Rachel Cohen

Winter Gardening Pissarro

Winter Gardening Pissarro

Photo Rachel Cohen

Yesterday it went up to 39 degrees in Chicago, which is warm right now in January, and it was a lovely day, sunny and quiet. Looking ahead to many cold days, I had seen this one on the horizon and planned to use it for a pleasant task in the garden, cutting the dry Northern sea oats. These are beautiful grasses with very lovely seeds in a pattern like a short bit of wheat. They are already in profusion in our garden, and the dry stalks need to be cut in January or the seeds are too successful and take over the garden.

There was snow on the ground, a little less than an inch, enough that my boots left clear prints, a glittering soft snow that had fallen the day before but kept its whiteness, and this added to the sense of warmth and good cheer. It is a small urban garden, that seems bigger than it is because it was densely planted by the previous owner; you are never far from the house or the alley that runs behind the garden.

Yesterday, many workmen were out doing different projects and had parked along the alley, there were sounds of chopping and grinding. On the other side of the fence from me, there was a pick-up truck parked, perhaps twenty feet from where I worked, and three men were gathered near it, talking and laughing. I was a little uneasy without my mask, and I was also glad to hear people.

Our daughter had used her fifteen-minute break from online school to come out with me, but now she was back inside at her computer, and I was just cutting the grasses.

What came to mind was a winter Pissarro. Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow, 1879. I looked at it again during the brief months when the Art Institute was open – I’ve loved it and I loved it again.

Camille Pissarro, Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow, 1879, The Art Institute of Chicago. All detail photos Rachel Cohen.

You bend a hand-full of grasses and you cut them a few inches above the base. An ordinary garden clippers will cut about ten stems at a time. You try not to let too many seeds fall on the snow, but seeds fall on the snow. And look beautiful.

The Pissarro is of a man standing, on some kind of hillock, in the snow, and he is proportioned small – it is the landscape around him that matters, although he matters, too.

He was a fine man, Pissarro. He worked very hard all his life, never had quite enough, loved his large family, was Jewish, radical, Danish-French-Carribbean, born on the island of St. Thomas which was then the Danish West Indies, he was for Dreyfus, he was Cézanne’s treasured teacher, he had a long beard, and he painted with his own genius.

In the winter garden, cutting dry Northern sea oats, I thought of this landscape, and drew strength.

Yesterday, I had a message from a colleague at the Art Institute. Times are hard there, the museum has closed again and many people have been furloughed. The AIC workers have set up a mutual aid society. Many kinds of aid can be given and received at this website, and you can donate money to the group here, which I did this morning, a colder day, 14 when we got up and began to ready ourselves.

1879 was an especially severe winter, and Pissarro was one of the great snow painters. But it wasn’t the snow in Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, Snow that brought the painting to mind, it was the sense of the thin lines of dry brush around the figure, the sense of his activity even as he holds still. In winter things are so near to death and, restrained, so active. A handful of thin lines, dry stems.

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I find now that I have already written about Rabbit Warren, Pontoise in this notebook -- last April, the last snow of last winter. "Pissarro. Out of Season." When I wrote about it then, I said that I had thought to save this painting to write about later, I had expected to write about it in this winter, the winter of 2021, and that it was hard to imagine what that winter would be, and that I was writing of it in April because it had snowed. I had forgotten this when I thought of the painting, wrote of it again. So here are two moments of this pandemic year with Pisssarro -- one from an unexpectedly snowy day in April of 2020, another from an unexpectedly warm day in January, 2021, mutually reflective.

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Often for these notebook pieces, I write a little dedication line at the end. While I was working in the garden, a few people came to mind. One was Richard Brettell, art historian, curator and museum director, whom I met once, and whose books on Pissarro matter very much to me. I wrote the dedication, and, imagining that I would send him a note, searched for him and found that he died of cancer in July of this past year.

Richard Brettell was a curator of European paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1980s, and so he would have known this painting well. When I have had time to think about his work and to revisit in mind the hour I spent talking with him, I will try to write about that.

