Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) sent this fan-shaped work to his dealer, Theo van Gogh (1857–1891), on 12 December 1889. Usually, the works that Theo received from Pissarro’s studio were intended for the market, but Landscape with Rainbow (Paysage avec arc-en-ciel) was a gift for Theo’s new wife, Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925): ‘“Landscape with Rainbow” is intended for Madame Van Gogh, please pass on my best wishes for the New Year’, he wrote in the accompanying letter. The fan itself bears the dedication ‘To Madame Van Gogh’ (‘À Madame Van Gogh’). Pissarro sent the fan as a New Year’s gift, but he probably also intended it to celebrate the forthcoming birth of Jo and Theo’s son, Vincent Willem, who was born on 31 January 1890.
It was not uncommon for the impressionists to give fans as gifts, mainly to women within their circle but also to male friends or colleagues. Pissarro gifted fans to Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) and to his niece, Esther Isaacson, among others, while Edgar Degas (1834–1917) gave fans to Cassatt and Berthe Morisot (1841–1895). Pissarro also sent fans to the two daughters of the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922) as wedding presents. The impressionists were no doubt well aware of the age-old tradition associated with gifting fans, and they made use of the implicit social codes surrounding these objects. But they regarded the fan as much more than that, too, and made the form their own in a variety of ways.
For Landscape with Rainbow (Paysage avec arc-en-ciel), Pissarro designed the imagery to emphasize the specific shape of the support: the undulations of the hilly landscape follow the fan’s semicircular form. On the left are two women in peasant clothing; beyond them, to the right, is a third woman and a grazing cow. A rainbow crowns the scene, further echoing the curve of the fan. The work is executed in coloured pencils and gouache in light, clear tones, which Pissarro applied to the canvas in short, diagonal strokes. Because he used little binding agent in his gouache, the paint has a somewhat transparent character. By juxtaposing contrasting colours – the grass alone is made up of green, yellow, blue, turquoise, purple and pink – the work seems almost to light up. Pissarro used these radiant tones throughout the image, and they come together in the rainbow.
From the second half of the 1870s, fans began to play a substantial role in the work of the impressionists. They elevated the fan from a mere decorative object to a work of art in its own right, consciously looking for a way to blur the boundary between painting and decorative art. Pissarro and Degas in particular undertook extensive explorations of the possibilities of this form. The fan challenged the artists compositionally, its shape requiring the emphasis to be placed in the corners of the image rather than at the centre.
The shape not only provided a compositional challenge but was itself a pre-eminent symbol of the modernity for which artists such as Pissarro strove in their work. Fans enjoyed enormous popularity in Paris in this period. This stemmed in large part from the Japanese pavilions at the International Expositions in Paris in 1867 and 1878, which had sparked a keen interest in all things Japanese, from prints and clothing to decorative arts. Fans were also among the objects shown at these exhibitions, and they subsequently became a popular accessory among the Parisian beau monde. The revival of interest in the eighteenth-century rococo style and the fashion for Spanish motifs fuelled this popularity. Painters of French fashion and modernity such as James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and Edouard Manet (1832–1883) painted several scenes featuring fans . The impressionists went a step further by considering the fan itself as a fully-fledged support for their art. By adopting the fan shape, the impressionists not only turned against prevailing artistic convention but also promoted the good taste and modernity that fans embodied.
The Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, held in Paris in 1879, featured no fewer than twenty-three fans, of which twelve were by Pissarro. The impressionists did not classify these fans under ‘arts décoratifs’ in their catalogues, as would usually be the case, but under paintings and drawings. In so doing, they broke radically with the hierarchy according to which ‘traditional’ painting was seen as the highest form of art. In total, Pissarro produced more than forty fans, mostly between 1879 and 1890. Many of them, like Landscape with Rainbow (Paysage avec arc-en-ciel), depict rural life. In this way, Pissarro distanced himself from the elegant, more urban imagery with which fans were usually decorated. This led one reviewer, in 1879, to describe his fans as ‘rustic’. The 1879 exhibition also inspired several newspaper cartoons portraying the public’s confusion at seeing the impressionists’ ‘artistic’ fans. In one, a man and woman gaze with ‘hilarité’ and ‘stupéfaction’ at a display of fans by Degas .
