Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Camille Pissarro: Paris at Night - tactile representation of Impressionist art

The National Gallery’s Art through Words series opened 2012 with a painting by the Impressionist Camille Pissarro of  a Parisian street scene at night and during the rain. 

An Impressionist painting in the dark sounds a tall order for people of the visually impaired community, but the National Gallery team met the challenge.  There were around a dozen visually impaired people and with companions that made over 20 people altogether.  The speakers/describers were Sara and Linda. 

Sara introduced Pissarro with dates and background.  Pissarro was active politically and would also rent a room at the Hotel Rusie in Paris and do a series of paintings of street scenes, of which this was one. The painting is of a convenient domestic size being 22 inch by 26 and is in oil.  You can read about Pissarro at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camille_Pissarro .

Sara had made a sketch of the painting which, with software and special paper, had been transformed into an A3 sized tactile drawing of the painting, with black and white contrast.  I found it difficult to disassociate a map from a painting at first. Sara then went through perspective lines. I was still having difficulty in getting the lines from my fingers to imprint the lines of the buildings and the lines of cabs in a busy street scene.  Eventually the penny dropped.  At this point we were given an A3 reproduction of the painting. 

The painting is very dark (it is Paris at night after all!) and reminded me of those postcards one could buy all over the world titled “x at Night”.  The lines of the building could be made out and there was a reference point in the form of a street lamp.  Electric lighting had been introduced in Paris but was still relatively new  when this painting was made. Pissarro was an Impressionist so the figures for people and other forms are suggested rather than drawn.  In my mind I still had the idea of a drawing and a plan rather than a painting. This may explain the questions I was asking about the height of the buildings and on which floor of the hotel Pissarro had painted the view. 

Pissarro has a lamp post with the light shining in a ‘figure foreground relation’,  which was painted giving the impression of a lit lamp and as part of a row of lamps.  These lamps give another perspective line.  In Sara’s tactile drawing, the lamp post is a key to the navigation of the painting itself, as is the intersection of the diagonal perspective lines based on a line of carriages on the bottom right hand diagonal, which continues through the vanishing point to the skyline on the top left.  The other diagonal line going from bottom left to top right is mainly an awning line going through the vanishing point to the skyline to the right. 

I find it easier to prop the tactile drawing on a wall and ‘read’ it with my fingers as one would read a tube map, for example, on the underground by following a specified underground line to give an indication of the route. 

One of the participants, with limited vision, thought that the tactile drawing had encouraged her to give the actual painting a second chance whereas the reproduction was too dark to discern much.  Another thought the perspective lines helped her to ‘frame’ the picture.  I was still a little confused and switched from ‘looking’ down on the painting to looking at the painting held vertically in my hand.  While I am quite happy painting with the canvas flat on a table I still ‘look’ at a painting as I would a book that is at an angle or in a vertical plane. So it was with the tactile drawing, which I now held in my left hand and touched the lines and features in my right.

We discussed the painting and the background of Paris which had been remodelled with the Hausmann designs and the wide boulevards which replaced the narrower streets. Topics such as the Paris Commune, cars and Hansom cabs, Franco Prussian War, Pissarro and conscription, the Dreyfuss Affair and the coming of electric lighting to both Paris and London were also raised.

The treat of these moments is when we move on through the National Gallery to the painting itself.  It looked a lot brighter than the reproduction suggested and the perspective lines were quite clear in my mind. Although we had been given close ups of the painting, no figures could be discerned apart from blobs of paint, which is what it is.  In passing this painting I would have recognised it and as Sara said it would look good above a mantelpiece.

Many thanks to Sara and Linda at the National Gallery for a lot of research and being able to answer all the questions which arose during the discussion. 


On returning from the National Gallery I was invited to “watch” a TV programme about painting and the night.  This would have been just as good as the radio as all the subjects were either done in the dark or were about the “dark” The presenter Waldemar Januszczak was interesting though the subjects were tangential in that the subject continually changed and tended to religiosity. Nevertheless it was informative about candle light, gas light and even starlight.  I learned about the coming of gas and gas lighting in Arles and Van Gogh painting ‘Night Café. There were also some weird photographs about steam locomotives so I was entirely transfixed about that subject.  Not having a television I appreciated this programme though it added little to my knowledge on Paris by Night. The programme ended with the Rolling Stones ‘Paint it Black’ and this seems a suitable point to close.

Also, the Guardian published an article on a pavement artist who draws.  I find this aspect of street art fascinating and made a comment in the section in the Guardian.  This is the link to the paper's discussion with comments on perspective and perspective lines in drawing and painting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/feb/01/3d-street-art  It fits in rather nicely with street scenes and my comments seemed to have been appreciated by late night Guardian bloggers.