Pissarro transmutes brush strokes into light

I first saw this Camille Pissarro painting as a schoolboy. The teacher told me to stand back. Then I would see the street lamps shining - and the procession of carriage lamps, the bright shop windows, the reflections on the wet Parisian boulevard.

Standing too close, all I would see was thick paint and busy brushwork.

I backed away. I came up close. I did it again. I repeated the performance. Each time, the magic recurred. I saw lights. Then I saw paint. Lights. Paint. Paint - lights. I was fascinated. I still am.

Pissarro, like the other French Impressionists, studied contemporary color and light theories and made his paintings with them in mind. For a short period in the 1880s, some years before painting this picture (in 1897), he had even produced his own version of what came to be known as "pointillism."

This was an exhaustive, systematic technique using tiny dots of color, promulgated by Georges Seurat and other artists. They were all much younger than Pissarro, but he thought pointillism was an advance on earlier Impressionism. When he abandoned pointillism after absorbing its lessons, it was partly because it was such a slow process. Not that he had ever been anything but a pondering, contemplative artist, even if critics did accuse him and the other Impressionists of making unfinished sketches.

Pissarro was always open to new ways of painting. He felt that allowing himself to be "influenced" by fellow artists was grist to his mill - and theirs. His art continued to develop into his late maturity, to which this urban night scene belongs. It was part of a series of boulevard paintings he made looking out from a hotel room.

It is the artist's only night painting. He may have considered the possibility of painting it partly because he knew about the young Van Gogh's night paintings. And the idea of looking down from a window to comprehensively take in a whole urban cosmos below, buzzing with life, found a precedent in the city-perspective paintings of Gustave Caillebotte. Such connections did not, however, mean that his own night painting was anything other than original.

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