Impressions of a Revolutionary: Pissarro’s People
by Robyn Perry
A kind-looking man with a long flowing beard and piercing eyes, Camille Pissarro, father of French Impressionism, was not French at all. He was born into a Sephardic Jewish family on the then-Danish colony of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, and remained a Danish citizen all his life. He was also a radical anarchist.
“Pissarro’s People,” showing June 12 – October 2 at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, explores how Pissarro’s outsider status and revolutionary philosophy was a driving force behind the Impressionist movement of the late nineteenth century. Curator Richard Brettell, an international Pissarro expert and, for many years, a grateful summer visitor to the Berkshires from Dallas, paints a new portrait of the Master that, for the first time, reveals his muse.
In 1863, a group of painters who would become the Impressionists (including Monet, Renoir and Pissarro) broke away from the strict rules of the French Academy of Fine Arts, the star-maker machine of the time, and filled their own salon exhibition with “refused” paintings. Their show was better attended than the academic salon, if only because people came to mock the work on display. “Impressionist” was an epithet, a curse. Over the next twelve years, the initial independent salon was followed by a series of eight more Impressionist exhibitions (Pissarro was the only artist to exhibit in all nine), and dealer Paul Durand-Ruel exported the work to London and New York, because, as he said, “The American public does not laugh. It buys!”
Impressionism is characterized by visible brush strokes, emphasis on the qualities of light rather than form, a concern with daily life, ordinary surroundings, color and movement. Part of the advance was technical: by the late 19th century, paint came in a tube, enabling artists to take their easels outside, into glittering sunlight. Reacting to the advent of photography, the Impressionists also intuited that their strength was in more, not less, subjectivity. The show at the Clark gives back to the work something of its original shock value by coloring content with intent.
Pissarro, primarily known as a landscape painter, did, in fact, paint portraits; he just didn’t paint portraits that lionized his subjects, including his famous friends. He painted the local washerwoman, workers in the fields and at open-air markets, his family: these were the people he most admired. With his profound dedication to portraying the world around him, now we might call him a realist. “Pissarro’s People” links Pissarro’s figurative work with his social and economic ideals. Not only was he from the New World, he was on a mission to create a new world order, based on individuality, equality, and work, rather than capital or class. “Pissarro’s People” also makes evident his wide influence among his peers, both Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists. His revolutionary way of looking at the world shaped protégés such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Seurat.
Lional and Joachim Pissarro with Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts
During the course of the show previews, Camille Pissarro’s great grandsons, brothers Lionel and Joachim Pissarro (the latter an art history professor at Hunter College) came to see the exhibition, along with Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, great great-granddaughter of Impressionist dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Touring the galleries, Snollaerts pulled out a tiny flashlight from her purse. “Ouvres la bouche!” she laughed, then handed it to Joachim, who inspected the surface of “The Harvest” (1882), below. He talked of his ancestor’s “technical anarchy,” pointing out that Pissarro was a revolutionary experimenter and innovator in a whole range of media, not just oil on canvas, which only his wealthiest patrons could afford. He also made lithographs, etchings, drawings, gouache and tempera (all included in the current exhibition), to reach a wider, more economically diverse audience.
For the first time ever, Turpitudes Sociales (Social Disgraces, 1890), a series of pen-and-ink drawings Pissarro created as a book for the civic education of his nieces, hangs alongside his other art, revealing the political zeal that drove him to a new way of seeing. The revolution to which Pissarro devoted his life and work occurs before the viewer’s eyes. In addition to images that convey “gaiety, clarity, spring festivals, golden evenings, or apple trees in blossom,” as the contemporary reviewer Armand Silvestre characterized the first Impressionist exhibition, the Clark’s show enables the viewer to see the artist himself.
The Sterling and Francine Clark Institute of Art
Now - October 2