The Arts: Good Impressions
Misty city scenes and glowing landscapes fill a small but fascinating exhibition of the works of 19th-century Jewish painter Camille Pissarro.
With Camille Pissarro, more than any other artist, you have to be there. Even the best reproductions often fail to convey the power of his paintings. “The Haystack, Sunset, Éragny,” for instance, is just a pretty picture in the catalog for the exhibition “Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country” at New York’s Jewish Museum through February 3rd.
But the painting itself dazzles. That bright yellow swirl of sun fading outward to gild the sky! Those golds and oranges flickering amid every shade of green imaginable in the orchard around the haystack! So amazing that, when I stepped back, the light from the sky filtered downward like a veil, lighting the entire scene. Pure magic. I walked back, then forward, over and over, enjoying my discovery.
Meanwhile, around me, other people were having their own private epiphanies. Well, some were not so private. “Stunning!” someone proclaimed. A woman materialized at my elbow. “Did you know he was such an exciting painter?” she asked me, a total stranger.
Even Pissarro himself might not have chosen that adjective. “It is only in the long run that I can expect to please,” he once wrote to his son Lucien, “and then only those who have a grain of indulgence; but the eye of the passerby is too hasty and sees only the surface.” And in another letter to Lucien: “Renoir has a superb show.… I shall appear sad, tame, and lusterless next to such éclat. Well, I have done my best.” (From Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien, Kessinger Publishing, edited by John Rewald and translated by Lionel Abel, a collection of the artist’s weekly letters to his son and a major source on 19th-century paintings; it goes not only into Pissarro’s heart and mind but behind the scenes of the entire Impressionist drama.)
The beauty of the show at The Jewish Museum (212-423-3200; www.jewishmuseum.org) is that its small size—only 49 works, mainly from New York City collections—and straightforward chronicling of the patterns of change in Pissarro’s style and subject matter encourage the sort of intense contemplation he hoped his work would receive. The exhibition also illuminates the subtle ways his iconoclastic, anarchistic worldview pervaded his artistic visions. Nine of the paintings are urban scenes (so much for the image of Pissarro as mainly a landscapist) that evoke his ability to capture the loveliness he found in views he knew others might have dismissed as common or even ugly.
In “The Wharves, Saint-Sever, Rouen,” workers and passersby are tiny shadows beneath thick puffs of smoke rising from the smokestacks of the boats into a sky choked with gray clouds. “Place du Théâtre-Français and the Avenue de l’Opéra, Hazy Weather,” shows scattered people and vehicles going about their business dwarfed by magnificent buildings as the fog closes in. And the luminous slice of daily life along the river in “The Pont Boieldieu at Rouen, Effect of Mist” gave me chills, so powerful is its sense of place and time.
“I would rather start from a real scene like this,” Pissarro wrote to Lucien, referring to The Pont Boieldieu, “than begin with hypocritical sentiments.…” When we think “Impressionist,” light, bright colors come to mind, particularly pastels. Pissarro, however, aimed for what he called “dazzling grays.”
He was the impressionists’ impressionist, oldest of the group, passionate champion of the movement and mentor especially to Paul Cézanne (who called him “le bon Dieu”). As the only Impressionist to take part in all eight of their exhibitions, Pissarro was the consummate insider. But he was at the same time an outsider—a leftist, a Danish citizen and a Jew. Interestingly, although he always defined himself as Jewish, he was not actively religious and did not paint Jewish or even biblical themes.
He once wrote to a friend, the art critic Théodore Duret, that other critics had often compared him to Jean François Millet, “but [his] art was biblical. For the Hebrew that I am, there is very little of that in me; isn’t that funny?”
He was not the first in his Sefardic Portuguese family to flaunt convention. Years before the artist’s birth, his father, Frédéric, moved from Bordeaux, where the Pizarros (as the name originally was spelled) were finally able to live as Jews, not Marranos. He relocated to Charlotte Amalie, on St. Thomas, in the then Danish Virgin Islands, to help Rachel Petit, his uncle’s widow, with the family dry-goods business. Frederic wound up falling in love with her. Their marriage in 1826, “according to the Israelitish ritual,” the local press reported, nevertheless scandalized synagogue elders who refused to sanction the union until 1833, three years after Camille’s birth.
When he was 12, Pissarro was sent to study art, among other subjects, in Paris for six years. Upon returning to St. Thomas, he found sketching more compelling than working at his father’s store. In 1855, after spending two years painting in Caracas, Venezuela, he moved to France, determined to make it as an artist. His parents, unhappy with his career choice but financially supportive (a good thing, since his work did not sell well for decades), followed him.
