Third approach to Rubens ‘Het Steen’, 1636 and Pissarro’s ‘The Côtes Saint-Denis’ or ‘The Côtes des Boeufs’ 1877

Het Steen as an analogue for the artists good fortune?
The light in the rooms is changing rapidly according to light coming in from outside; this would accord with the descriptions of the rooms for which Rubens made then… perhaps.
As the daylight dims from above, the sun behind the clouds, on the horizon to the right, really starts to brighten. The pale yellow, ringed with a penumbra/ aurora of deeper yellow in a vaguely equilateral triangle in the centre of a cloud arrangement glows. The glowing yellow sitting on a blue horizon, the classic complimentary contrast to brighten up that corner. By the way, the blue of the sky on the right where the sun catches the rounded trees is surprisingly intense, presumably ultramarine and quite pure, but muted when you stand back. The dimming daylight brings out the brighter yellow sunlight on the tops of the cloud above, then the light on the right hand side of the silver birches to the left of centre. What are these climactic conditions, we seem to have a mackerel sky here, an actual feature? Or just something suggesting ‘good weather’ ahead.
Our huntsman, carter and female companion look very like stock characters, the sort of figure that people such landscapes, they remind me of Catalan Nativities, where you always have the crapping man for example. Why for example does she have the big brass bowl, is it the attribute of a housekeeper? If you come into the National Gallery from the Orange Street entrance as I do, often after having spent too much money in Cass Art on Charing Cross Road beforehand, You can stop off to see Cuyp’s painting of some very self satisfied cows and surprisingly Alpine scenery for a Dutch artist (River Landscape with Horseman and Peasants 1658-60). This painting also has a man with a gun, his weapon has a ludicrously long barrel, he has a large grey and white dog (there must be a dog in ‘Het Steen’ somewhere) he steadies the gun with one hand under the trigger and rests the barrel in the tree, also aiming at ducks, another stock character?
 Are the trees in the central island a sacred grove? Looking more closely there are at least one, maybe two oaks, at least 4 x silver birches. Or is it an elm rather than an oak? Recently at school looking at Sisley’s paintings of Henley Regatta from 1875 with students, I had to explain what the trees where, they had never seen big elms, after Dutch Elm Disease they don’t exist any longer; only in art. Oaks have of course been sacred trees, are these? Why has the tree overturned? Why has it not been organised, removed renewed?

Cote des Boeufs
Even more struck than usual by how the vertical poplars act as a barrier, bringing to mind as before Pissarro’s own position the painter of edges, of suburbs, of no-wheres, of places without status, like him. Is this an oversimplification, an over-reading, is this the finding of a ‘proposition’ as Clark would term it. (I have just finished The Sight of Death which will no doubt change how I carry on looking at these two). You could push this analogy further if you assumed that the building behind the thickest vertical trunk on the upper right is in fact the red tiled roof and rounded apse of the church at the highest point towering over the smaller buildings of the village, and of course barred to Pissarro, as it appears to be barred here.
Ads the light changes from the overhead skylights and the room becomes dark, the painting really comes into it’s own. There is a short gap before with a whirr the automatic lighting comes on. That lighting really kills the colours, it flattens every contrast. In dim light the emerald green/ viridian beneath the fruit bushes sings out and is at last balanced against the dark patch of ivy on the left hand middle tree trunks. Otherwise in bright artificial light that dark patch makes no sense. Pissarro was too much of a Corot-iste not to balance his tones; you can only see that balance when the lighting is dim and natural. I have found this myself, I’ve just brought a landscape of my own back to the house, it is currently on a wall at right angles to a large window, the changes in colour balance as the daylight changes are extraordinary. We make these things now in studios, usually at night under constant light. Our forebears made do with natural light and knew exactly how oil paint reacted to different densities of it, and presumably painted accordingly.

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