Ju­lian Bell

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Camille Pis­sarro:

Le pre­mier des im­pres­sion­nistes an ex­hi­bi­tion at the

Musée Mar­mot­tan Monet, Paris, Fe­bru­ary 23–July 16, 2017. Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Claire Durand-Ruel Snol­laerts and Christophe Du­vivier.

Paris: Musée Mar­mot­tan Monet/ Hazan, 208 pp., €29.00 (paper)

Pis­sarro à Éragny:

La na­ture retrou­vée an ex­hi­bi­tion at the

Musée du Lux­em­bourg, Paris,

March 16–July 9, 2017.

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by Richard Bret­tell and Joachim Pis­sarro. Paris: Réu­nion des musées na­tionaux– Grand Palais/Musée du Lux­em­bourg, 212 pp., €35.00 (paper)

What is a shadow? Noth­ing in it­self, you might say: a mere lo­cal lack of light, in a space that is other­wise lit up. Light, which al­lows us to see and know the world, is the nor­mal pre­con­di­tion for pic­tur­ing things. Cast shad­ows may help us in­ter­pret a pic­ture by in­di­cat­ing where light comes from and where ob­jects stand, but if you sur­vey art his­tory, you find the ma­jor­ity of pain­ters giv­ing them mi­nor parts at most. A mi­nor­ity, how­ever, turns th­ese as­sump­tions up­side down, treat­ing shadow as the pre­ex­is­tent con­di­tion and light as its shock in­ter­rup­tion. If Giotto, Bruegel, or Courbet present worlds to be seen and known, the seven­teenth-cen­tury masters of chiaroscuro and their nine­teenth-cen­tury sym­pa­thiz­ers—think Manet’s Olympia—for­sake solid fact in fa­vor of daz­zle. But once you open up that sec­ond pos­si­bil­ity, a third emerges. Take shadow and light as op­po­site ends of a scale, and the tonal notes ly­ing be­tween them of­fer a means to com­pose pic­to­rial mu­sic. The land­scapes of Claude Lor­rain or of Jean-Bap­tiste Corot show ways that such mu­sic might be played.

The art of Camille Pis­sarro—the sub­ject of two cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tions in Paris, one at the Musée Mar­mot­tan Monet and the other at the Musée du Lux­em­bourg—was rooted in this third tra­di­tion. Pre­sent­ing his cre­den­tials to the Paris Sa­lon in 1864, the thir­tythree-year-old de­scribed him­self as a pupil of Corot, even if his per­sonal con­tact with that fa­ther fig­ure to French land­scape pain­ters had been slight. Six years later Pis­sarro en­coun­tered other ways of do­ing land­scape af­ter he and his friend Claude Monet fled to Lon­don dur­ing the Franco-Prus­sian War. But when an English critic, shortly be­fore Pis­sarro’s death in 1903, claimed that English art had rad­i­cally en­larged their vi­sion, the vet­eran pain­ter, by now him­self a fa­ther fig­ure, in­dig­nantly re­it­er­ated that Claude Lor­rain and Corot had been his men­tors, and that

Turner and Con­sta­ble, while they taught us some­thing, showed us in their works that they had no un­der­stand­ing of the anal­y­sis of shadow, which in Turner’s paint­ing is sim­ply used as an ef­fect, a mere ab­sence of light. What, then, might a shadow be, if it is not to re­main a mere “ef­fect” or an “ab­sence”? A Pis­sarro can­vas from 1873 that is now on view at the Mar­mot­tan sug­gests a pos­si­ble an­swer. Oil paint­ing can turn shad­ows from noth­ings into pal­pa­ble some­things: slabs of rich color. The gen­tly ris­ing Île-de-France farm­land de­picted in Hoar Frost (Gelée blanche à En­nery) be­comes an in­tri­cate weav­ing of rus­sets, blue-greens, um­bers, and pale yel­lows as morn­ing sun shines on it from be­hind a row of poplars. As you ap­proach the can­vas, the bris­tles that have scuffed it with stiff, clot­ted brushloads seem to rasp your skin, and you are jolted into a po­etry of chill Jan­uary: a po­etry sus­tained by close plein air ob­ser­va­tion and re­solved with a scrupu­lous com­plete­ness.

