For a long time, Camille Pissarro was best known for his paintings from the 1880s, in which peasant girls tend cows, pick apples, wash dishes and shop at a poultry market. Rendered in a pointillist style, this rural imagery doesn’t project the glamour, panache or sizzle of theater scenes by Edgar Degas, nudes by Auguste Renoir and sunsets by Claude Monet. Moreover, they seem to have a socialist agenda.
During the early 1990s, the redoubtable Richard Brettell, a Pissarro specialist, and Joachim Pissarro, the painter’s charismatic great-grandson, as co-curators focused attention on "The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro’s Serial Paintings." This show, which was on view in Dallas, Philadelphia and London, merited a long car ride, even the purchase of an airplane ticket. Pissarro never again looked dull or stodgy; he emerged as a fresh, vibrant recorder of street life and waterways in turn-of-the century Rouen, Dieppe and Paris.
Though Pissarro was looking backwards at a time when much younger artists were on the threshold of introducing Fauvism and Cubism, his bird’s eye views of boulevards, bridges and buildings are so animated and radiant -- they are filled with all sorts of light and weather effects -- they make you forget that these works reprise scenes from the mid-1870s by Monet. Sometimes being really good at something matters as much as being the first to do it.
After spending the summer in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, "Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne & Pissarro, 1865-1885," organized by MoMA curator Joachim Pissarro, opens on Oct. 20, 2005, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and subsequently travels to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in February 2006. The painter of peasants and cityscapes was initially a talented landscapist. Unfortunately, Pissarro has long been overshadowed by artists he mentored -- Cézanne, Gauguin and Seurat -- the way Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan have outshone exceptional golfers and basketball players who are their contemporaries.
To be sure, the current show features masterpieces and rarely seen paintings from private collections by Cézanne. But it also offers a wonderful opportunity to get better acquainted with the first and longest phase of Pissarro’s career. Besides the sheer enjoyment of discovering all sorts of ways to depict Pontoise, a picturesque village near Paris, you’ll be able to see for yourself why Paul wanted to meet Camille.
When "Cézanne & Pissarro" opened at MoMA last June, the critics were unkind. As if this were American Idol, they praised Cézanne and belittled Pissarro. The weekend of Sept. 9-10, 2005, a symposium comprised of Impressionist scholars from America and England reacted to the media coverage with puzzlement.
Practically everyone agreed that this exhibition delivered a very different picture of the relationship between Pissarro and Cézanne than the one with which they had arrived. For them, "Cézanne & Pissarro" was a revelation. As T.J. Clark, Berkeley professor extraordinaire, put it, "Like all great shows, this doesn’t give answers to the questions we came to ask."
Born in 1830 to French parents on St. Thomas, an island in the Caribbean that was then part of Denmark, Camille Pissarro was two years older than Edouard Manet. When he died in Paris in 1903, Seurat was in his grave for 12 years, Gauguin for a few months, and Cézanne would follow three years later. In many ways, Pissarro was the Hans Hofmann of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
The art of both "teachers" has long been underappreciated. Each had one foot in the New World and the other in the Old. They were great communicators who had the ability to inform, instruct and inspire. Some of Hofmann’s theories can be traced back to his friend, Wassily Kandinsky. And some of Pissarro’s notions regarding landscape and light reflect the practice of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, the painter of the Danish Golden Age, as transmitted by Fritz Melbye, an artist with whom the future Impressionist spent the years 1850-52 in Caracas. Next time you see Pissarro’s Railroad Bridge, Pontoise, ca. 1873, don’t just relate it to Corot: think Eckersberg, too.
Much can be made of Pissarro bringing to Impressionism his perspective as a Danish citizen, a Jew and a resident of the Americas; but it is just as relevant that the hillsides and road crossings around Pontoise offered the émigré new sensations in terms of a change of terrain and a different life style. After all, during the time he was in Venezuela, Pissarro drew and painted the sort of exotic foliage and genre scenes filled with colors and light that his French colleagues traveled to far-flung places to find.
Unfortunately, when Pissarro abandoned his home during the Franco-Prussian War, his studio was ransacked and his paintings of South America were destroyed. But a stack of works on paper survive in Caracas, and these include renderings of card players and the Avila, a mountain that dominates the city below it the way Mont Sainte-Victoire towers above Aix and its environs.
Pissarro’s views of Pontoise are anything but formulaic. He painted houses, shops and fields head-on, from a diagonal, through screens of trees, with lots of open sky, looking down, looking up, in wintry, spring-like, summery and autumnal tones. He used brushes and palette knives to smoothly apply or slather on his oils. Sometimes his surfaces look like "crushed jewels," to borrow a phrase from the late William C. Seitz.
In a letter dated Oct. 23, 1866, Cézanne once addressed Pissarro’s liberal use of grey. He wrote to his older colleague, "You are perfectly right to speak of grey, for grey alone reigns in nature, but it is terrifyingly hard to get it."
You don’t need to see photographs of 19th century Pontoise to appreciate Pissarro’s pictures. But in terms of the exchanges Pissarro and Cézanne shared it would help. As the MoMA keynote speaker, Brettell, who lives in Texas, mentioned, "I know Pontoise better than I do Dallas or New York or my hometown, Denver." So, you need to sit up and listen when he points out, as he did in his 1990 book, Pissarro and Pointoise: The Painter in a Landscape, "A simple examination of [Pissarro’s] many paintings of the route de Versailles in Louveciennes will show that he altered the size, character, length and gradient of the street as well as the relative position of the buildings that lined it. . . . This simple example is clear evidence that Pissarro did not view nature photographically. . . he altered forms within the environment, moved architectural masses with all the glorious freedom available to the landscape painter, and changed the slope and character of the earth’s topography."
Did Camille show Paul what to paint -- or what not to paint?
Art historians were preoccupied this summer comparing Pissarro’s 1871 view of Louveciennes with the copy Cézanne made of it ca. 1872. The centerpieces of the MoMA exhibition, both works are privately owned and rarely seen. The Master of Aix made subtle changes. But are the differences between the skies, the shadows, a window, the palette and the brushstrokes about the two painters or the scene they appropriated? Was Cézanne more or less duplicating the Pissarro, or nature, or both?
Artistic collaborations come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s as simple as Joan Didion teaching herself how to write by copying in longhand a novel by Joseph Conrad. Pissarro and Cézanne could not, like Braque and Picasso, be compared to two mountain climbers roped together. Nor were they like Matisse and Picasso looking in the rear view mirror.
Painting out-of-doors, the two artists created riffs on nature. A people person, Pissarro often included figures in his canvases. Sometimes they’re as hard to find as the name Nina is in caricatures by Al Hirschfeld. But they’re there, looking in windows, working the soil, moving along a path. In his canvases, Cézanne replaced people with paint marks.
The day "Pioneering Modern Painting" opened, Joachim Pissarro described Camille Pissarro as the quintessential Impressionist and Cézanne as the quintessential Post-Impressionist. If nothing else, "Cézanne & Pissarro, 1865-1885" offers a new way of looking at this modern master and revered mentor.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.