Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


"Whoever is in a hurry," wrote Camille Pissarro with a touch of sadness, "will not stop for me." The reason, evident even to the most casual observer of the fine retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts through Aug. 9, is clear. These paintings and drawings are the carefuly rendered results of years of observation.

That sounds, perhaps, like a self-evident definition of art. But not all painters work that way. Some observe deeply, then dash off the work. Some, seeing little, labor mightily. Pissarro saw profoundly, and then crafted into paint his insights.

About these ads

The results are the record of the man whose genius suffused the age of impressionism: a keen regard for light coupled with a profound sense of structure and design.

Yet Pissarro, in his own time, was much overlooked. Lacking the shimmer of Monet, the sentiment of Renoir, or the fascination with movement of Degas, he came, as he himself noted, "in the rear of impressionism." Amid the bustle of his own age -- amid the ferment of artistic discovery that moved painting from figurative studies of the outsides of things into the exploration of light itself - his appeal lay not with the public (who found impressionism reprehensible) nor with the critics (who were looking elsewhere). In his own day, he was a painter's painter.

To study Pissarro, then, is to study artistic influences. Born in 1830 in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, he came to Paris in 1855 already a precocious draftsman. There he absorbed all the could from the examples of Corot, Daubigny , and Courbet. By the 1870s he was solidly involved with impressionism -- the only painter, in fact, to exhibit in every one of the impressionist exhibitions -- and rubbing shoulders with Manet, Renoir, and Monet.

Later investigations would take him into the scientific, labored world of the divisionists, where he would build meticulous symbolic pictures of idyllic apple pickers out of tiny dots of color. Finally, as he drifted toward the post-impressionism of his friend Cezanne, he moved indoors (because of an eye ailment) and painted his last great city scenes from his Paris window.

To say all that, however, is not to account for the effect he has on us today. The problem we have with him, as with many a powerful painter, is that his own influence so stamped later tastes that he can seem almost trite, almost a parody of impressionism. In fact, it is quite otherwise. For his work bears testimony to a point made by T. S. Eliot in his great essay on influence, "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Eliot argued a surprising notion: that individual pieces of literature are influenced not only be earlier works but also by later ones. His point: Our own response to a work is shaped by the entire tradition of literature, so that we are seeing, as it were, backward through the lenses of all the intervening works.

So it is with painting. Looking at Pissarro, we cannot brush aside his successors. "Perhaps we all came from Pissarro," noted Cezanne, speaking more profoundly than he may have known. For the grand archetectonics of Cezanne led in turn to the experiments of cubism, which in turn mixed themselves into the porridge of styles known as abstract expressionism and now are returning to representational painting. Succeeding ages simply out-Pissarroed Pissarro, making the master sometimes seem a lesser example of schools he himself helped shape.

What, then, does this exhibtion of 90 paintings and 100 prints and drawings let us recapture? Three things come to mind. First, his particular choice of subject.Sometimes viewed as the heir of Millet, Pissarro focused intently on the nature of manual work -- and, naturally, on the workers of the French peasantry. An anarchist of the philosophical (rather than the bomb-heaving) variety, he read proletarian writings. Where his comtemporaries recorded bourgeoise leisures, he tended of record -- although not exclusively -- the farmers and herdsmen of the rural world. And where his contemporaries looked to haystacks or old weathered buildings, he painted factories -- including the new one on the Oise that distilled alcohol from sugar beets.

About these ads

Yet he cast the world of work under a quiet glow of stillness. His peasants do not perspire. They gather apples dreamily, or sleep under trees in the white heat of summer. Since his time however, the Russian Revolution has come, urging on Pissarro's work an emphasis on proletarianism that, perhaps, his contemporaries (possibly aside from Zola) would not so readily have seen. Nor, if we soak up this entire exhibition, will we. For the fact is that his peasantry is closer to the pastoral poetry of Edmund Spenser that the gnashing rhetoric of Karl Marx.

The second point, more stylistic, concerns his angle of vision. Over and over, Pissarro sees his subjects through a screen of interference. Where most painters, focusing on a white farmhouse, would chose a vantage that gave them a largely unobstructed view, Pissarro found himself looking through things at other things: through screens of trees almost hiding the house behind, for example, or through haze or snow or sunlight so dazzling that it obscures much of the picture.

It is as though reality, for him, was something hidden, something revealed less by obvious structures than by their casual surroundings. Even when the view is clear, the feel of the picture is brooding, slightly mysterious, as though the artist were drawn instinctively to the less cheerful side of life. Again, our own age may elevate this aspect of Pissarro's work to undue importance. "Realism," after all, has come to mean a keen attention to ugliness -- and fashionable modernity finds it easier to attach the word "realism" to ugliness and agony than to beauty and joy.

Yet Pissarro is inherently a painter of beauty and joy. And this is the third point. His pictures are full of love -- for the woman washing her feet, the snow on the trees at Pontoise, the pears in a basket on a table. In ways that probably defy critical analysis, love shines through -- not only his affection for his subjects but in his absorption in the very act of painting and drawing them. Seeing through whatever would interfere with that love -- not only through the trees but also through the world's misunderstanding of his painting -- Pissarro could write, "Work is a wonderful regulator of mind and body. I forget all sorrow, grief, bitterness, and I even ignore them in the joy of working."

This exhibition, on the last leg of a tour that began in London and then went to Paris, is encumbered only by the slightly awkward facilities at the MFA -- so that the prints and drawings are hung in rooms separated from the paintings by a wide hallway and a staircase. One hopes the staircase will not siphon off too many viewers: for the prints and drawings are well worth staying for.

But the exhibition is very well hung, letting Pissarro's development and his sense of joy express itself quite naturally. In an age whose hurrying poses constant threats to such joy, it is an exhibition worth stopping for again and again.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.