“Camille Pissarro, 1830-1903” August 9, 1981
Pissarro of Fine Arts, Boston
Camille Pissarro: A Catalogue of the Drawings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Pissarro: His Life and Work
The exhibition which celebrates the 150th anniversary of Pissarro’s birth has now traveled from London to Paris and is soon to arrive in Boston, and three stout, handsomely illustrated and scholarly volumes are here to inform a layman like myself. They also test and enlarge our response to a restless and prolific artist of very complex character. The introductory essay to the general catalogue by John Rewald is a rhetorical attempt to revive the history of the long battle between the Impressionists and the Salon. He appeals to Nietzsche and grinds his teeth at the name of Gérôme. Two other contributors, Richard Brettell and Françoise Cachin, are more inquiring and more nourishing. The Ashmolean volume reproduces an enormous number of Pissarro’s drawings and working sketches; we see Pissarro’s foundations as a graphic artist who in fact came to painting late. And Ralph E. Shikes and Paula Harper are very searching and enlightening on the relation of the life and work.
A literary person, venturing to write on a delightful art, can, at any rate, be fortified by some words of Walter Sickert—I take them from Françoise Cachin—partly because Walter Sickert was a painter who was also dashing and got to the heart of the matter in print; partly because he liked to make the then unfashionable assertion that he was a literary painter, which was almost true:
Pissarro…remains the painter for those who look at, rather than for those who read about, painting.
We have read; but we have also looked, and Pissarro does take one at once clean through the surface of his pictures into their depth and architecture. Sickert’s word “remains” has exactly the overtone of ambiguity to which we respond. Pissarro does distinctly “remain” in our visual sense and minds. Other Impressionists give us sensations of evanescence and the dance of suffused light; Pissarro seems to convey the haunting permanence of an hour that has been lost.
The distinguished writers who rallied to the Impressionists were, like ourselves, in the usual literary difficulty of seeing the ostensible subject as “the hero” of the painting whether it is person, action, or landscape; we are also apt to see analogies between the manner of prose and paint, each arrangement of brush strokes being a possible phrase. For us the famous Young Girl with a Stick is “the dawn of adolescence.” George Moore was lyrical about those dream-like apples that would “never fall.” Hostile critics who were bored by Pissarro’s fields of cabbages and who called him “a market gardener” got the tart reply that the Gothic artists were bold enough to use the humble cabbage and the artichoke as ornaments in their cathedrals.
As a firm atheistical materialist Pissarro hated being credited with penetrating “the soul of nature,” but none of our literary tribe went so far as Zola, in his later years, when he inflated Cézanne in L’Oeuvre and turned the painter’s life into a typical Zola-esque melodrama …