A Peaceful Parisian Night
Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897
Often, a bird’s eye view is the best way to see a city. Pissarro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night is just that: an inky evening snapshot of a dusky, wet, and twinkling Parisian street as viewed from above. Housed in the National Gallery in London, a visitor can find the painting in the Impressionist section along with works by Monet and Seurat. While placed among other great works, the depth of this painting captures the attention immediately. The lines of the street and sidewalk converging create dimensionality, like one could step in and explore the boulevard for miles. This feeling of movement begins as the eye is drawn to the centre left, where the street meets the horizon and a smoky tree hovers from the foreground; then, the eye travels forward along the street lined with cars, lampposts, shop windows, and an indistinguishable amount of people milling about. The surrounding tall buildings give a feeling of cosiness to the painting, like they are creating a private space for the boulevard to exist.
At the central focal point where the street disappears into the horizon, the last sunlight of the day creates a soft, light blue haze in the encroaching navy blue night. This suggests that the sun set recently—maybe within the past hour—putting the scene at the hour of dusk when one might stroll and window shop. Accompanying the atmosphere of this quiet time of night, the colour scheme plays with varying shades of calming blue, along with soft stretches of grey in the street and smudges of black that form cars, trees, and light posts. Like a city street at night, the colour palette is simultaneously sultry and cheery, with bright dots and squares of light accompanied by dark shadows.
Though there are no visible cloud shapes in the sky, the painting exhibits a general atmosphere of rain or wetness given by the reflection of colour in the street and on the sidewalk. Underneath the shops, the sidewalk shows a dull reflection of the yellow and orange light glowing through the windows, as if there are puddles or patches of wet cement that are catching the light. Pissarro’s choice to portray the street in the rain creates a dimension that would not have been present if the ground was dry; without the rain, the streets would not reflect the colour of the glowing lights, forfeiting some of the charm of the scene.
Viewing distance is important for this painting; from far away the street scene is obvious, but as the viewer comes closer, shapes become indistinguishable dabs of paint. That is the magic of the impressionist movement Pissarro belonged to and pioneered; contrary to other works of painstaking detail, this painting lets go of the need to “try hard” and instead lets the viewer relax and enjoy the feeling of the scene. The particular impression left by The Boulevard Montmartre at Night is the view of a dusky city street from a rain-splattered window: the scene is quaint, cosy, and a little blurry as if viewed through a misty windowpane. And likely this is exactly what Pissarro saw, since the scene was painted from his hotel room window situated at the end of the boulevard. So captivating was the changing scene of his bird’s eye view that Pissarro painted a series of the street at different times of day, different times of year, and different weather conditions, evoking the changing stories and experiences taking place on the same street. As the last instalment of the series, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night stands out as the only night scene, and thus portrays a change in colour palette as well as lighting conditions: dark, inky colours instead of light neutrals.
In addition, this scene is the only depiction of the street in rain, a condition that pairs quite nicely with the smudgy style of the impressionist. As per his style, Pissarro uses the rain to further soften the scene into a blurry moment of the night. Really, one could imagine this painting being the product of an evening when the painter decided to avoid the rain, stay in his warm hotel room, enjoy a cup of tea, and paint the street instead of walk in the puddles. Similarly, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night is the type of painting one might return to as a rest from the more evocative, hyper-realistic, and painstakingly detailed images, finding it like a warm, safe, and cosy rest in Pissarro’s hotel room.