Pursuits: In France, Impressions of Pissarro on a River Journey

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I found Eldorado with an unlikely 19th-century guide, an Impressionist landscape by Camille Pissarro that is alive with a flowing river of brush strokes and thick knife-points of silver green paint.

With his palette and paintbrush, Pissarro — the father of the Impressionist movement — roamed the banks of the River Oise, a tributary of the Seine, creating portraits that offered a porthole view of French rural life in Pontoise, once a favorite city of French royalty that is more than 20 miles northwest of Paris. It’s still possible to glimpse some of his world. And it is best savored in a gentle voyage on a river boat, in my case Eldorado, a wooden barge circa 1929.

There are many passenger boats like this that troll the olive waters of the Oise on weekends from May through October, below the city’s medieval ramparts. The benefit of river travel is the opportunity to savor the slow glide of time and to reflect on the real impressions of favorite artists. I revel in the simple pleasure of these day trips where fellow passengers number fewer than 30 and are mostly families celebrating birthdays or lingering over Sunday lunch.

Pontoise is easily reachable by train from Paris or a short car ride along the river from my home in a nearby village. But the view from a river boat is entirely different: a luminous world of green, emerald and silver light that so enchanted Pissarro that he painted over 300 works depicting the area. Then add to that the pleasure of a Sunday lunch of goat cheese salad, a duck confit, fresh fruit and Saumur-Champigny wine.

The voyages, which can be booked through the Val d’Oise tourism office (valdoise-tourisme.com), also offer guided tours with themes from Impressionist painters to lessons in local flora and fauna. The no-frills trips start at 13 euros, or $14.55, but range upward to more than 50 euros with lunch and wine, or music and cocktails.


The Eldorado on the River Oise, a tributary of the Seine.

It is possible to walk from the docks to the Camille Pissarro Museum in the historic quarter of the city in a 19th-century mansion with a view of the Oise River Valley. Pissarro lived in Pontoise for 17 years, but the first pioneer artist attracted to this city was Charles Daubigny, who bought a barge called the Boot. Pissarro came in 1866, forming a collective of 15 artists, uniting the group and encouraging artists like Paul Cézanne to paint along the river.

Today, Pissarro’s images are not much different from the living landscape. As we left the dock, swans circled fallen leaves in sparkles of sunlight, and then scattered when the barge rumbled away. As it gained cruising speed, the boat’s enormous picture windows framed a rolling tableau, blending a green and silver fringe of beech trees and weeping willows, and billowing clouds edged in faint pink and gray.

I thought about the words of Pissarro, who mentored a generation of artists who, along with Cézanne, included Gauguin and Berthe Morisot. “Sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it,” Pissarro exhorted his students. “Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.”

So I heeded his advice, relishing the warmth of the sun, the churning river and a temporary escape. We passed picnickers fishing from the docks. Car traffic and local roads vanished behind a green screen of cedars and poplars, and we slipped by other barges with names like Black Bean and the Gatsby. We crossed by the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, a muse for Vincent van Gogh, who produced almost 100 paintings there in the last three months of his life and is buried beside his brother, Theo, their vine-entwined tombs in a country cemetery on the edge of town.

With an iPad, I compared the view with a familiar Pissarro landscape that hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris: “Barge at the Edge of the Oise, Pontoise.” It is a pastel of a dark boat leaning away from the bank and a wall of trees against a vivid blue sky and puffed clouds.

That, too, was my impression, a river voyage suitable for framing.

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