At the same time, you may per­haps reg­is­ter the odd­ness of the op­er­a­tion. Those long stripes of shadow criss­cross­ing the ruts and coun­try road are cast by no vis­i­ble ob­ject. The col­ors of what’s sun­lit and the col­ors of what isn’t meet in stout equiv­a­lence on the can­vas, but for any­one on the scene—say that trudg­ing peas­ant with his load of sticks—the for­mer would have pri­or­ity. We ex­pect grass to be green more than we ex­pect it to be blue. In ef­fect, the shad­ows spook the com­fort­able farm­land, nag­ging us with the con­sid­er­a­tion that a fur­ther un­seen pres­ence stands be­neath the poplars, that of the ob­serv­ing artist.

That some crit­ics of the day took against such odd­i­ties is a fa­mil­iar fea­ture of the story of Im­pres­sion­ism, the move­ment launched by the 1874 ex­hi­bi­tion in which Pis­sarro paint­ings such as Hoar Frost ap­peared along­side work by Monet and oth­ers. Jules Castag­nary, for in­stance, con­demned the in­vis­i­bil­ity of those poplars as a “grave er­ror,” whereas Louis Leroy sneered that the pic­ture con­sisted of “pal­ette-scrap­ings placed uni­formly on a dirty can­vas... nei­ther head nor tail, top nor bot­tom, front nor back.”

Im­pres­sion­ism has it­self be­come so nearly in­vis­i­ble through in­ces­sant ex­po­sure that it may be worth re­cov­er­ing some of that ini­tial be­muse­ment. The mud­sling­ing Leroy was ac­knowl­edg­ing that in this al­tered ap­proach to paint­ing, deep space—of the kind, say, that Claude Lor­rain had made avail­able— was no longer on of­fer. Nor did the new art re­spect the tex­ture of ob­jects. When Pis­sarro, else­where, de­picts a pond, the oil paint re­fuses to lie down and be limpid and liq­uid: it cakes, it cor­ru­gates. Equally, his plowed earth is made with­out re­course to earth col­ors.

Ac­cord­ing to Cézanne, his clos­est as­so­ci­ate at this time, it was Pis­sarro’s own de­ci­sion to elim­i­nate those pig­ments from his pal­ette, along with the black that formed the base note of shad­ows. Let the scale re­volve around the pri­maries, the pos­i­tive con­stituents of op­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence; let the paint­ing be a con­crete ana­logue to events in the eye that af­fected the mind po­et­i­cally. This was where Pis­sarro shifted away from Corot’s form of lyri­cism.

It was a lev­el­headed move, for all that it out­raged Leroy. To visit the two Pis­sarro shows in Paris is to learn about lev­el­head­ed­ness. It is not that the out­ward world ceased to con­cern Pis­sarro, even if his art’s weight­ing shifted psy­cho­log­i­cally in­ward: to use his own ter­mi­nol­ogy, “na­ture” and “sen­sa­tion” were not op­posed but in­ter­de­pen­dent. Nearly al­ways, Pis­sarro com­poses po­ems about pass­ing light that can be mapped in­tel­li­gi­bly, let­ting you know just how this farm­house lies be­hind that wil­low, how an or­chard in­ter­venes be­tween it and a barn, or how some lane winds be­tween the hedges and rivers and hill­sides of verdant, boun­ti­ful north­ern France.