The news of his death seemed to have come through the dried grasses, the sense of the painting. But his death was not what I set out to write about. I set out to tell you that yesterday it was 39 degrees in Chicago, it was sunny, there was snow around the sea oats, three men talked in the alley near a truck, and that the scene made me think of Pissarro.

For friends and colleagues, studying Pissarro, carrying paintings outside of museums, working in gardens – the late Richard Brettell, Nancy Chen, Melissa Seley, Lawrence Weschler.

Lenses

Lenses

Cézanne, Study of Trees, c.1904, Fogg Museum, iphone detail


Today I got new lenses for my glasses.  After more than a month of squinting and blearing and pretending, my eyes knew themselves at last understood and the world came through with that almost bulging astonishing hyper-detail.  Learn the task again.  A half an hour, every few years, of seeing everything in the world at once.

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I was running errands and had not planned to go to the Fogg, but, feeling my sudden seeing, I turned left.  With which painting should I use this beautiful straining and adjusting sight?  I thought of a Beckmann triptych that has eluded me for months, and then of a Cézanne I have struggled with for four years, an unfinished painting from 1904.

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It was a wintry day in Cambridge, cold.  A little snow had materialized as I walked to the optometrist, and then was held in abeyance as I walked away again, and back again, and to the museum.  I saw the day first with the impeding old glasses, then with the odd freedom and powerful myopia of no glasses, and then, every branch and twig in dark lines before the gray sky, with the new glasses.

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It’s on the ground floor.  Past the main room of the Impressionists, through a doorway and on the right.  Often when I get to see a painting well, I have the experience that it seems bigger than I remembered.  Before I was even looking, there was the sense of spaciousness.

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With each of the different degrees of seeing I had today, I was aware of the strange effect of the snow clouds.  Sometimes the gray sky is leaden, and at other times is in wondrous motion.  When it actually particularizes as snow, the eyes draw a hundred relations at once.

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My eyes leaped for it.  And went directly to its depths.  It had always seemed very flat to me, an array of touches on the surface of a gray canvas, but now unmistakeable were the curved road and arching branches.  

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All those touches of paint with their several directions clustered together were like little flags indicating the motion of air and light.  

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In the painting, it was summertime, some summer moment in which, by virtue of everything being a little strange, a little distorted, all the relations between things were suddenly clear.

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When I walked on the street again I saw that I and the other people walking seemed made solitary by the gray snow sky.  But we also seemed held up and surrounded by the palpable space.        

Snow

Snow

Camille Pissarro,
Pontoise, the Road to Gisors in Winter,
1873, iphone detail


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At this time last year, in the days when my father was dying, it snowed and snowed.   From the hospital windows, it had its beauty.  The hallway near the elevators had windows that looked down on to a sort of large courtyard, not rustic, but still made precise by the snow. People crossed and you would see dark footprints.  These would then be covered.  The footprints and their being covered, traces of particular steps and shoes, then again white -- the tiny brevity of each passing figure, of the length of time in which the marks each made were visible, and then the snow.  


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The Impressionists painted snow -- in cities, in villages, over fields -- and snow itself seems their subject.  The Dutch painters made snowy landscapes for tiny figures to skate in, but the Impressionists gave the element pride of place. They must have loved snow, which is, itself, painting. (In the time I've been writing this the pine tree outside my window has got light traces of white on every outside branch.)  And it is painting as the Impressionists thought of it -- stroke after stroke, strokes themselves visible, paint as paint, so that you watch the illusion accumulate and marvel.  And the snow's relations with light -- at once so wide and so complex -- to absorb, dampen, reflect, sometimes seemingly to generate.  Outside my window it gets whiter and whiter, and the dark of the looming sky finds its balance in the intensification of white on the ground.  

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Time is slower in the snow. You can see it passing before your eyes.  Discrete white that you can follow just long enough to feel that you were following it before it was lost, but over and over so that the seconds fill, and the minutes.  


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A man in a blue hat, walking vigorously -- I can see his head and shoulders beyond the fence with its white lines, through the scrim of white air -- passes the stop sign, makes his way along the road, goes behind the pine tree now more white than green, leaves the visual field.