the artist, 1872); sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 6 May 1891, lot 26.
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris (acquired at the above sale).
Alexander Reid, Glasgow (acquired from the above, 3 March 1892); sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 10 June 1898, lot 45 (titled La neige à Moret).
Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris (acquired at the above sale).
Paul Cassirer, Berlin (acquired from the above).
Hugo Cassirer, Berlin (acquired from the above, 21 February 1908); Lotte Fürstenberg-Cassirer and Hugo Cassirer; Estate sale, Sotheby's, London, 1 December 1971, lot 8.
Galerie Schmit, Paris.
Mr. Nusser, London (acquired from the above, 1981).
Private collection, Zurich.
Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 5 November 1991, lot 36d.
Private collection, Europe (acquired at the above sale); sale, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2004, lot 33c.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.