By Carter B. Horsley
If one is limited to viewing art only at museums
in New York City and at the major art auctions in New York, one
might have a rather drab image of the art of Camille Pissarro
(1830-1903), the only artist to have exhibited in all eight of
the Impressionist exhibitions in Paris from 1874 to 1886.
That would be a shame, for Pissarro was much
loved by his fellow Impressionists and the new exhibition on him
at The Jewish Museum in New York clearly shows that he was capable
of creating superb paintings of many subjects, not just the peasant
farmers that populate most of his works that come up at auction
in recent years.
Indeed, some of the works in this show are
knock-outs that will open a lot of eyes to Pissarro's artistry.
Probably the most impressive work is "The
Climbing Path, L'Hermitage, Pontoise," an oil on canvas that
Pissarro executed in 1875. The 21 1/8-by-25 1/4-inch work is in
the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, purchased with funds given
by Dikran G. Kelekian. It looks like a magnificent Cézanne
landscape. Indeed, the catalogue reproduces in color a somewhat
similar, but less satisfying work by Cézanne, "Interior
of a Forest," circa 1885, that is in the collection of the
Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Cézanne's painting is
lush but its green and brown palette is only interrupted by a
small patch of light near the center. Pissarro's painting, on
the other hand, is a rich and lively composition with a much broader
palette. The composition, indeed, is very, very strong and unusual
as the wide and bright diagonal path at the right is balanced
not by the house in the distance on the left but by the squiggly
verticality of the trees on the left.
"The Climbing Path, L'Hermitage, Pontoise"
is also similar to Paul Cezanne's 1877 painting "Orchard,
Cote Saint-Denis, at Pontoise," which is in the collection
of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and was included
in the major exhibition "Pioneering Modern Painting: Paul
Cezanne and Camille Pissarro 1865-1885," held at the Museum
of Modern Art in New York in 2005.
A description of "The Climbing Path"
is provided on the website of the Brooklyn Museum:
"In 1873, Pissarro settled in Pontoise,
a town northwest of Paris. He particularly favored painting the
adjoining valley village of L'Hermitage, which offered a mix of
geometric and organic shapes: new homes built of white stucco,
with angular pitched roofs, nestled among dense foliage. For this
painting, Pissarro positioned himself halfway up a winding footpath
and selected a downward view of the hamlet through the trees.
The work demonstrates a broad array of painting techniques, from
sure, singular touches for distant windows and doors to thick
palette-knife applications for the foreground greenery. Despite
the variety of surface textures, Pissarro unifies the composition
tonally: the white and creams of the architecture appear in the
tree trunks and well-trodden path, while the cool blues and warm
ochers of the roofs bleed through the green foliage."
The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns "L’Ermitage
à Pontoise," a large 1867 masterpiece by Pissarro.
Noting that "Pissarro, Gauguin and Cezanne
painted together in Auvers, Karen Levitov and Richard Shiff provide
the following commentary in this exhibition's small but excellent
catalogue, which is nicely priced at $19.95 with many color illustrations:
"As an extension of his interest in Pissarro,
Gauguin took note of the bluntness of Cézanne's brushwork,
which only increased the intensity of the color and the emotional
force that flowed from it....The painting techniques of Pissarro
and Cézanne - and Monet too - were at once purer and dirtier
than those of their predecessors....Both Pissarro and Cézanne
allowed the evidence of their brushwork to remain aggressively
obvious; like other Impressionists, they avoided bringing their
paintings to a traditional degree of finish. The method efficiently
connoted the primacy of immediate experience, even if it did not
actually convey the experience of the scene with this same sense
of immediacy. Perceiving the scene as presented by the painting
required an interpretive delay. What truly left an immediate impression
was the factor of 'purity': the naterial presence of the colored
surface, grasped at an instant.....Ironically, the more interference
introduced by the purity factor - this materiality, this dirt
on the windowlike surface of the image - the more immediate and
stimulating the painting might become."
"For Pissarro, an anarchist and a Jew
(albeit a secular one) in 19th-century France," Karen Rosenberg
observed in her review in The New York Times September
14, 2007 of show at The Jewish Museum, "Impressionism was
about much more than the fleeting effects of light. It was about
labor, the elimination of hierarchies and an idealized balance
between urban and rural life...Pissarro , the child of Sephardic
Jews from Bordeaux, was born and raised on the Caribbean island
of St. Thomas, which was Danish at the time. Expected to work
in the family’s dry-goods business, he fled to Paris but
eventually won the moral and financial support of his parents
(who later followed him to France). His early work reflects his
training with Corot as well as his island upbringing....In this
show the political symbolism sometimes feels forced (as when the
curators single out the motif of winding paths); in the paintings
themselves it never does. Rather than silhouetting his peasants
against the sunset, as Millet did, or conveying the ugliness of
backbreaking labor à la Courbet, Pissarro expressed solidarity
with farmworkers through a heavy-handed application of paint.
As one critic remarked, “Monsieur Pissarro’s brush is
like a spade painfully turning the earth....Pissarro’s Pointillist
paintings did not sell well, but he had other reasons for abandoning
the movement toward the end of the decade. The exacting technique,
he felt, detracted from the immediacy and individuality he so
valued. “How can one combine the purity and simplicity of
the dot with the fullness, suppleness, liberty, spontaneity and
freshness of sensation postulated by our impressionist art?”
he wrote to his son Lucien.