The slow-paced steadi­ness of this well-tended ter­rain and the slow­shift­ing tenac­ity of Pis­sarro’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions of it are al­most of a piece. Both speak of sus­tained and solid work­man­ship, tes­ti­mony that feels for­ti­fy­ing. Pis­sarro land­scapes are surely good for you. The ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mar­mot­tan, which sur­veys his en­tire ca­reer, com­mu­ni­cates over­all a brac­ing so­bri­ety of pur­pose. The paint­ings shown at the Musée du Lux­em­bourg—where the fo­cus is on Éragny, Pis­sarro’s ru­ral base forty-eight miles northwest of Paris dur­ing his fi­nal two decades—take you to an up­land of high achieve­ment. Be­sides tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions, the Mar­mot­tan houses a per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of Monets, and th­ese prove an in­struc­tive con­trast. Pis­sarro could never, un­like his Im­pres­sion­ist col­league, be ac­cused of “ex­ces­sive bravura of ex­e­cu­tion” or of “bril­liant vul­gar­ity.” (Those put­downs come from the aes­thet­i­cally rad­i­cal Félix Fénéon, crit­i­ciz­ing Monet from the other side of the Im­pres­sion­ist rev­o­lu­tion in 1888.) Pis­sarro pre­ferred can­vas sizes in­tended to ap­peal, in their mod­esty, to the pri­vate col­lec­tor, rather than to bid for pub­lic glory: his brush­work, even when tor­tu­ously dense, al­ways seeks for ex­ac­ti­tude; and his se­lec­tion of land­scape mo­tifs is fas­tid­i­ous, with a fond­ness for sub­tle, mois­ture­soft­ened il­lu­mi­na­tion. Not for him flash “ef­fects” of shadow or light.

Yet the Mar­mot­tan show also points you back to the la­tent weird­nesses of that sub­ject se­lec­tion. It in­cludes, for in­stance, a view of a hill­top con­course in the pro­vin­cial town where Pis­sarro was liv­ing in 1872—Place du Vieux-Cimetière, Pon­toise —in which the man­sions dis­ap­pear­ing down the far slope and a dis­tant gath­er­ing of ladies in their Sun­day best main­tain an averted se­crecy that ex­cludes the pain­ter, who stares at them across a large and va­cant sun­lit fore­ground. Al­ter­nately, in Gardeuse de vache (1883), a portrait-for­mat paint­ing done in tem­pera eleven years later, a bon­neted cowherd and her cow loom giddily close to the body space of the observer, whose gaze strays down to the lush grass at his feet: they seem un­con­scious of him, how­ever. How should I sit­u­ate my­self— so the pain­ter’s un­der­ly­ing ques­tion runs—with re­gard to those oth­ers?

The cre­ator of th­ese dis­til­la­tions of pro­vin­cial France was never a French ci­ti­zen. The Pis­sar­ros were Jews who came from Por­tu­gal to Bordeaux, from which Camille’s fa­ther set sail for the Danish West Indies, there to trade as a hab­er­dasher. Though the fu­ture artist was sent back to France for his school­ing, many of his ap­pren­tice years were passed in the Caribbean, un­der the tute­lage of Fritz Mel­bye, a slightly older Danish view pain­ter.*

It was only at twenty-five that Pis­sarro set­tled in Paris. Up­right, gen­er­ous, *This re­la­tion­ship is ex­plored in “Pis­sarro: A Meet­ing on St. Thomas,” an ex­hi­bi­tion, based on re­cent re­search, at the Or­drup­gaaard Mu­seum, Char­lot­ten­lund, Den­mark (March 10–July 2, 2017). The tale of the two young artists’ trav­els is fas­ci­nat­ing, and the im­ages of Caribbean scenery and street life that they drew and painted are evoca­tive and of­ten of mar­velous qual­ity. In­di­rectly, Mel­bye’s in­flu­ence on Pis­sarro com­ple­mented Corot’s, for be­hind the Danish Golden Age man­ner in which Mel­bye had been trained lay a tonal ap­proach to “land­scape por­trai­ture” that had been de­vel­oped by artists work­ing in early-nine­teenth-cen­tury Rome, and Corot was like­wise their ben­e­fi­ciary. The great Amer­i­can land­scapist Fred­eric Ed­win Church (1826–1900) also en­ters the story, since Mel­bye later be­came his friend and a large body of Mel­bye’s and Pis­sarro’s youth­ful stud­ies came into his keep­ing. As of this writ­ing, the cat­a­log was only avail­able in Danish.