Sometimes Pissarro based a fan on an existing painting , at other times on motifs he had used previously, as is the case with Landscape with Rainbow (Paysage avec arc-en-ciel). An almost identical cow and woman can be found in several other of his works ( and ), for example, and the image of two peasant women conversing is a recurring motif in his work ( and ). Moreover, the rainbow from which this fan takes its title is an impressionist motif par excellence: Pissarro incorporated this fleeting weather phenomenon into a number of works, including several fans. Many of Pissarro’s fans also correspond with his paintings in stylistic terms. From 1885, he shifted from ‘traditional’ impressionism to the neo-impressionism of Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Paul Signac (1863–1935), in which contrasting, unmixed colours are placed side by side. Gradually, however, Pissarro abandoned the dogmatism of pointillism and built up his works with looser, brightly coloured strokes. Landscape with Rainbow (Paysage avec arc-en-ciel) is a good example of this practice.
In Landscape with Rainbow (Paysage avec arc-en-ciel), Pissarro did not cut out an area at the bottom so that a handle could be attached, thus rendering practical use impossible. This indicates the extent to which the artistic value of such fans overshadowed their use value, for Pissarro – a fact that is emphasized by the artist’s choice of support: traditional painter’s canvas instead of the silk conventionally used for these objects. Moreover, Pissarro had the fan framed by Pierre Cluzel (1850–1894) before sending it to the Van Goghs. Practical use was never the intention for this work.
Artist and Dealer
Pissarro was not well off in the 1880s, but his fans sold relatively well. Apart from representing an artistic challenge and a modern art form, fans were also commercially interesting and, because the compositions and motifs could be easily repeated, they could be produced relatively quickly. In 1882, Paul Durand-Ruel, who was Pissarro’s dealer before Theo came into the picture, had even asked him to paint more fans. In 1885, Pissarro wrote in a letter to Esther Isaacson that his fans were the only works of his that sold well. From the mid-1880s, the artist fell out with Durand-Ruel, who did not appreciate Pissarro’s interest in neo-impressionism and his subsequent changes in style. Durand-Ruel preferred the artist’s ‘old style’ and considered it too risky financially to exhibit his new works, which had received a largely negative response.
Theo van Gogh skilfully exploited Pissarro’s troubled relationship with Durand-Ruel and from 1887 committed himself to promoting the artist’s work. Theo and Pissarro had met earlier that year through the latter’s son, Lucien Pissarro (1863–1944), who was a friend of the Van Gogh brothers. Unlike Durand-Ruel, Theo was prepared to devote himself to the latest developments in painting and showed an interest in Pissarro’s neo-impressionist works. Theo regularly exhibited Pissarro’s work in the branch of Boussod, Valadon & Cie at 19 boulevard Montmartre, where he was the manager. In 1887, Pissarro wrote to Lucien that, whereas Durand-Ruel had denounced them, Theo found his works ‘very good’ and that he had ‘defend[ed] them with intelligence’.
It was after two years of relatively successful representation by Theo that Pissarro sent him Landscape with Rainbow (Paysage avec arc-en-ciel): a well-chosen gift for his wife and a token of his gratitude to Theo himself. Upon receiving the fan, Theo wrote to Vincent that Pissarro had ‘made a very pretty fan for Jo. Women chatting in the fields with a rainbow in the background.’ In a letter to Pissarro, he thanked him ‘a thousand times’ for the gift, writing: ‘I am truly touched to see one of your works dedicated to her [Jo]’.
Both Vincent and Theo van Gogh admired Pissarro’s work. In a letter to Vincent in 1889, Theo explained that he valued Pissarro’s work for ‘these qualities of rusticity which show immediately that the man is more at ease in a pair of clogs than in polished boots’. These interests in modern art forms and rural subjects come together in Landscape with Rainbow (Paysage avec arc-en-ciel).