Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night in 1897, is a stunning oil painting by one of the great French Impressionists.
In February 1897, Camille Pissarro rented a suite at the Grand Hôtel de Russie on Rue Drouot, Paris. The Boulevard Montmartre is just East of the hotel. However, this road isn’t in the Montmartre area of Paris despite the name but is just north of the 2nd Arrondissement.
The Grand Boulevard is just south of the Folies Bergère, the bar made famous by Édouard Manet.
In the late nineteenth century, the streets of Paris were transforming. The civic planner Baron Haussmann radically restructured the city. He tore down the city’s cramped alleyways and winding lanes, replacing them with the wide boulevards and large public parks Paris enjoys today.
These new urban spaces were a rich vein of artistic inspiration for the impressionist artists, notably Manet, Renoir, and Claude Monet.
Up until this point, however, Camille Pissarro artworks depicted rural peasant life. Oil paintings from this period include Woman in a Meadow, Spring, and Shepherdess. Pissarro returned to Paris in the late 1890s due to his deteriorating health and worsening eyesight, explaining a shift in subsequent work to urban scenes.
Fascinated by contemporary street scenes, The Boulevard Montmartre is one of fourteen Camille Pissarro paintings depicting this Parisian street. Despite his fascination with the theme, this 1897 artwork is the only example of a night-time street scene.
Perhaps inspired by impressionist oil paintings such as Monet’s Haystacks series, Pissarro painted the Boulevard Montmartre at various times and weather conditions. He could see the Boulevard Montmartre and the Boulevard des Italiens from his hotel balcony.
Pissarro wrote to his son on 13 February 1897, “I have a splendid motif,” which he planned to “explore under all possible effects.” Yet, despite Pissarro's pleasure with the scene, he noted the artistic difficulties of representing carriages, buses, trees, people, and big houses. Somewhat wryly, he opined, “it’s tricky.”
Of course, mastering the technical challenges of depicting precise perspectives from a high vantage point was vital for Pissarro. In the painting, he creates an accurate sense of perspective through the diagonal lines of the pavements and rooftops.
The orderly rows of carriages, streetlamps, and trees reinforce the lines. All the lines meet just left of the center of the canvas, with the plunging “V” shape of the deep, dark sky further enhancing the feeling of space, depth, and movement.
This work is a particularly intriguing painting, purely representing an urban scene. For Pissarro, the “meaning” was to recreate his impression of the Parisian city streets. Traditional elements such as the moon and stars aren’t visible amidst the neon manufactured lamps of a rapidly changing Paris.
Indeed, the recent “electric candle” lamps (invented in 1876) were a new addition to the French capital’s streets. Represented with thickly loaded cool-white paint in Pissarro’s work, they serve as imitations of the absent celestial constellations.
These cool white lights also contrast with the warmer yellow and oranges of the shops below, as well as the oil-burning lamps of the carriages and cabs waiting to collect revelers at the Théâtre des Variétés.
The entire scene plays with the effects of light, enhancing reflections by depicting wet pavements in the aftermath of a downfall. Alive with energy, Pissarro’s rapid brushstrokes, dashes, and daubs shimmer with the crowds and city itself.
In 2014 Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre sold for a staggering $20 million.
Sadly for the artist, however, Camille Pissarro paintings did not sell particularly well during his lifetime.
Ironically, Pissarro painted the Boulevard series partly with financial reasons in mind. Pissarro wrote to his son in early February that the famous Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel purchased six street “snow effects' oil paintings. The dealer suggested a series of boulevards on larger canvases as a “good idea” from a commercial perspective.
Today, Camille Pissarro The Boulevard Montmartre currently hangs in the National Gallery, London.
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