Falaises aux Petites-Dalles signed, dated and inscribed 'C.Pissarro. 1883. petites Dalles' (lower left) oil on canvas 53.9 x 65.4cm (21 1/4 x 25 3/4in). Painted between 24-26 November 1883
PROVENANCE Julie Pissarro, the artist's wife (by descent from the artist, 1904). Ludovic-Rodolphe Pissarro (gift by deed from the above, 1921). Anon. sale, Paris, 24 February 1926, lot 77. Durand-Ruel, Paris; their sale, Palais Galliera, Paris, 19 March 1973, lot 56. Sam Salz, New York, Sotheby's, New York, 5 November 1981, lot 195. Anon. sale, Galerie Koller, Zurich, 3-4 June 1983, lot 5127. Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 1984, lot 33.
EXHIBITED Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Tableaux par Camille Pissarro, 27 February - 10 March 1928, no. 43. Paris, Galerie Marcel Bernheim, Les premières époques de Camille Pissarro, 22 May - 11 June 1936, no.41. Paris, Durand-Ruel & Cie, Pissarro, 26 June - 14 September 1956. Bern, Kunstmuseum, Camille Pissarro, 19 January - 10 March 1957. Paris, Galerie Simone Badinier, Poésie de l'eau, 16 April - 3 May 1958. Paris, Galerie Marcel Bernheim, Camille Pissarro et ses fils, June - July 1987.
LITERATURE J.C. Holl, L'Art et les artistes, February 1928, no.84 (illustrated p.160). J. Rewald, Camille Pissarro, Paris, 1974, (illustrated p.54). J. Bailly-Herzberg, Correspondance de Camille Pissarro, Paris, 1980, vol.I [1865-1885], no.193, p.255. L.R. Pissarro & L. Venturi, Pissarro Son Art - Son Oeuvre, catalogue raisonné, San Francisco, 1989, vol.I, no.599 (illustrated vol.II, pl.125). J. Pissarro and C.D.-R. Snollaerts, Pissarro: Critical Catalogue of Paintings, Paris, 2005, vol.II, no.737, p.491.
Falaises aux Petites-Dalles was painted in November 1883 during a time of marked transition in Pissarro's work. Increasingly dissatisfied with the Impressionism that he had hitherto championed, the artist embarked in the early 1880s on a period of experimentation, exploring new subjects and techniques.
Pissarro is regarded as one of the guiding lights of the Impressionist circle, and indeed was the only artist to include paintings in all eight Impressionist exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. His work at this time was largely inspired by his home in the village of Pontoise, and its environs. Although he played a pivotal role in the group, his approach and technique were always slightly at odds with what is now thought to be classical Impressionism. Most notably, even at the height of his involvement in the 1870s, rather than giving overarching importance to working en plein air, Pissarro sketched small preparatory studies in the field which he then worked up into larger canvases in his studio.
Relationships between artists in the Impressionist circle began to fracture in the early 1880s as loyalties divided. Renoir and Monet chose to exhibit at the official Salons in 1880 and 1881 and the Impressionists held one-man shows at Durand-Ruel in 1883 in lieu of a full group exhibition. At the same time Pissarro started to move away from his typical Pontoise views and to focus more on the monumental figures which had begun to populate his scenes, a move which was reminiscent of his early work under the influence of Millet. This return to earlier motifs was 'shared by other Impressionists. Renoir returned to lush female figures in Oriental costumes; Monet took up seascapes again: as if linked by psychic bonds, the painters looked back into their pasts to find new directions. In 1880, the end of the 'Impressionist decade', there was a sense of weariness, a loss to the energy of beginnings, a casting around for something new, old or different to restore vigour and refresh vision.' (R. E. Shikes and P. Harper, Pissarro, His Life and Work, London, 1980, p.158).
Pissarro's trip to Rouen and to the resort of Petites-Dalles on the coast of Normandy therefore came at a time of crisis both for the artist and the Impressionist movement as a whole. Staying in Rouen from mid October to 28 November 1883, he devoted his time to painting the town and harbour both en plein air and from his hotel room overlooking the Place de la République. Among the seventeen canvases with which Pissarro returned were two seascapes done at Les Petites-Dalles, the present work and another composition, now lost and about which very little is known.
Writing to his son Lucien from Rouen on 27 November, Pissarro described his trip to Les Petites-Dalles as 'splendid' despite having to battle with 'the driving rain.' (J. Rewald (ed.), Camille Pissarro, Letters to his son Lucien, London and Henley, 1980, p.48). On his return to Osny on 1 December 1883, he described his thoughts on seeing the unpacked canvases with fresh eyes:
'As for Petites-Dalles, the heights with their farms and apple trees are admirable. The sea, than which nothing is more variable, forms the other motifs, which are everywhere interesting. Results of my trip: I am glad to be back in my studio, I look at my studies more indulgently, I feel more sure about what is to be done.' (J. Rewald, op. cit., p.48).
The sea and the sky dominate the present composition, heavy with the rain about which he had complained. The pinky red hues of the cliffs contrast with the verdant green cliff tops and the seaweed on the beach, but our attention is drawn primarily to the loops and swirls of pink and grey-blue pigment which dance across the surface of the foreboding sky. This movement is echoed in the rolling sea below and is anchored only by the bold horizontal outcrop of rocky shoreline. Pissarro's leaping brushwork is thereby contained within a rigid pictorial framework as the strong verticals of the cliffs and large sweep of beach form a border around the wilder elements of the painting. Linda Nochlin in her essay 'Camille Pissarro: The Unassuming Eye' suggests that Pissarro's work was inherently more controlled than that of his Impressionist contemporaries:
'Pissarro was never, as was Monet in his later years, forced into near-abstraction by the urgency of an obsessive chase after the wild goose of the instanté; for Pissarro, the vision of nature always implied a point of view, a certain distance, a beginning, a middle and an end within a given canvas. [...] Pissarro accepted nature's calm quiddity as simply more possible for the painter than the perpetual flow of her random splendour, more appropriate to his temperament and the nature of his task than a dizzying descent into the heart of process as the bottom of a lily-pond.' (L. Nochlin, 'Camille Pissarro: The Unassuming Eye' in C. Lloyd (ed.), Studies on Camille Pissarro, London and New York, 1986, p.10).
Despite his hesitance to wholly abandon form and structure for technique, the undoubtedly looser and broader brushwork displayed in Falaises aux Petites-Dalles mark a clear departure from Pissarro's Pontoise compositions of the early 1880s. These works were built up from small, precise and carefully placed strokes which created a heavy web of colour and texture that the artist found increasingly overworked. Eager to achieve a new sense of luminosity in his work, Pissarro displays in the present composition 'another important new tendency, toward decorative flat patterns and curving 'arabesques'' (R. Brettell, Pissarro and Pontoise, The Painter in a Landscape, New Haven and London, 1990, p.199).
This increasing emphasis on surface pattern would lead Pissarro towards the Neo-Impressionist style which he was to adopt, albeit briefly, after meeting Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in 1885. Painted at a time of disillusion and during a period of experimentation with subject, technique and media, Falaises aux Petites-Dalles therefore looks back to the classical tradition of French landscape painting, reflects the contemporary desire for paintings executed whilst braving the elements en plein air and hints, in its transformed brushwork, at a new phase in Pissarro's career.