In 1872, Camille Pissarro rendered the water of the Oise River rushing over a low dam with rapid, broken brushstrokes of pure color. Canal barges are moored to the opposite bank, their masts mirroring the young trees that line the bank and lead to the riparian village of Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône in the background. Here the artist depicts aspects of daily life on a major tributary of the Seine, but also how civil engineering projects transformed France’s river ecosystem. Throughout the nineteenth century, a range of new infrastructure projects were undertaken—from river dredging to the building of locks and dams—to create a predictable and reliable transportation network. How other signs of industrialization and modernity—like train bridges and riverside factories—manifested in the art of this period is well understood. Yet the presence of riverine infrastructure in the landscape is rarely discussed. Pissarro’s depictions of the Oise River offer a rich entry point to consider how these interventions radically altered the nature of these waterways and how the changed environment was approached by artists. Placing his pictures within the context of the infrastructure projects executed along the river, and in dialogue with the naturalist approach of Charles-François Daubigny to this same river, brings into focus Pissarro's ecological gaze, which registered the river as a space that was both natural and engineered.
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Copyright (c) 2022 Genevieve Westerby