Pissarro - the gentle rebel

Thousands of Israelis are descending on Manhattan this month, and many of them will be going to see the new Pissarro show at the Jewish Museum. But the artist must be turning in his grave.

Pissarro 88 224 (photo credit: )
Pissarro 88 224
(photo credit: )
Thousands of Israelis are descending on Manhattan this month, and many of them will be going to see the new Pissarro show at the Jewish Museum. But the artist must be turning in his grave. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), born Jacob Pizarro to wealthy Sephardi Jewish parents on the then Danish island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, would have been disgusted to find himself exhibited as a Jewish artist in a Jewish museum - and on Fifth Avenue of all places. Pissarro was a lifelong rebel who had nothing to do with religion or the family business; he married a working-class gentile girl who bore him five sons, all of whom he encouraged to paint. He subscribed to anarchist newspapers and views and despised businessmen and the bourgeoisie. Yet he was a gentle man who befriended and encouraged younger painters, notably Gauguin. As a Jew, a Dane and an anarchist, Pissarro was a happy outsider in France. He was keenly aware of anti-Semitism but in no way sorry that he was a Jew, but he thought the fact, with all its baggage, irrelevant. Among Pissarro's first mentors was Corot, from whom he learned the elements of composition. But he soon distanced himself from the Salons and the style of the Barbizon School and gravitated to the rebels of the day, the Impressionists, whose celebrations of paint quality and color harmony shocked conservative critics. Pissarro was the only painter to exhibit in all the eight Impressionist exhibitions and, at the end of his life, proved himself, in his series of canvases of the Boulevard Montmartre, to be the greatest urban impressionist of all. In the latter half of the 19th century, painters abandoned mythology and turned to depictions of real life. Both Van Gogh and Pissarro were inspired by Millet's celebrations of the hard and humble life of the peasants scratching a living from the land. In his catalog essay, Richard Shiff sees Pissarro's daily battles with the labor-intensive act of painting as an equivalent of the laborer's lot; but for Pissarro, painting was a constant joy. This show, mounted by curator Karen Levitov and mildly entitled Camille Pissarro - Impressions of City and Country, comprises 49 canvases and watercolors on paper or silk, culled chiefly from private collections. If it lacks a major masterpiece, a few of the oils, like the ones from the Albright-Knox Museum, the Hammer Foundation and the private collections of Herbert Klapper and Simone and Alan Hartman, are very fine. Some of the works are of a favorite subject, peasant women at village markets. These are not ideological works but merely an acceptable subject as Pissarro grappled with problems of representation without descending to illustration. For a while, Pissarro was fascinated by the achievements of the pointillists and became one himself. He mastered the technique, but all his pointillist oils were sickly sweet, some even sentimental and for him, out of character. Even the most accomplished of them resemble chocolate-box art. Luckily, Pissarro eventually abandoned this form of painting. For me, among the best of Pissarro's oeuvre are his 70s landscapes of Pontoise, with its pattern of chimneys seen from across the river. There is one such canvas at the Israel Museum and an even better one in this show that I have admired at the Albright-Knox for decades. Pissarro's Pontoise palette was one that became a staple of alla prima painters, who mixed the complementaries red and green to produce a pile of grey sludge on the palette. A little of this mud was added to every color applied to the canvas, thus lending to both a color and tonal harmony that held everything together, as in the Klapper picture. Pissarro used this method in all of his late paintings of port cities and Paris, in which detail was replaced by a myriad of little paint strokes. Yet the pictures read as a people, horses and cabs, particularly in the late great paintings of the boulevards in all types of weather and also at night. Pissarro painted Paris as a subject, even rendering patriotic parades on July 14. Old and ailing, he could no longer paint out of doors. Instead, he sat at the open windows of hotel rooms, daily getting on with the business of making great canvases. The result of the experience of a lifetime, these were his very best.