Camille Pissarro
Camille Pissarro; drawing by David Levine

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. For myself I am tempted to see Pissarro and other Impressionists as artists who retrieve that forgotten storyless hour of the day in which the clock has beautifully stopped. One of the merits of Ralph E. Shikes and Paula Harper’s Pissarro: His Life and Work is the following statement that puts the hour back into paint—look again at the early and Courbet-like Côte du Jallais near Pontoise:

It is often perceived that Pissarro was consistently interested in firmly structured compositions, in itself a visual statement of permanence. His perspectives imply a single, fixed viewpoint; if the world of nature is in flux, the one who views it is stable. Monet, by contrast, in many of his last paintings, dissolves the viewer into the scene; there are few reference points that relate to space on a human scale or gravity as a human experience. But Pissarro constantly reasserts the fact of humankind interacting with the natural world both in his subjects and in his insistence on a logically constructed space seen from a still point.

Yet there was a transformed prose in Pissarro’s mind; it lay in his political convictions. He had read Property-is-Theft Proudhon, Elisée Reclus, and Kropotkin. He was called “the poet-logician” by Gauguin. Like more than one of the Impressionists, but more lastingly and even in a practical way, he was imbued with the innocent millenarian dream of anarchism. He had an active hatred of the centralized bourgeois state. Vague though the dream was—and he was never able to define what he precisely meant by it beyond talking about the joyful liberation of perpetual creative work that would insulate us from the sorrows of life—the dream gave a grace to his sense of the need for social justice. His anarchism was not sentiment: it is related to his particular kind of humanism, an earnest of manna for the humble worker at a period when Guizot was telling everyone to “get rich”; it was also perhaps a spur to his changes of style and the eagerness to try new means. Yet also, in some intimate way, it was connected with what he called, with some irony, his “Creole passivity” or foreignness; in the sense that Chekhov was a passive artist, i.e., one who chooses to be hidden in his work.


It is clear that Pissarro, who appeared simple to the point of sanctity, was a deeply complex man. Some believed he was naïve and self-taught: he was not. Far from being a peasant, he was distinctly a bourgeois and had little in common with the peasants he lived among in the valleys of the Seine and L’Oise. He rarely individualized the peasant. His revolt against the bourgeois was (he always said) a personal family affair but not violent as Cézanne’s was in his relation to his banker father.

Pissarro’s own upbringing had anomalies. Born in 1830 in the Danish island of St. Thomas in the West Indies, he was a child of one of the Sephardic families of part French and part Portuguese Jews who had emigrated to the island because it had become the most prosperous entrepôt for trade in the days of sail. His parents were successful general shopkeepers, mainly in cloth. Money-making (as Trollope said when he went to St. Thomas) was the sole preoccupation of the colonial population, and the strong Jewish colony benefitted from the religious tolerance of the Danes.

The colonial wealth had also drawn a shrewd itinerant Danish painter, Fritz Melbye, who did well out of the European demand for exotic topographical landscapes, and it was he who noticed and first tutored the young Pissarro’s remarkable and lasting graphic talent there, and indeed made possible his eventual freedom from the detestable fate of keeping shop.

Pissarro had two particular gifts: intense concentration in sketching the humble mestizos and Indians, and an eye for intimate rather than panoramic landscape—as one can see in the exhaustive store of drawings in the Ashmolean collection. He had also power as a colorist. One picture, Carnival Dance, has the verve of Goya in his maja period. (This picture was done when he and the Dane went to Venezuela) What really released him from his years in the shop was an economic crisis: the sudden change from sail to steam which killed the St. Thomas trade. The crowded Pissarro family returned to their relations in France in 1855 and were prosperous enough to live in Rue de la Pompe in Passy. At the age of eleven Camille had been sent to school in Paris, as was common for colonial boys. But now he was in France for good to study Courbet and get the friendship of Corot, but bringing with him his “Creole passivity” which for him meant, by a paradox, a dedicated and intellectual absorption in work. He had in mind a revaluation and revival of the French landscape tradition which was at first stimulated by the then unfashionable Barbizon School. He had also arrived in the Paris of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann and the triumph of the bourgeois reaction.

