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Mardi Gras on the Boulevards

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

Oil on canvas, 1897, by Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903)

Something always struck me as being distinctly familiar about La Mi-Careme sur les Boulevards which hangs in the impressionist section of the Fogg Museum. One can somehow always spot a Pissarro in a room of contemporary paintings in the same way that a Van Gogh or a Renoir or a Monet seems to discharge its own kind of particular frequency of energy. While a Van Gogh – to my way of seeing at least – seems to emit a tautness, a concentrated vividness, Pissarro’s work has a more genteel staidness about it, a contemplative power with hints here and there of a more disruptive spirit. I suppose this is true of really any artist in so much as one painter’s style is particularly distinctive except that, of course, with the earlier masters all being trained and belonging to certain “schools” of art, they intentionally strove to emulate the principles of high classicism whereas if anyone personified a concentrated attempt to “break free” and redefine the form, it was possibly Pissarro himself.

Of course the invention of the photograph freed artists from an obligation to realism and into this new terrain Pissarro and his peers quickly broke new ground in developing first impressionism, then pointillism and then neo-impressionism but early on Pissarro was bold enough and liberated enough to throw himself into literally every new art movement which was going. This explains why the techniques of his style changed so radically over his career, why possibly he struggled to sell much, and yet, early or late, there is still a distinctive Pissarro image which retains his strident individualism. It is possibly more to do with his egalitarian approach to art rather than any kind of brushwork he deployed: eschewing the trend for allegory, myth, religion and neo-classicism, he chose to paint everyday scenes of common people, including all the unadorned aspects which attend everyday life: litter, detritus, grime, threadbare clothing. He was quite possibly the first “painter of the masses” in the age of the French Republic.

But back to the painting itself: it occurred to me that I have a print of another painting from this same series hanging in my house in Zimbabwe. Boulevard Montmartre: Mardi Gras is virtually an exact replica of La Mi-Careme sur les Boulevards – except that of course it isn’t – and the curator informs us that they belong to a series of scenes Pissarro captured from the balcony of the Grand Hôtel de Russie overlooking the sweeping boulevard below as the Carnaval de Paris processed past beneath him. At this stage Pissarro was suffering from an eye condition and could not be exposed to direct sunlight, an ironic fate for a painter which in some part compares to that of Beethoven’s deafness. In any event, like Beethoven, it did not stop the prolific Pissarro from producing his art but it does mean there is a sense of omnipotent distance between artist and subject, a sense of stepping back, of viewing from a slightly more shielded and guarded lens. Quite possibly the late paintings of Pissarro are more objective as a result, whereas Beethoven’s late work was comparatively far more subjectively introverted: it is interesting how a lack of sight forces one to withdraw to a more distanced view whereas a lack of hearing makes one more inclined to come closer, to draw inwards.

What is striking to examine on a close up inspection of the original is the uncanny ability for Pissarro to capture a sense of agency and individualism to what is in fact a very densely packed crowd of people. There is an interesting sociological aspect to the study of how crowds behave as a collective and yet of course any one crowd is made up of many individual people. The American novelist Don de Lillo so masterfully captures the moods and nuances and energies of crowds too, especially in the opening of his novel, Underworld, and in many regards La Mi-Careme sur les Boulevards reminds me of the swaying, organismic, thrumming vibe one can’t help but feel when thinking of the behaviour of many people in a group all focused on one particular event. The true mastery of Pissarro, however, is to still make a densely packed crowd seem somehow comprised of many thousands of individuals imbued with their own agency as opposed to one singular collective. The odd flick of a brushstroke this way or that creates subtle variations and distinctions which bring delightful animation to the scene.

There is also a wondrous sense of the eternal parade in the painting which in a way mirrors the ideology of the eternal republic. The focus of the painting draws the eye to an infinite vanishing point – the boulevard appears to stretch on unendingly while the tonal similarity in the texture of the sky and the architecture adds to the sensation of the scene being a saturation of unity as opposed to distinction, division, separation. There is definitely an egalitarian sensibility in Pissarro’s approach: this is the France for all, not for the elite, even if we know, in reality, such dissolution of class barriers, despite the republican zeal, was an impossible dream, an illusion which the ethereal golden hues of the palette perhaps invoke for us. This is a dreamy and somewhat surreal atmosphere, the kind of carnivalesque scene for which people are prepared to temporarily suspend the disquiet of reality for a while in order to buy into a more Utopian vision. The atmosphere of festivity is further enhanced by the delicate inclusion of multi-coloured ticket-tape being waved about as well as the canopy of trees which hang gently over the crowds with a lightness which almost appears to be artificially decorous in the same way we nowadays accentuate trees with strings of tiny lights: something which brings comfort and a celebratory cheer to proceedings.

Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University


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