in­de­pen­dent-minded, and ut­terly de­voted to his art, he gained the ad­mi­ra­tion of his col­leagues there—to the nine-years-younger Cézanne, he was “rather like God”—so that while he may have lacked for buy­ers, he never lacked for friends. More­over, with Julie Vel­lay, the French­woman he mar­ried, he started to raise a large fam­ily. But when­ever Pis­sarro—who al­ways re­tained a Danish pass­port—stood at his easel to paint ru­ral France, the ques­tion im­plic­itly re­mained of his re­la­tion to this adopted ter­rain. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, it led Pis­sarro to­ward a type of de­lib­er­ate and gen­er­al­iz­ing ret­i­cence. Whereas there was speci­ficity about the ways that light fell from hour to hour, sea­son to sea­son, upon the fea­tures of the French coun­try­side—th­ese be­ing the in­ci­dents that in­spired him lyri­cally—and while he could con­strue how those fea­tures hung to­gether, he would not at­tempt to de­fine what­ever uses or his­to­ries those fea­tures might in­volve. There is lit­tle present or past to the views painted at Pon­toise or Éragny.

If a fac­tory chim­ney con­trib­utes to a sky’s flows of va­por, it is hardly in­serted in a spirit of mod­ern provo­ca­tion, and re­ally all that Pis­sarro ex­pects to find is that here and there, paysannes, peas­ant women, will reg­u­larly be en­gaged in their peas­ant ac­tiv­i­ties. He cares not much for just what those tasks con­sist of. What matters is the prin­ci­ple that there should be a pays, a land to which a class of fig­ures be­longs. It seems to be struc­tured into Pis­sarro’s script that th­ese earth-work­ers should be pre­pon­der­antly fe­male: in­deed, the ear­li­est work the Mar­mot­tan dis­plays, Deux Femmes cau­sant au bord de la mer (1856), a mod­est but lu­mi­nous vista of a Caribbean bay, fea­tures two women porters. But Pis­sarro’s women are nei­ther pos­i­tively in­di­vid­u­al­ized nor sig­nif­i­cantly sex­u­ally charged. Not co­in­ci­den­tally, he had no par­tic­u­lar fa­cil­ity when it came to fig­ure draw­ing. The first mid-ca­reer twist in the tale of this self-crit­i­cal peren­nial stu­dent is that from his fifties on­ward, Pis­sarro felt a need to bring those peas­ant fig­ures into the fore­ground. Wit­ness that 1883 study of the cowherd. The move asks for ex­pla­na­tion. Ev­ery­one in the France of those days had a pro­to­type for com­po­si­tions with peas­ant pro­tag­o­nists. It came from Jean-François Mil­let, paint­ing at Bar­bizon, and it com­mu­ni­cated the hu­man con­di­tion at its stark­est, with sweat­ing bod­ies stuck be­tween heaven and hard earth. Did Pis­sarro’s im­ages of agri­cul­tural toil con­form to this rhetoric, or did they al­ter­nately op­pose them­selves to it, be­ing set in a so much gen­tler ter­rain? It matters, you might ar­gue, that Mil­let was a stoic, pes­simistic con­ser­va­tive, whereas Pis­sarro—prob­a­bly from his Caribbean youth on­ward—be­lieved in the cause of rev­o­lu­tion. He re­jected re­li­gion and by 1884 had aligned him­self with the then-vig­or­ous anar­chist move­ment. That was the year he set­tled at Éragny and started paint­ing the pic­tures now fea­tured at the Musée du Lux­em­bourg. Richard Bret­tell and Joachim Pis­sarro, the two em­i­nent Pis­sarro spe­cial­ists cu­rat­ing this show, ex­plore what con­nec­tions might be made be­tween the pol­i­tics and the paint­ing.

