Saturday, August 27, 2011

Populating the Landscape With Idealism

Peasant Woman Lying in the Grass, Pontoise” (1882)

‘Pissarro’s People’ at Clark Art Institute - Review
from The New York Times
Williamstown, Mass.

— If you stumbled into a meeting of French Impressionist painters in the mid-1870s, you’d get some frosty looks. Edgar Degas would eye your clothes. Paul Cézanne, born suspicious, would scowl. Claude Monet might size you up for a sale.

Then a slightly older man with a rabbinical beard and a gaucho hat would step forward and hold out his hand: “Camille Pissarro. Join us, please.”

He’d introduce you around, settle you down and bring the talk back to where he usually left it, a continuing conversation about art, life and revolution.

Pissarro was, by temperament and belief, a welcomer — of people, ideas. And there’s an embracing feel to “Pissarro’s People” at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute here, a modest, openhearted show that demonstrates how central a role human presence played in the work of an artist usually associated with landscape painting.

More than many of his colleagues, Pissarro understood what it felt like to come from outside, uncertain of the rules. He was born thousands of miles away from Europe in 1830, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, then a Danish colony. His father was a dry-goods merchant from Bordeaux, his mother a Caribbean-born daughter of French parents. Both sides of the family were Sephardic Jews. Pissarro himself chose to remain a Danish citizen all his life.

Even on St. Thomas his status was outside the norm. His parents were unmarried when he was born, bringing censure from Jews on the island. As a child he went to a local Moravian school with Afro-Caribbean children, where he spoke English instead of French.

After being sent to a school near Paris for a few years to be Europeanized, he returned to St. Thomas in 1847, ostensibly to join the family business. But by then he had other plans: He had decided to be an artist. And he already was one, painting and drawing the island life around him. He eventually hooked up with the footloose Danish artist Fritz Melbye and took off with him forHaiti, then Venezuela, in the first of several bonding relationships he would form with painters, all of them transformative for him.

It was as an aspiring artist that he went back to France more or less permanently in the 1850s. While keeping the examples of Corot, Courbet and Jean-François Millet as his lodestars, he studied with various painters in Paris, taking a little something from each, in a process of sampling and adopting influences that would lead to the criticism that his art was, stylistically, no more than a sum of many parts.

In 1860 he began a liaison with a young French Roman Catholic woman named Julie Vellay, hired as a servant by his mother, who had also returned to France. In 1861 the first of the couple’s eight children was born. (They married a decade later.)
By then he also had become deeply immersed in revolutionary politics, specifically in anarchist thinking that espoused a radically egalitarian, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian society. Partly because this way of life was most easily realized in a rural setting, Pissarro moved his growing family to Pontoise, a farming village outside Paris, where, despite bouts of near poverty, he was known for keeping his home open to all visitors.

His guests included hungry, ambitious younger artists. Cézanne was one. He and Pissarro formed a symbiotic unit that worked at full strength between 1872 and 1874, with Pissarro in a mentor role. Later he paired off for nearly a decade with Paul Gauguin, and then with Georges Seurat, complicated personalities. All these relationships ended in ruptures, when the younger artists went in directions that Pissarro couldn’t or wouldn’t follow. But while the bonds lasted, they had a profound influence on everyone involved, and consequently on modern art.

Pissarro, with his diplomatic skills and forward thinking, also played a crucial role in organizing the group of artists who came to be called Impressionists, a name that began as an insult and became a badge of honor. He was in the first Impressionist salon in 1874, and was the single artist of the original group to appear, loyal to the vanguard cause, in the seven that followed. And, characteristically, he was the Impressionist whose style changed the most, as he experimented with new approaches and theories.

What never changed in his art was the presence of the figure and a trust in human perfectability.

The result, in painting after painting, was a vision of the world as a kind of extended family, or kinship network, with larger circles of relationships rippling outward from Pissarro’s own domestic unit.

He painted his family fairly often, some members more than others. Julie Pissarro is usually seen as a small figure in landscapes, though in the Clark show, organized by the art historian Richard R. Brettell, there’s a beautiful, kissing-close image of her face, in profile, looking down as she sews. There are separate portraits of their children at varying ages, and four paintings and a print devoted to the brief life of their daughter Jeanne-Rachel, nicknamed Minette, who died in 1874 at the age of 11.
We see her first just out of the toddler stage; then as a young girl posed in a garden and indoors; then, in an oddly off-center composition, looking wan, her hair cut short. Finally, in a lithograph fatalistically titled “Dead Child,” she lies on her sickbed two months before her death.

"Suicide," from "Social Disgraces" (1889-90), a series of 30 ink drawings illustrating the brutalities of urban capitalist society.

Along with these portraits of family members come others, comparably candid and tender, of household servants, depicted as if they were family too, Julie Pissarro’s partners in running the household. And a mood of sober concentration extends beyond the home to the countryside, there men and women work the fields but also take time to chat in the shade, nap on the grass and buy and sell in the village market. In this humane and balanced world people have what they need and want no more.

Pissarro’s idealism was insistent. Because he wanted his projection of a better future to be realized, he tried to work it out in the present, through his own practice of ethical generosity, firm in the face of political censorship (he was closely watched by the French police because of his anarchist ties), anti-Semitism (he forgave this in Degas) and professional isolation as an artist who was neither born French nor had French citizenship (a status he shared with his friend Mary Cassatt).

Yet the stranger in him, the foreigner looking in, led him to acknowledge the underside of that vision. In late 1880s he made a series of 30 ink drawings illustrating the brutalities of urban capitalist society. The album, titled “Turpitudes Sociales” (“Social Disgraces”), have the bold, crude look of newspaper cartoons and were made for two of his nieces by way of political instruction. Nothing else by him is like them, and they haven’t been exhibited in a museum until now.

Why? Do they go too much against the grain of Pissarro the temperate utopian? The man who loved children and preached hope? The artist whose work is already considered too stylistically diverse to be major? In Mr. Brettell’s view, which I share, the drawings complete the picture of him, round out the karma of his insider-outsider career, make him an artist to love, even as you question some of his ideas and ask more of his art when it veers too close to blandness.

And in the worldly way that what goes around comes around, love was what he earned from even the most difficult of his contemporaries. “He looked at everybody, you say! Why not? Everyone looked at him, too, but denied him. He was one of my masters and I do not deny him.” So wrote Gauguin before Pissarro died in 1903.

The final acknowledgment of debt by the crusty, withholding Cézanne was simpler still. In 1906, just before his own death, by which time he had become a god to young artists internationally, he identified himself in an exhibition catalog of his paintings with a single head-bowing phrase, “Paul Cézanne, pupil of Pissarro.”

“Pissarro’s People” runs through Oct. 2 at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South Street, Williamstown, Mass.; (413) 458-2303, From Oct. 22 to Jan. 22 it will be at the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.


  1. Bless you Glen-been watchin' your work since waaaay back in the day. Truly appreciate you're carrying the torch for THINGS THAT MATTER. For those of us who understand the reality & disgust & stance against "popular culture" that punk & hip-hop represented, it means A LOT! Always appreciate your posts as well as linking to DANGEROUSMINDS. Politics & culture ought to be intertwined! Anyways, keep going-there are peoples out here that are on board w/ all you're doing...

  2. hi,thanks - you paint a picture of the man and times that shows even though the world has move on, things have not change to much and that the issues of life and society all-be-it continue in different mediums.
    PS: coming from a graphics background it's hard to read white on black.