Magazine article The Spectator

Beauty in the Suburbs

Magazine article The Spectator

Beauty in the Suburbs

Article excerpt

Beauty in the suburbs

Angela Summerfield

Pissarro in London National Gallery, until 3 August

Staged to mark the 100th anniversary of Camille Pissarro's death, this small exhibition is also particularly timely, as it follows Tate Britain's recent survey exhibition, Constable to Delacroix. The latter provided a substantial account of the diverse cultural influences and mutual admiration which existed in the early 19th-century British and French art worlds. By the time Camille Pissarro arrived in London, in December 1870, the British landscape tradition, represented by its greatest exponents, Constable and Turner, was already an acknowledged revolutionary influence on French art and the development of plein-air painting. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) became one of France's leading plein-air artists and this exhibition covers the stylistic changes which took place in his art over three decades.

Pissarro's first visit lasted until June 1871, and was borne out of practical necessity. He was one of a number of artists, musicians, composers and writers who sought refuge in London, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune of 1870-71. The tranquillity and everyday normality of Pissarro's first London paintings belie the terror and sorrow surrounding his flight. He and his family had had to flee the house and studio at Louveciennes, and before they reached England his second daughter had died. Pissarro's choice of subject matter, Upper Norwood and its surroundings, one of London's developing suburbs, was certainly a radical departure for both contemporary French and British art. Its choice, however, was due to the fact that Pissarro's mother and half-sister's family had already settled in south London, and Pissarro therefore found rented accommodation close by.

Such paintings as the wintry 'Fox Hill, Upper Norwood', 1870, and the late spring 'The Avenue, Sydenham', 1871, both part of the National Gallery's own collections, arc so evocative of Britain's seasons that it is difficult to dispel the notion that Pissarro merely alighted upon subjects. Pissarro's earlier paintings of French rural life and scenery, however, had already shown an artist exploring both old and new compositional devices, and the use of tone and hue in achieving harmonious works.

In 'Fox Hill, Upper Norwood', Pissarro used the traditional device of a central curving road to draw the eye into the painting. …

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