Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, Spring, 1897
If we were sitting next to Camille Pissarro in one of the rooms of the Grand Hotel de Russie, with the window open, what would we hear? Would we hear the clatter of horses’ hooves and the rattle of coaches on the cobbles of the wide Boulevard Montmartre in Paris below? From February to April 1897, the artist set up here to paint no less than fourteen variations on this view. A number of them are hanging today in the greatest museums in the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Pissarro, however, was not interested in the acoustics of this rapidly developing metropolis —shortly before the arrival of the motorcar—so much as in the constantly shifting patterns of light. Although the composition remained largely the same, the view of the boulevard shown in the pictures would constantly change with the time of day and the seasons, with the various paths of the sun and the clouds. The spectrum ranges from winter scenes with bare branches painted predominantly in shades of gray to springlike and even summerlike depictions with an abundance of glowing colors.
The image in the Langmatt shows the boulevard strikingly backlit. Although the sky is largely overcast, an astonishing level of sunlight is breaking through the crowns of the spring trees coming into leaf, shining through the delicate green of the leaves in a lively manner. The carriages cast shadows onto the cobbles ahead of them, lengthening their silhouette. If one steps closer to the picture, the details of the objects dissolve almost entirely. The passersby are little more than elongated brushstrokes, their heads only barely differentiated in color. The horses and coaches dissolve into brownblack patches. Of the details of the buildings—not to mention the trees—little remains but the fluttering dabbedon brushstrokes. Although, when the picture is seen from a distance, its pronounced central perspective exerts a considerable spatial pull. It is as if the allpresent light has gnawed away at their physical substance, causing them to erode. Countless small brushstrokes de- materialize the motifs, setting them in vibrant movement.
If we thoroughly engage with the color, light, and flickering brushstrokes, the diverse and permanently changing events of the metropolis permeate us as a flowing weave. It is of no significance whether the content is meant to be horses, passersby, or details of trees or house roofs. The motifs take second place to the impression, dissolving and vanishing and becoming virtually meaningless. As Pissarro demonstrates in this magnificent and positively archetypal Impressionist picture, nature equates to permanent change and the vanishing of things behind color and brushstrokes. Thanks to its restless disquiet, the content of the metropolis provides a background to support this changeability. Ultimately, this picture demonstrates a magical paradox: the moment that, within a picture, is transformed into “eternity.” In this sense, it is representative of other Impressionist works.