Pissarro’s was the classic rejection of the bourgeois ethos by a dissident son. He went so far as to quarrel with his dominant mother, a woman given to hysteria, because of a liaison (which eventually became a much opposed civil marriage) with the family servant. He went off to live close to rural poverty in Pontoise and then Eragny, painting peasants at work in the fields; moving to the logical link of the peasant with the market, on to the appearance of the factory in the rural scene, and to daily labor on the docks of Rouen.

All the critics in the present volumes point out that Pissarro was not really close to peasant life—even his wife, a country girl whose family had a little land of their own, “came to have marked bourgeois leanings.” He rarely notes the harshness of field labor. He can even be said to have generalized those awkward bodies as they bend to the pattern of work.

Richard Brettell’s long essay on each phase of Pissarro’s art says his upbringing in a Jewish bourgeois family “did little to equip him to understand or sympathize automatically with the peasantry,” and if he made obvious gestures to Millet he in fact reversed Millet’s tendency to “aggrandize” the peasant monumentally. Yet, although in many pictures his peasants are seen pausing or resting in the private satisfactions of being simply alive, there are many others who are the half anonymous shapes of a team enclosed in the geometric trance of a habitual drama. I am thinking of The Harvest (1882) and The Gleaners (1889). The superb apple gatherers are working, but their work is stylized, almost arrested; and from the arms of the figures reaching up to the tree one gets the sensation of a moment slowed down, explored, even enlarged and enriched as if caught, as Brettell says, in a pavane in which the grasses, the trees, the flowers and fruit, the light and shadow of the hour have merged with the bodies of the gatherers in a conspiracy of nature with man; yet without any intrusive suggestion of allegory. We are in that “plein air” which annoyed the Salon.


The critic Mirbeau put Pissarro’s manner in excellent words: “Even when he paints figures in scenes of rustic life, man is always seen in perspective in the vast terrestrial harmony like a human plant.” On the other hand, as Brettell says in another connection, Pissarro’s innate sense of social history emerges in his market pictures, where the figures are individual, talking shapes:

These pictures suggest that it was the economic inter-relationship between the fields and the town which fascinated Pissarro and that for him the life of the peasant was not a seasonal cycle of sowing and harvesting, but rather one of events that ended with the market…. These images form the necessary bridge between “la vie agreste” and “la vie bourgeoise,” and complement Pissarro’s landscapes with factories.

The peasant turns into “the petit commerçant.” (However, The Harvest does seem to contradict this theory.) I incline to the belief that what drew Pissarro and others to the country factory was the novel arrangement of shapes that had to be assimilated to the rural scene and even tamed. Industrialism came late to rural France. There is nothing Satanic in the well-known chimneys of the factory near Pontoise. Satan comes later in Pissarro’s political cartoons.

Like all important artists Pissarro feared to repeat himself. A painter’s painter, he was preoccupied with experiment in style and means to the point of anxiety and restlessness. There is an exchange of influences in his responses to Cézanne, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, and Seurat particularly. To some contemporaries, most of whom became famous before he did, his changes of style marked him as a conservative who had become derivative and undecided in his objectives. Modern critics like Rewald and Brettell reject this view and see the intellectual vitality of a man re-making himself.

The passion for increasing the difficulty year by year was indeed innate from the beginning. If there is self-doubt it is of the studied fertilizing kind; if there is anxiety it is the anxiety of an ambition which had to endure many harsh setbacks. Monet and the others became successful long before he did, partly because they were consistent and also—Shikes and Harper say—because Monet was a man of spontaneous passion and immediate conviction, if in the end he repeated himself, whereas Pissarro sought renewal in the temptation to see reality through many windows, and yet wavered because he was essentially a “balanced thinker.”

