My Favourite Painting: Ned Denny

The poet chooses a wintry Pissarro that captures the season perfectly.

Ned Denny on Route de Versailles, Louveciennes by Camille Pissarro

‘The great Modernist poet Wallace Stevens called poetry “the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice” and, for me, this landscape by Pissarro is emblematic of that. How little he has made a painting from!

‘A nondescript street on the outskirts of a provincial town, so lacking in glamour or incident, with its shadowed couple and two spindly trees. Perhaps one has to have a northern soul to be touched by the light of the pale-blue sky and rays of winter sun, this bare moment so full of mystery, this scene in which all Earth’s beauty seems to shine.’

Ned Denny is a poet. He won last year’s Seamus Heaney Poetry Prize and publishes ‘B (after Dante)’, his interpretation of The Divine Comedy, in January.

John McEwen comments on Pissarro and Route de Versailles, Louveciennes

Wyndham Lewis wrote: ‘Three names, no more, and the work they stand for — Monet, Pissarro, Sisley — are Impressionism.’ Of the three, Pissarro, 10 years older than Monet, was most influential. His biographer John Rewald called him the ‘dean’ of the movement ‘because of his age’ and ‘by virtue of his wisdom and… warm-hearted personality’. It was Pissarro who organised the first Impressionist group exhibition, broadened the entry and alone appeared in all eight exhibitions, into which he introduced the younger generation of Pointillists.

Yet, after a privileged beginning as the son of a Franco-Jewish merchant in the Virgin Islands, he had a life beset by children’s deaths, war, exile, debt, failing sight and comparative neglect — he had his first solo exhibition at 53; only one of his pictures entered a museum in his lifetime.

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The Impressionists reflected a world that had been transformed by the invention of photography, the railway, the manufacture of plein-air-friendly paint tubes, the growth of industrialism and scientific research. They wanted to paint the world as it was, not as the annual exhibition of the Salon — vital showcase for artists, presided over by too many fuddy-duddy academics — ordained it to be. They liked to paint outdoors, taking special note of the transitory effects of light.

The ‘Road’ was Pissarro’s favourite subject. Cézanne, who, in his old age, signed off a catalogue ‘pupil of Camille Pissarro’, said of his ‘humble and colossal’ teacher that the pictures he painted of Louveciennes near Paris in the early 1870s were his best.

Pissarro remains underestimated; Ned Denny is the first to choose him for this page.