Pissarro’s early impressionist works shocked contemporary critics, accustomed, as they were, to the strict conventions of academic realism. His loose, dabbling brushwork sought to capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. In an era when historical, mythological and religious themes rested at the very pinnacle of fine art, he painted the everyday lives of ordinary people. Rather than blending his pigments to precision, he juxtaposed complementary colors to create bright, vibrant contrasts, and avoided the dampening effect of black by painting shadows in the reflected light of their surroundings. If academic realists were uneasy about the advent of photography, Pissarro and the impressionists had no cause for concern; their object was not to represent the world as it exists, but as it is perceived.
Steamboats in the Port of Rouen is one of Pissarro’s later works; the product of a renewed interest in impressionism following his collaboration with Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. The pointillist technique, in which small patches of pure color blend together when viewed from a distance, had proven far too mechanical for Pissarro, who recounted that “It was impossible to be true to my sensations and consequently to render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the effects, so random and admirable, of nature, impossible to give an individual character to my drawing, [that] I had to give up.” According to the art historian John Reward, his works of this late period became “more subtle, his color scheme more refined, his drawing firmer,” as he “approached old age with an increased mastery.”