Camille Pissarro at the Jewish Museum

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Camille Pissarro at the Jewish Museum


Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion


Of all of the artists closely associated with the Impressionist movement, Camille Pissarro may be the most difficult to come to terms with. It's not that his imagery is in any way less appealing than that of his well-loved colleagues or that his preoccupations differ substantially from theirs. Quite the contrary. Pissarro's paintings frequently exemplify everything Impressionism aspired to. His luminous images of the Place du Theatre-Francais, for example, thronged with carriages and pedestrians, are textbook examples of everything we've ever learned about the Impressionists' desire to embody the life of their times and to capture the visual characteristics of the moment--in this instance, the city of Paris, recently transformed by Haussmann's creation of the boulevards, in the damp, hazy light of the Ile de France. With their divided color, broken stroke, and close-valued hues, Pissarro's views of the Place du Theatre-Francais are also exemplary of the Impressionists' aesthetic goals in formal terms, and a similar case can be made for his many paintings of rural subjects, with their tile-roofed houses, haystacks, and flowering orchards. What makes Pissarro difficult is that he was a chameleon, sometimes going off on directions of his own, sometimes responding to the innovations of his colleagues. From first to last, during a career of more than half a century--born in 1830, he began painting seriously in the early 1850s, and died in 1903--he was always ready to alter his habitual approach, always ready to test the effect of fresh motifs, new ideas, and provocative suggestions, and always ready, it seems, to enter into stimulating exchanges with his fellow painters. Pissarro's studio relationships with such younger artists as Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Signac reverberated in a multiplicity of ways in both his own art and that of his colleagues.

The visible manifestation of these changing enthusiasms is a body of work that, while generally recognizable as the work of a single individual, is also notable for its diversity. Pissarro can be a painter who contrasts the geometry of buildings with the randomness of growing things or one who dissolves everything, man-made or natural, into a swirl of emphatic brushstrokes. He can be someone intent on evoking the light and color of specific times of day and times of year or someone fascinated with how forms may be constructed out of highly conceptualized ideas about color relationships. (For a while, in fact, Pissarro was so taken with the "scientific" division of chroma proposed by the much younger Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, both of them contemporaries of his son Lucien, that he is sometimes discussed as a Neo-Impressionist.) Pissarro can apply paint with loose, broad strokes or silt up a canvas with obsessive touches, conjure up form with relaxed stabs of the brush or load a surface until it resembles tapestry. Even Pissarro's chosen themes were subject to dramatic change. Over the years, he frequently turned his gaze on the landscape surrounding the villages where he chose to live and on the peasants at work in the fields and orchards of his immediate neighborhood, but he was just as interested in the rapidly changing urban landscape of Paris or in the architecture and commerce of Rouen, on his frequent trips to those cities. An eager traveler, he painted in England, Belgium, and the Netherlands, restlessly searching for new motifs. Pissarro was the only one of his circle to exhibit in all eight of the Impressionists' exhibitions held from 1874 to 1886 (and one of the organizers of these landmark events), but he was more or less a different painter in each of them.

Each of the artist's many personae is represented in "Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country," an intimately scaled survey organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, and on view there until February 3. (1) It's a peculiar exhibition, in some ways as hard to pin down as its subject. …

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