Painted in 1898, Le Cours-La-Reine à Rouen, matin, soleil dates from one of Pissarro's most productive stays in Rouen. During his visit there that year, Pissarro, then in his late 60s and a veteran of the Impressionist movement, continued to amaze fellow artists and critics alike by reinvigorating and reinventing his art once again. Rouen featured in many of the canvases he painted in this amazingly fruitful year.
In many ways, 1898 is a vintage year for late works by Pissarro. At last the ageing artist was beginning to reap the dividends of his devotion to Impressionism. During the previous year, the Caillebotte bequest, featuring works by Pissarro amongst others, had been exhibited to praise and protest in the Palais de Luxembourg, affirming the artist's profile, while he also enjoyed two successful shows at the Galerie Durand-Ruel. Dealers and collectors alike were scrambling to purchase his works, bringing him much needed compensation and recognition. However this did nothing to impede his artistic progress, as he wrote to his advocate and admirer Octave Mirbeau:
I consider that the rank which has come to me late in life is a reward for hard and passionate work, I feel like an old military man who, having risen through the ranks to become a captain, retires and tells stories of his campaigns (C. Pissarro, letter to O. Mirbeau, quoted in R.E. Shikes and P. Harper, Pissarro: His Life and Work, New York, 1980, pp. 262-263).
His earlier visit to Rouen in 1896 had been characterised by a new and innovative interest in the urban landscape, which proved to be a necessity when an abcess in his eye forced him to paint inside. However, in 1898 he revisited Rouen to explore once more these themes and innovations. This was in part a means of capitalizing on his previous progress, but also a means of avoiding the increasing tensions in Paris, where the Dreyfus Affair was holding the entire population enthralled. Even fellow artists and former friends like Edgar Degas became openly anti-Semitic, and Pissarro felt himself in an increasingly precarious position in the city.
Removed from the discord and controversy of the Dreyfus Affair in Paris, Pissarro enjoyed a fruitful stay in Rouen, building on his innovations from his visit two years earlier. This time he was more mobile, affording him the opportunity to depict many differing landscapes and cityscapes. Indeed, amongst his paintings of Rouen the cityscape dominates, with only a small number of countryside images being produced.
Le Cours-La-Reine à Rouen, matin, soleil thus appears as a rare return to the rural, a pastoral image with figures resting under the trees. This is a utopian image, in part informed by Pissarro's interest in anarchism, and in contrast to the industrialised harbour and commerce of the streets. The idyllic content of the present work clashes with the brash scenes that often characterized his Rouen output - where as in other works he added an element of social critique, here he has produced an idealistic vision of the area near the city, of people at rest, of a fine summer's day.
Even more than politics, it was doubtless sentiment that briefly drew Pissarro to the countryside around Rouen, with its light, space and sense of nature, before returning to his home in Eragny. For a lover of the countryside, it must have been hard for Pissarro to stay cooped up in the city with the often overbearing man-made landscapes. This must have been intensified by his feeling of loss after the relatively recent death of his son Félix in England. Pissarro had visited Félix and Lucien in London several times in the past few years, not only assisting them financially now that he was enjoying some success, but also taking advantage of his stays to explore the English landscape and its vast space and crisp light, notably recorded in his 1897 pictures of cricket matches. Here, in a moment of tranquillity, Pissarro has escaped from the urban surroundings, escaped from the crowds, instead opting to depict the river and trees. Perfectly capturing the summer haze and the contrasting dryness of the grass with the lushness of the tress and water, the apparent classicism of this picture belies its intense structure. Le Cours-La-Reine à Rouen, matin, soleil pays tribute in some ways to Old Master landscapes, while containing some of the monumentality that informed his works during his short-lived Pointillist period. Influenced by his own depictions of the urban cityscapes of the period, Pissarro used the same understanding of light and structure to convey the true grandeur of the scene.
Le Cours-La-Reine à Rouen, matin, soleil featured in several exhibitions of Pissarro's work at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, including an exhibition in 1899. This, a follow-up to his previous successes in 1896 and 1898, helped to enshrine the artist's reputation as a great and perpetually adventurous artist, unafraid to innovate even in his later years.
This painting wa purchased by the eminent Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. This purchase is itself a reflection of Milles' own aesthetic, as encapsulated in so many of his landmark sculptures both in Sweden and the United States. Latterly the painting hung in Milles' villa, where it bore testimony to the legacy of the sculptor's formative years in Paris at the turn of the century.
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, Quai Saint-Sever à Rouen, 1896. (Christie's, New York, 10 May 1989).