Yet the contradictions in his character, the pervasive strength of his philosophy, the simplicity of his life, do not affect the serenity of his work, whether he is painter, etcher, or lithographer, whether he is painting on window blinds or designing fans to make money. Brought up in a crowded family, he turned by nature to begetting a crowded family of his own; no solitary artist he—rather the pedagogic patriarch who, to his wife’s despair, was determined to turn the whole family into painters. The primacy of art which he firmly believed in had to carry the Pissarro tribe with it. The family became a kind of school, even a cooperative.

He could not bear the quarrels of the Impressionists: he was the pacifying friend with the long white beard of “le bon Dieu” and the beautifully modulated voice; in old age as ardent as a young man. One gets a very amusing guess at his character from a comical incident in his warm friendship with Gauguin, to whom he was a father figure. Gauguin claimed to be able to analyze character from handwriting and his report, of course, tells as much about Gauguin as it does of his victim. Gauguin said, as most people did, that Pissarro was “simple and frank” but added that he was “not very diplomatic,” “more poet than logician”; had “great ambition,” “stubbornness and softness mixed”; “was enthusiastic” yet “mistrustful,” “egotistical and a little cold”; wrote in “graceful letters”; was a “little eccentric.” It was rather silly of Gauguin, who was rich and a wild spender, to say that Pissarro was “parsimonious” and “money hungry.” He was often driven to borrow money, but he was a firm repayer of debts.

The one serious crisis in Pissarro’s painting life occurred when he turned, almost against his nature, to neo-Impressionism under the influence of Seurat and pointillism. Under that influence some think his scenes became static and flat, so that for all the skill in perspective we are not borne into them. The scientific theory has displaced the human. His natural mode prevented him from continuing in this manner for long. And there is something almost droll in the seriousness with which the painter thought the solution to his torment was to put the pointillist dots further apart, so as to leave some larger gap for reflection, or the human throb; thus destroying the point of pointillism and the exhilaration of its blinding chemical noonday glitter. (Pissarro had always held that the noonday sun neutralized color and Seurat had outbid Pissarro’s doctrine.)

For a period the demand for his work collapsed; his self-confidence was baffled. In his depression he turned to suspicion. Perhaps—he wrote to his niece Esther who lived in England—his failure

was a matter of race. Until now, no Jew has made art here, or rather no Jew has searched to make a disinterested and truly felt art. I believe that this could be one of the causes of my bad luck—I am too serious to please the masses and I don’t partake enough of the exotic tradition to be appreciated by the dilettantes.

Although, as Shikes and Harper say, anti-Semitism was common in France, there is no evidence that Pissarro suffered because of it, despite his public defense of Zola and his own political cartoons. He had indeed more to fear personally when the militant anarchists turned to violence and President Carnot was murdered. For Pissarro terrorism was a betrayal of the anarchist dream. In old age his imagination made one of its magnificent leaps when he painted his extraordinary Parisian panoramas—the Place du Theâtre Français, for example—in which he looked at Paris from a high window and tipped the city almost on end with powerful effect.

There is much more to be got out of these immensely informative volumes than I have space or judgment to suggest, for Pissarro grows as an artist and a man as the reader looks and reads and looks again. There is one curious period in his later years, however, that still puzzles me: his people are rarely seen enjoying careless pleasure, except in some very late drawings when he attempts baigneuses as if he recalled Cézanne. It is true that it was difficult for him to get models for the nude in the country, and that he found contemporary nudes lubricious. His figures may be shown undressing to go to bed or even washing, by domestic habit; then suddenly we have a few surprising drawings of a naked country bather confronting geese in a pond, and in another a group of women wrestling and larking in the water or sprawling as they gossip on the bank. The bodies are plain enough but we have what seems to me the first sight of laughter. He had refused earlier to paint the cheerful bourgeois weekend holiday on the Seine, but now he catches the wanton country women. They are very individual. The poet-logician lets himself go, as he had done once, many years before, in his pictures of the carnival dance in Venezuela.

This Issue

May 14, 1981