It seems, to an out­side eye, rather an up­hill ex­er­cise. Along­side the can­vases they ex­hibit graphic work. In the roughs of Travaux des champs (Field work), a never-com­pleted book project on which the pain­ter worked with his artist son Lu­cien, blithe, bu­colic fig­ures ap­pear, sow­ing, herd­ing, feed­ing me­chan­i­cal har­vesters, and so on. As in the paint­ings, noth­ing seems to dis­rupt their idyll. Al­ter­nately, how­ever, there are thirty sheets of Turpi­tudes So­ciales, a se­quence Pis­sarro inked in 1889 for cir­cu­la­tion within his fam­ily. This was pri­vate be­cause it was sedi­tious: a car­i­cat­u­ral tour of con­tem­po­rary ur­ban so­ci­ety in all its poverty, hypocrisy, and de­spair, the fi­nal im­age fea­tur­ing a self-portrait as an old en­ragé who meets his end, pis­tol in hand, on the bar­ri­cades of some sureto-come upris­ing. Turpi­tudes may also have been pri­vate be­cause al­though its sketches have heart, as ex­er­cises in the man­ner of Dau­mier they are painfully ten­ta­tive.

The two sides of the sil­ver-bearded pa­tri­arch that Pis­sarro had be­come, the calm-tem­pered blesser of the ru­ral round and the trig­ger-happy blaster of the bour­geoisie, don’t unite to de­liver a co­he­sive pic­to­rial pol­i­tics. The cu­ra­tors hunt for deeper struc­tural affini­ties. In the cat­a­log ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Lux­em­bourg ex­hi­bi­tion, Bret­tell sug­gests that Pis­sarro’s clas­si­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the coun­try­side re­late on some level to the think­ing of the anar­chist ge­og­ra­pher Élisée Reclus. Joachim Pis­sarro (the great-grand­son of the pain­ter) roundly ac­knowl­edges that the pain­ter “did not em­ploy his brush and col­ors for ide­o­log­i­cal ends, any more than he chose his po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions to serve his in­ter­ests as an artist.” He ar­gues, how­ever, that an­ar­chism en­tailed au­ton­omy, namely the prin­ci­ple that each per­son should em­bark on an in­di­vid­ual reck­on­ing of his stock of lived ex­pe­ri­ence, and that such an ethos can be seen to in­form Camille in his aes­thet­ics of “sen­sa­tion.”

The para­dox (and this is where an­ar­chism con­formed to an age-old re­li­gious logic) was that to ar­rive at a sound un­der­stand­ing of your own tex­ture of ex­is­tence—and hence of your essence as an artist—you might need to sub­mit to what oth­ers could show you. In his mid-fifties, hav­ing based him­self at Éragny, Pis­sarro fell in with young Paris charis­mat­ics: Paul Signac, Fénéon, above all Ge­orges Seu­rat. It was clear to him, he wrote in 1886, that th­ese twenty-some­things had ar­rived at “a mod­ern syn­the­sis through sci­en­tif­i­cally es­tab­lished meth­ods” that would at the same time ad­vance the causes of “orig­i­nal­ity” and of “in­di­vid­ual vi­sion.” The artis­tic in­sur­gency that he and Monet had launched must now, he ad­vo­cated—in the face of his col­leagues’ skep­ti­cism—move on­ward and up­ward.

Fired by con­vert zeal, Pis­sarro started butting his can­vases with tiny hog­brush flecks of hues meant to jan­gle and in­ter­pen­e­trate, and thus to restage the retina’s pri­mal en­coun­ters with light, the very mo­ments when “na­ture” turned into “sen­sa­tion.” And un­de­ni­ably, the method de­liv­ered. In paint­ings such as the 1888 Ap­ple Har­vest, on view at the Lux­em­bourg, Pis­sarro speaks to the eyes as if he had sud­denly been equipped with a mega­phone. The su­per-res­o­nance com­bines here with stu­diously bal­anced in­ter­vals and a panoramic hori­zon to cre­ate a poem of ar­ca­dian ex­ul­ta­tion. One that re­mains, as usual, tem­per­ate: the can­vas is only twenty-eight inches wide.

