Camille Pissarro: The Unassuming Eye
"The gift of seeing is rarer than the gift of creating," Zola once remarked. Certainly, it is this rare gift, more than any other, which marks the work of Camille Pissarro ( 1830-1903). His long career encompasses the whole range of nineteenth-century French visual discovery, from Corot through Neo-Impressionism, and ends on the very brink of the Cubist rejection of perception as the foundation of art. Reversing the usual direction of the voyage of self-discovery, Pissarro fled his exotic but stultifying birthplace, Saint Thomas in the West Indies, for the stimulation of mid-century Paris and its infinitely civilized countryside, just in time to participate in the major artistic revolution of his epoch.
The present-day penchant for ferocity, single-mindedness, and ambiguity may stand in the way of a full response to an art at once so open and so limited as Pissarro's, unredeemed by either emotional undertow or technical bravura. The finished work reveals that Pissarro's self- effacement before the motif was at times truly remarkable. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, with a modesty matched only by that of his first master, Corot, he produced a series of landscapes so disarming in their unassailable visual rectitude, so unforced in execution and composition, that Cézanne said of them in later years: "If he had continued to paint as he did in 1870, he would have been the strongest of us all."1Cézanne's remark reminds us that Pissarro was endowed not only with the gift of seeing but with the even rarer ability to make other artists see for themselves: Cézanne,