In Pissarro’s art as in his life, his identification with the working class as opposed to the bourgeoisie from whence he came remained constant. “I have the temperament of a peasant. I am melancholy, harsh, and savage in my works,” he wrote to Lucien. He was also exacting: “I do not believe that anyone could devote—if not more talent—more care and good will to the service of his art; it takes me hours of reflection to decide on the slightest detail.…”
In 1871, he married Julie Vellay, a servant in his mother’s household. He enthusiastically encouraged their six surviving children to become artists, touting “the satisfaction of living by my ideas.” (Their mother, meanwhile, thought earning a good living was a better idea.)
The two 1856 paintings that open the exhibition—“Figures Conversing by a Country Road” and “Inlet and Sailboat”—are signed “C. Pizarro” (it was not until three years later that he began using the French spelling). They reflect not only the artist’s Caribbean heritage but the polished appearance and even a little of the romanticism of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (with whom he studied), Millet and other established painters he admired.
His style would soon depart radically from theirs, but like them and unlike (for the most part) his fellow Impressionists, he would focus on the laborers who worked the soil as much as nature itself—as the inclusion of dark-skinned, therefore non-bourgeois, figures in both these early paintings anticipates.
Pissarro was not interested in painting restaurants or nightclubs or boating parties or racetrack scenes. Obviously middle-class figures did show up in some of his paintings. A lovely example in this exhibition is “Sous bois,” in which a well-dressed couple strolls through the woods. But for the most part, his landscapes tended toward the bleak. He was more attracted to country markets than city parks. And unlike Georges Pierre Seurat, with whom he dabbled in pointillism for a few years, his take on parks (as in two views of Kew Gardens in this show) tended to overlook people and play up the greenery.
When he concentrated during the last decade of his life on urban subjects, he was captivated by street and dock life rather than the richness of a city’s diversions. It is no surprise, therefore, that at an exhibit a painting of his caught the eye of the naturalist and egalitarian writer Emile Zola: “M. Pissarro is an unknown artist, whom no one will likely mention.… This [picture] is no feast for the eyes. It is an austere and serious painting, showing an extreme concern for the truth and correctness, a bleak and strong will. What a clumsy fellow you are, sir—you are the one artist I like.”
Also on display, another of Pissarro’s winter scenes—snow, rain and fog enthralled him—is a supreme example of Pissarro’s own brand of éclat: quiet, muted, born of the artist’s laboring to record his emotional response to the view before him. Looking at “Winter at Montfoucault, Man Riding a Horse,” you are drawn into it as Pissarro must have been coming upon the scene. “The Climbing Path, L’Hermitage, Pontoise” has a similar effect. Studying it evokes a sense of having stopped in your tracks to drink in the view through the birches at the roofs and fields below.
The sensations aroused by nature were, of course, as much an Impressionist preoccupation as nature itself. But nobody worked harder at portraying emotion than Pissarro, and nobody pulled it off better. Even in some of his etchings on display, such as the tiny “Effect of Rain,” passion comes through. And the force never left him even as he was approaching 70 and France was poisoned by the anti-Semitic fallout of the Dreyfus Affair.
Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army officer and a Jew, was sent to Devil’s Island for espionage. As proof of his innocence surfaced, public hysteria mounted and all of France took sides. In the art community, Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Paul Signac and Claude Monet were supporters of Dreyfus; Cézanne, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas came out against him and distanced themselves from their old friend, Pissarro. Degas, who once called Pissarro’s peasant women “angels who go to market,” emerged as a rabid anti-Semite, as did Renoir.
Work got Pissarro through this agonizing period. He wrote to Lucien about the ugliness of the political and social climate in Paris, at one point describing an encounter with “a gang of young scamps” shouting “Death to the Jews!” who did not, however, bother him since “they had not even taken me for a Jew.” But more often his letters concerned his cityscapes not only in Paris but in Dieppe and Rouen. “Despite the grave turn of affairs in Paris…,” he wrote, “I must work at my window as if nothing has happened. Let us hope it will end happily.”
As late as 1898, he was able to praise the hateful Degas (“He constantly pushes ahead, finding expressiveness in everything around us”). This magnanimity also appears in his work, along with the love of coming upon “nooks and corners”—as opposed to panoramas—and putting them into paint. “Painting, art in general, enchants me,” he wrote to Lucien. “It is my life. What else matters? When you put all your soul into a work, all that is noble in you, you cannot fail to find a kindred soul who understands you, and you do not need a host of such spirits. Is not that all an artist should wish for?”
Maybe. But by the time the show closes, the ranks of kindred souls will have swelled considerably.