New York Review of Books
July 13, 2017
What is a shadow? Nothing in itself, you might say: a mere local lack of light, in a space that is otherwise lit up. Light, which allows us to see and know the world, is the normal precondition for picturing things. Cast shadows may help us interpret a picture by indicating where light comes from and where objects stand, but if you survey art history, you find the majority of painters giving them minor parts at most. A minority, however, turns these assumptions upside down, treating shadow as the preexistent condition and light as its shock interruption. If Giotto, Bruegel, or Courbet present worlds to be seen and known, the seventeenth-century masters of chiaroscuro and their nineteenth-century sympathizers—think Manet’s Olympia—forsake solid fact in favor of dazzle. But once you open up that second possibility, a third emerges. Take shadow and light as opposite ends of a scale, and the tonal notes lying between them offer a means to compose pictorial music. The landscapes of Claude Lorrain or of Jean-Baptiste Corot show ways that such music might be played.
The art of Camille Pissarro—the subject of two current exhibitions in Paris, one at the Musée Marmottan Monet and the other at the Musée du Luxembourg—was rooted in this third tradition. Presenting his credentials to the Paris Salon in 1864, the thirty-three-year-old described himself as a pupil of Corot, even if his personal contact with that father figure to French landscape painters had been slight. Six years later Pissarro encountered other ways of doing landscape after he and his friend Claude Monet fled to London during the Franco-Prussian War. But when an English critic, shortly before Pissarro’s death in 1903, claimed that English art had radically enlarged their vision, the veteran painter, by now himself a father figure, indignantly reiterated that Claude Lorrain and Corot had been his mentors, and that
Turner and Constable, while they taught us something, showed us in their works that they had no understanding of the analysis of shadow, which in Turner’s painting is simply used as an effect, a mere absence of light.What, then, might a shadow be, if it is not to remain a mere “effect” or an “absence”? A Pissarro canvas from 1873 that is now on view at the Marmottan suggests a possible answer. Oil painting can turn shadows from nothings into palpable somethings: slabs of rich color. The gently rising Île-de-France farmland depicted in Hoar Frost (Gelée blanche à Ennery) becomes an intricate weaving of russets, blue-greens, umbers, and pale yellows as morning sun shines on it from behind a row of poplars. As you approach the canvas, the bristles that have scuffed it with stiff, clotted brushloads seem to rasp your skin, and you are jolted into a poetry of chill January: a poetry sustained by close plein air observation and resolved with a scrupulous completeness.
At the same time, you may perhaps register the oddness of the operation. Those long stripes of shadow criss-crossing the ruts and country road are cast by no visible object. The colors of what’s sunlit and the colors of what isn’t meet in stout equivalence on the canvas, but for anyone on the scene—say that trudging peasant with his load of sticks—the former would have priority. We expect grass to be green more than we expect it to be blue. In effect, the shadows spook the comfortable farmland, nagging us with the consideration that a further unseen presence stands beneath the poplars, that of the observing artist.