“Since I’ve been in Paris,” Pissarro wrote to the critic and collector Julius Elias in 1902, “I’ve been able to work from my window incessantly; I’ve had effects that charmed me in their finesse. The view...is an absolutely exquisite and captivating subject” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1992, p. xxxviii).
Five years earlier, Pissarro had begun to spend the winter and spring months painting in Paris, returning to his home in rural Éragny for the summer and fall. Of the three hotel rooms and three apartments that he rented in the capital during his final decade, each of which provided the basis for an extended series of cityscapes, none offered him greater pictorial possibilities than the flat that he mentioned to Elias, on the second floor of 28 place Dauphine at the tip of the Île de la Cité. From the corner windows there, Pissarro’s gaze swept over the Hôtel de la Monnaie and the Institut de France on the Left Bank, the tranquil Square du Vert-Galant and the bustling Pont Neuf immediately downriver, the venerable façade of the Louvre and the newly constructed Samaritaine department store to the right. During three campaigns between November 1900 and May 1903, the artist created some five dozen paintings of this spectacular panorama, the largest body of work that he ever devoted to a single urban site.
“By playing on the changes of season and the variations in the weather and light,” Joachim Pissarro has written, “by multiplying the angles of vision and utilizing canvases of different formats, he created a stunning range of effects” (J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, p. 826).
Pissarro painted the present vista during the opening months of 1902, midway through his second stay on the place Dauphine. Looking northwest, he depicted almost the entire width of the Square du Vert-Galant, enclosed within the narrow triangular stern of the Île de la Cité. The square takes its name–the “Green Gallant” or lusty gentleman–from the amorous exploits of King Henri IV. Dominating the plaza is a bronze equestrian statue of the sixteenth-century monarch by the Neoclassical sculptor Lemot, which replaced a Giambologna original that was destroyed during the French Revolution. Unique among Pissarro’s views of the Square du Vert-Galant, which otherwise are sparsely populated, the present painting depicts a stream of pedestrian traffic in the foreground, crossing from one bank of the Seine to the other via the Pont Neuf and the Île de la Cité. Figures in worker’s garb rub shoulders with top-hatted flâneurs as they move to and fro at the base of the statue; near the center is a man in a blue artist’s smock, a stand-in for Pissarro himself. “This juxtaposition of the new and the old, of tradition and modernity, of the transient and the eternal constitutes one of the principal connecting themes of Pissarro’s series,” Joachim Pissarro has written (exh. cat., op. cit., 1992, p. xlv).
The statue of Henri IV forms a focal point in no fewer than a dozen canvases that Pissarro painted from the place Dauphine, raising the question of what the artist may have thought of the French king. An anarchist through and through, Pissarro was openly opposed to any form of centralized, paternalistic government. Henri IV, however, was best remembered for having signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which established religious freedom in France and put an end to the murderous conflict between Catholics and Protestants. When Pissarro painted the Square du Vert-Galant, the memory of the bitterly divisive Dreyfus Affair was still fresh and raw. The artist had been a vocal supporter of the Jewish army captain, falsely accused of treason, and it may well be that he found in Henri IV an unexpectedly empathetic symbol of religious tolerance.
If Pissarro’s views of Paris, though, are steeped in an awareness of the city’s rich and enduring history, they are simultaneously a visual paean to the fleeting, contingent effects that continually transform the modern metropolis. “You know that the motifs are of secondary interest to me,” the artist wrote to his son Ludovic-Rodolphe in 1903. “What I consider first is the atmosphere and the effects” (ibid., p. xxxviii). Pissarro was a tireless worker, often alternating between several paintings in progress as the light and weather conditions changed; from his window, he depicted the Square du Vert-Galant by turns under sun, clouds, rain, mist, hoarfrost, and snow. “The weather had to be truly gruesome, and all things had to look quite dull, colorless and discouraging before he would resign himself not to do anything,” recounted the journalist Robert de la Villehervé, who visited the artist in the city during his late years. “Then he would go out” (ibid., p. xlix).
In the present vista, Pissarro has captured a particularly glorious and poetic early-morning effect, as the winter sun rose behind him and bathed the city in a gentle radiance. Painted on the largest size canvas (28 5/8 x 36 ½ in. (72 x 93 cm.)) that the artist used during this period, the scene is a symphony of golden tonalities, the branches of the trees glowing like pale orange flames. The blush of dawn still lingers for a final moment in the blue sky, which heralds a clear day. The morning commute has just begun, and a single barge floats downriver at the right, approaching the graceful arches of the Pont des Arts. The opposing banks recede obliquely into depth behind the screen of tall trees, visible only in hazy and elusive fragments.
Early in 1902, Pissarro selected thirteen of his most recent canvases–eight from the place Dauphine series and five from the previous summer at Dieppe–for an important joint exhibition with Monet at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, which opened to great acclaim on February 20th. Pissarro most likely had not completed the present painting by the time of this shipment; Bernheim-Jeune hastened to buy it sometime in February, as soon as the paint was dry, and immediately loaned it to an exhibition of contemporary French painting organized by the Mánes Art Society in Prague.
The canvas subsequently entered the collection of Henri Duhem, a Post-Impressionist painter and friend of Pissarro, who actively encouraged the younger artist’s work. Born into an old Flemish family in Douai, Duhem was also a passionate collector of Impressionism, much like Caillebotte before him; the present painting remained with his family until 1953.