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Camille Pissarro

Impressions of City & Country

The Jewish Museum in New York

September 16, 2007 to February 3, 2008

"The Climbing Path, L'Hermitage, Pontoise" by Pissarro

"The Climbing Path, L'Hermitage, Pontoise," by Camille Pissarro, oil on canvas, 21 1/8 by 25 1/4 inches, 1875, Brooklyn Museum, Purchased with funds given by Dikran G. Kelekian (22.60)

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."

"Ploughing at Eragny" by Pissarro

"Ploughing at Éragny," by Camille Pissarro, oil on panel, 6 1/8 by 9 1/4 inches, 1886, Private collection, Courtesy of Barbara Divver Fine Art, New York, and Christie's

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.

"Houses on a Hill, Near Louveciennes" by Pissarro

"Houses on a Hill, Winter, Near Louveciennes," by Camille Pissarro, oil on canvas, 12 11/16 by 18 inches, 1872, private collection, courtesy of Christie's

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.

"The Big Walnut Tree, Flooding, Sunlight Effect, Eragny" by Pissarro

"The Big Walnut Tree, Flooding, Sunlight Effect, Éragny," by Camille Pissarro, oil on canvas, 25 1/8 by 36 1/4 inches, 1892, Private Collection

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.

"View of Bazincourt, Flood" by Pissarro

"View of Bazincourt, Flood," by Camille Pissarro, oil on canvas, 21 1/8 by 25 1/8 inches, 1893, Courtesy of The Art Collection, Great Neck, New York

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.

"The Wharves, Saint-Sever, Rouen" by Pissarro

"The Wharves, Saint-Sever, Rouen," by Pissarro, oil on canvas, 21 1/4 by 25 1/8 inches, 1896, Collection of Bruce of Robbi Toll

"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 like paint."

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."

"Place du Theatre-Francais and the Avenue de L'Opera, Hazy Weather" by Pissarro

"Place du Théâtre-Francais and the Avenue de l'Opera, Hazy Weather," by Pissarro, oil on canvas, 29 1/8 by 36 inches, 1898, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Klapper

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 style.

"The Market on the Grand-Rue, Gisors" by Pissarro

"The Market on the Grand-Rue, Gisors," oil on canvas, 18 1/8 by 15 inches, 1885, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Klapper

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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