Turner to Monet
I have always loved the immense streets of Paris, shimmering in the sun, the crowds of all colours, those beautiful linear and aerial perspectives, those eccentric fashions, etc. But how to do it? To install oneself in the middle of the street is impossible in Paris.
Ludovic Piette, letter to Pissarro 18721
Early in 1897 Pissarro began a series of paintings of the intersection of the boulevards Montmartre, Haussmann and des Italiens with the rues de Richelieu and Drouot. Between 10 February and 17 April he painted fourteen views looking east along the Boulevard Montmartre, and a further two towards the Boulevard des Italiens. From the 1860s Baron Haussmann’s interventions transformed Paris. The narrow, winding streets of the medieval city – easily barricaded in the 1848 revolution – were destroyed. Approximately 150 kilometres of road were constructed, with long avenues, apartments of a standard height, public gardens, the Paris Opéra and other public buildings, new bridges, gas lamps, a new water supply and sewers, reinvented the city.
By the late 1880s Pissarro solved the conundrum suggested by his friend Piette: elevation. From a room in the Hôtel de Russie, on the corner of the Boulevard des Italiens and Rue Drouot, Pissarro looked down onto the new spaces of Paris. Although the artist and subsequent commentators are very particular about the locations of the Boulevard Montmartre series, the city’s topography is not his subject. Rather it is the changing conditions of the streets themselves. Pissaro took several cues from Monet; the high viewpoint and bustling street recall his friend’s painting Boulevard des Capucines 1873.2Both artists show the city’s hustle and bustle – a scatter of people à la japonaise, the melange of dress and hats, pillar boxes and carriage wheels – channelled down the grand boulevard.
Boulevard Montmartre, morning, cloudy weather is an extraordinarily energetic painting. Pissarro’s ink and wash drawing of 1897 shows the basic components of the fourteen canvasses, but in the paintings the vanishing point is higher.3This gives the scene greater vibrancy, and makes us feel as if we are leaning out into the street. The merging of the boulevards in the distance, fringed on either side by footpaths, street-level shops and regulation-height apartments, all serve to emphasise the high perspective. A forest of chimneys is echoed by spindly trees, which line the boulevard. The patchwork of shop windows at right seems to take on elements of the crowds. An ‘imperial coach’, the heads of passengers visible through the open roof, ferries people down the boulevard. The scene is rendered with a palette of great subtlety: greys, browns and whites accented with red and tiny amounts of green. Pissarro’s fixed viewpoint meant that he recorded the ever-shifting configurations of crowds and traffic. At times the differences between the position of people in the street from one Boulevard painting to another is so slight that we could be looking at photographs of the same scene, taken only moments apart.
1 In Janine Bailly-Herzberg (ed.), Mon cher Pissarro – Lettres de Ludovic Piette à Camille Pissarro, Paris: Editions du Valhermeil, 1985, p. 73.
2 Monet, either the version in Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, or the painting in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
3 Carriages on the Boulevard Montmartre 1897, private collection; see Karen Levitov and Richard Shiff, Camille Pissarro: impressions of city and country, New York: Jewish Museum, 2007, p. 70.