And yet the pic­ture is not ex­actly a dec­la­ra­tion of freedom. What is a shadow? How does the im­pacted, blue­fringed body of paint be­neath the ap­ple tree re­late to that phe­nom­e­non in na­ture? Abol­ish­ing a nat­u­ral shadow’s evanes­cence, the ex­act­ing chro­matic anal­y­sis threat­ens to trap us in ar­ti­fice. That may have been an out­come that Seu­rat was happy to set­tle for, ar­gues Christophe Du­vivier, one of the Mar­mot­tan’s cu­ra­tors, but un­like the guru of “Neo-Im­pres­sion­ism,” Pis­sarro was not ab­strac­tion­ist by in­stinct. What his art throve on, rather, was “a sen­so­rial present,” “a mo­ment in life.” As a re­sult he soon be­gan search­ing for a more por­ous way to han­dle paint, one quicker to re­spond to out­ward stim­u­lus while re­tain­ing the in­sights gained from op­ti­cal science. The Lux­em­bourg show demon­strates the high re­wards th­ese in­ves­ti­ga­tions de­liv­ered. The coun­try views that Pis­sarro painted at Éragny dur­ing his six­ties seem the most richly lay­ered and the most deeply felt of his whole ca­reer.

Deeply felt, and yet still in some senses ret­i­cent and re­mote. Partly this is a mat­ter of per­son­al­ity. It is not hard to connect the ten­der­ness de­voted to sun­set mead­ows and winter hedgerows to the shy self-por­traitist who hides be­hind a bushy white beard and who, when at­tempt­ing that clas­sic French pic­to­rial trope, the bather in a wood­land stream, finds his met­tle deserts him: the re­sult (Woman Bathing Her Feet in a Brook, 1895) is fee­bly pretty, al­most in­sin­cere. Partly, at the same time, it’s an is­sue of prac­ti­cal­ity. The ag­ing pain­ter had eye trou­ble, which made it hard for him to work out­doors, es­pe­cially when the wind was up. A pur­pose-built stu­dio at Éragny—al­though his fi­nances were ever pre­car­i­ous, he was by now in a po­si­tion to af­ford one—gave him a safely dis­tanced van­tage point for many of the over­views painted dur­ing th­ese fi­nal years. But the need to steer clear of the weather also prompted one fur­ther sur­pris­ing late side­step.

At the age of sixty-three, Pis­sarro started turn­ing his at­ten­tion to the city. Over his re­main­ing ten years, he com­pleted hun­dreds of ur­ban views in cam­paigns of work con­ducted in Paris and the Nor­mandy ports. Back at the Mar­mot­tan, we see views of the façades of

the Hauss­man­nian me­trop­o­lis in all their smug blond lime­stone and pur­ple slate; gaslit boule­vards with lines of idling fi­acres; pedes­tri­ans swarm­ing across sun­lit Seine bridges; chim­neys puff­ing, en­gines puff­ing, down­river at Rouen; tiny quay­side fig­ures, watch­ing the boats that sail in or de­part for the never-quite-to-be-re­vealed open hori­zon.

What is the qual­ity that th­ese cap­ti­vat­ing ex­er­cises, with all their sub­tle sil­ver­i­nesses and their var­ie­ga­tion of touch, in­tend to close in on? Is it the “moder­nity” about which Pis­sarro’s ru­ral imagery re­mained so strik­ingly ag­nos­tic? No doubt it is: but in a rather spe­cial­ized sense, I feel. Th­ese are pic­tures of the tex­ture of ex­pe­ri­ence that is pe­cu­liar to look­ing at the out­side world through a fourth-floor ho­tel win­dow. Sen­sa­tion, it emerges, has here be­come a sheet of glass.

Camille Pis­sarro: Hoar Frost (Gelée blanche à En­nery), 1873

Camille Pis­sarro: Ap­ple Har­vest (La Cueil­lette des pommes, Éragny), 1888

Camille Pis­sarro: Place du Théâtre-Français: Fog Ef­fect, 1897

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