In his review of the MOMA show, John Haber
remarked that "The curators quote Cézanne's praise:
if Pissarro had always painted as he had in 1870, no one could
surpass him. One can hear the implied subtext—that Pissarro
had not and that Cézanne would." Mr. Haber also notes
that "Pissarro could pride himself on taking the lead at
every stage, and he must have loved the feeling. He gave his friend
a mentor and more than a few models. He convinced him of the relevance
of Impressionism and painting outdoors. He first varied the texture
with a dry brush, then discarded the palette knife all but entirely.
He flattened the surface and allowed a bit of canvas to show at
the edges between colors, well before Cézanne used bare
surface as a weave of parallel strokes vibrating through the paint.
He lightened their range of colors more than once, first convincing
Cézanne to accept green, then increasingly heightening
the yellow and blue."
Pissarro experimented for a
few years with Pontilism and "Ploughing at Éragny,"
a small oil on panel is better than most of Seurat's small studies.
It is a jewel.
A larger, but still small work,
"Houses on a Hill, Winter, Near Louveciennes," suggests
that the small format well suite Pissarro for it is a brilliant
scene of considerable visual interest whose overall intensity
is monumental. One can easily conjure numerous variations of this
composition, all powerful and interesting.
Several works in the exhibition
are quite extraordinary in the freeness of the brushwork, the
soft but radiant palette and the strong compositions. "The
Big Walnut Tree, Flooding, Sunlight Effect, Éragny, an
oil on canvas that measures 25 1/8 by 36 1/4 inches, has a very,
very spectacular Impressionistic sky and the diagonally placed
fences meet off-center giving an energized dynamic to the composition.
A fine companion piece is "View
of Bazincourt, Flood," a smaller oil on canvas that Pissarro
painted in 1893, one year after ""The Big Walnut Tree,
Flooding, Sunlight Effect, Éragny." Its composition
is also interesting, but here the "dynamic" is not diagonally
placed fences but the extremely sketchy, rather unfinished group
of trees at the left center that seem like processional dancers
entering rather ceremoniously with a great sense of stature, pride
and joy. It is a lovely painting.
"For bettor worse," Ms. Levitov and
Mr. Shiff wrote in the catalogue, "critics made an observation
of evenhandedness repeatedly, indirectly acknowledging that Pissarro,
along with his Impressionist colleagues, aimed at an integrated
pictorial effect. While seeking a uniform sense of light and atmosphere,
the Imprsssioist often sacrificed details. Evenness in paint handling
was a reliable device for creating their desired airiness, but
neither evenness or airiness need have been established in their
specific way. Their means to their end was decidedly arbitrary:
while decreasing the differentiation of representational elements,
they increased the painting's materiality - letting paint look
The authors discuss Pissarro's reputation as
the "Anti-Millet," a reference to the work of Jean-Francois
Millet (1814-1875) who was famed for his depictions of farmers
toiling in the fields. Pissarro certainly produced more than his
share of such paintings and the authors emphasize that the figures
in them are well integrated into the composition and overall painting
technique especially in comparison with Millet's.
Pissarro's preoccupation with peasants, however,
reflected his political beliefs. Many of his works include paths
and the authors maintain that "The concept of the ptahway
illuminates Pissarro's approach to art, shedding light on his
retreat from aconventional aesthetic and politcal attitudes, the
relationship between the workof painting and the labor of the
working classes in his work, andthe links between his artistic
and political ideas."
After studying with Jean-Baptiste Corot, Pissarro
would eventually exhibit in the establishment "salons,"
and the authors note "even garnering admiration from the
novelist and critic Emile Zola before he was a known artist."
Like his Impressionist brethen, of course, he would seen ignore
the salons and begin painting out-of-doors and out of the city.
"During the 1860s and 1870s," the authors wrote in the
catalogue, "when Pissarro was formulating his approach to
painting, he was aso developing his ideas about the socio-political
world around him. In reading arachist thinkers such as Pierre-Joseph
Proudhon and Prince Peter Kropotkin and discussing avant-gade
ideas with his conteomporaries, Pissarro developed an adamantly
leftist ideology. He espoused Proudon's belief that 'art cannot
subsist apart from truth and justice; that science and morality
are its leading light's that it is, indeed, ancillary to these;
and that its first law is therefore to respect morals and rationality.'
....While his paintings do not express his political views explicity,
Pissaror's personal life more dramatically reflected his anti-authoritarian
outlook. After his rebellious abandonment of the family business,
Pissarro further disrupted his family's social status by marrying
not only a non-Jew, but a woman of the servant class - his mother's
cook's assisant - whom his mother never fully accepted."
Pissarro is noted not just
for his rural paintings but also his urbanscapes and his favorite
was the view up the Avenue de L'Opera from his room on the third
floor at the Hotel du Louvre at the Place du Théâtre-Francais.
The example included in the exhibition is quite startling because
the Opera House is not visible all the way down at the other end
of the avenue, a fact reflected in the "Hazy Weather"
part of the title. Pissarro's Parisian scenes are always charming
even if they miss some of the drama of those of Gustav Caillebotte.
The largest painting in the
exhibition is "Landscape at Osny, View of the Farm,"
by Camille Pissarro. It is an oil on canvas that measures 30 1/4
by 49 inches, and was executed in 1883. It comes from the Armand
Hammer Collection and is especially impressive because of its
size and its lovely and "classical" Impressionistic
Pissarro, of course, is best
known for this paintings of peasants and "The Market on the
Grand-Rue, Gisors," is particularly luscious in its palette
as well as being a tighter composition than normal for the artist.
This exhibition goes a long way in uplifting
Pissarro's artistic merits. He still is not the equal of Monet,
Degas, Renoir, and Sisley, nor of Lautrec and Cézanne,
but one can more easily understand now why they respected him
as the best paintings in this exhibition are marvelous even if
the bulk of his oeuvre is not as exciting.
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