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Camille Pissarro

by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
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After those Tanglewood concerts, culture-vulture visitors to the Berkshires typically include a day trip to the Clark Art Institute on their itinerary, where they are guaranteed a museum visit without peer. This summer, the earnest, now distinctly graying baby-boomer crowd is flocking to “Pissarro’s People,” a scholarly exhibition organized and curated by the dynamo art historian Richard R. Brettell.

Brettell has pulled together over 90 lesser-known paintings, gouaches, drawings and prints by the bearded Impressionist patriarch Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), whom he happily claims as one of his first Impressionist loves. Created between 1874 and the early 1900s, the various works in the show portray members of the artist’s family, including many of his eight children, his domestic help and his myriad friends, many of them artists.

Among the most touching and intimate paintings are those of his small daughter Minette, who died when she was only eight. (The tone of the 1872 Minette in the Garden is reminiscent of Fairfield Porter’s tender paintings of his children.) For Camille Pissarro was arguably the most family-oriented of his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist colleagues, and was also the most openhearted, hospitable and politically idealistic, even as he remained a kind of perpetual outsider in France.

He was born in 1830 on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, then a Danish possession, to unmarried parents who both were Sephardic Jews. His family sent him to school outside of Paris when he was still a teenager, but he had returned to the island by 1847. Instead of entering his family’s business, he was determined to become an artist and off he went to Haiti and Venezuela to paint with the peripatetic Danish artist Fritz Melbye, who became one of his close friends.

Remaining a life-long Danish citizen, even after he moved for good to Paris seriously to study art in 1855, Pissarro always seems to have been happiest living in the country, surrounded by his large extended family and friends. He first moved in 1866 to L’Hermitage, a small hamlet outside the market town of Pontoise, where he lived and worked until 1868. (After the Franco-Prussian War, the family moved to a farm in Eragny, bought with money Pissarro’s wife quietly borrowed from Monet.)

Pissarro repeatedly painted the rural scenes around the town. The show features numerous stippled views of healthy farm workers idyllically picking apples, harvesting wheat and resting in the fields. My favorite painting in the show is the large and exceptionally luminous Apple-Picking, from 1986, which reveals Pissarro’s close relationship with Seurat during the 1890s.

Brettell took several years to put this show together, and has rounded up several of Pissarro’s rarely exhibited, stare-right-at-yourself portraits, a few rather beautiful nudes and some ambitiously busy village-market scenes, plus some interesting prints and several of the painter’s more familiar, more dynamic birds-eye-view urban Parisian street scenes.

Exhibited here for the first time ever is the anarchist artist’s Les Turpitudes Social. Sequestered for a century in a private collection, this is a flamingly political kind of 19th-century graphic album of 28 pencil, pen and ink drawings that Pissarro made for the private pleasure of his English nieces in 1889. He made sure it avoided the censors, for it contains his most explicit illustrations of what he perceived as the evils of modern capitalism, complete with viciously satirical images of greedy bankers, starving families and violent worker protests.

These images of the horrors of modern capitalism are in direct contrast to his utopian scenes of communal rural labor and bucolic rural markets, where plump and happy farmers sell their produce directly to consumers in an idealized 19th-century version of a locavore economy.

This exhibition is not primarily about the visual panache of the pictures. Many of the paintings exhibit diligent efforts that veer towards blandness. Pissarro’s drawings, whose thick, often crude lines emit a certain energy, are as earnest as the gallery visitors who study them, for the artist was never a draftsman with much natural graphic brio. And I have to say that the gray-blue color chosen for the gallery walls also contributes to a slightly dreary feeling. It’s just not a great background color.

The most valuable aspect of the show is its scholarship, which digs beyond the painter’s signature landscapes to investigate his abiding social vision. It turns out that the best way to appreciate the enterprise is to read the catalogue.

Here Brettell is on a roll. It’s no surprise that this former director of the Dallas Art Museum is also the pre-eminent Pissarro scholar. (The artist’s family today even embraces Brettell an “honorary member” of the Pissarro clan.) His aim is to demonstrate through these particular works Pissarro’s life-long interest in the working classes and his radical utopian anarchist vision. He gives us a lengthy, detailed and original analysis of the influence of Pissarro’s passionate political convictions on his art. For the bearded painter was an avid reader of political texts and a lifelong anarchist, who subscribed to the ideas of Prince Kropotkin and other trendy socialist thinkers of the day.

Along the way, the still-boyish and charismatic Brettell has become the most entrepreneurial of curators. He has the rare ability to make art history not only riveting, but lots of fun. His energy seems boundless and borderless and he is a fine, plain-spoken lecturer. And you never know where Brettell might turn up. Currently he is working on Paul Gauguin’s catalogue raisonné in Paris while he lives in Dallas and is a visiting scholar at the Clark for several weeks every summer. He is the professor of aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he has established the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Museums.

His recent books include Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1900, Modern Art, 1851-1929: Capitalism and Representation, and he has produced major books on Pissarro, Degas and Gauguin, as well as studies of Impressionist landscape painting. And when he’s not busy elsewhere this ebullient scholar is writing about Texas artists like the mysterious, undersung Texas land artist James McGee.

“Pissarro’s People,” June 1-Oct. 2, 2011, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South Street, Williamstown, Mass. 01267; and Oct. 22, 2011-Jan. 22, 2012, at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave, San Francisco, Ca. 9412.

ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a critic and writer who lives and works in New York.