The Boulevard Montmartre at Night

BY CHRISTINE ALFORD

The Boulevard Montmartre at Night Pissarro, 1897
The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, Pissarro, 1897

This beautiful painting provides a snapshot into the world of the French impressionist painters. In the 19th century Montmartre was the artistic hub of Paris and it still is today. If you stroll down the streets of Montmartre today you will probably be stopped by artists offering to draw your portrait for a fee. You can imagine Picasso drinking absinthe with Matisse at a bohemian cafe, or Pissarro admiring Edgar Degas’ paintings at his studio.  Pissarro was a cool character and remained friends with many of the more temperamental Impressionists, such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Cezanne.

The blurring quality of the new electric lights in this painting suggests the refraction of the light from the rain on a wet day. Refraction is the bending of the light, when it passes through a substance such as water. It creates interesting and magical light effects. Carriages are lined up on the left side of the road, waiting to pick up theatre goers emerging from Moulin Rouge around the corner. Throngs of people stroll past the shop fronts, undeterred by the bad weather. The bright white electric light from the street lamps contrast with the warm, orange glow of gas lights from the shop windows. Gas and electric lighting were modern developments, making them a fitting subject for such a progressive artist.

Pissarro painted fourteen street scenes showing this view, in different lighting and weather conditions. He wrote in 1897, ‘I am delighted to be able to paint those Parisien Streets that people have come to call ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and vital…This is completely modern!’

Pissarro was born in 1830, in the Danish Virgin Islands, off the Gulf of Mexico. He moved to France in 1855 and went to school in Paris, where he was inspired by Impressionists, such as Monet and Manet. Pissarro was sometimes disheartened that his work was not well received by the public. But his son Lucien reassured him, ‘You are surprised that the public does not look at your paintings and you explain this by supposing they lack something essential. But you do not realize that it is only a question of fashion? You are too reserved, you have ideas that are too expansive, and you are too sensible to fashionable. Indeed, you have yet to be discovered.’ This is true of many great artists and innovators, who were not appreciated in their own time.

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