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Indepth Arts News:

"Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country"
2007-09-16 until 2008-02-03
Jewish Museum
New York, NY, USA United States of America

A founding member of the Impressionists and a master of depicting urban life and rural settings, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was the only artist to show his paintings in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions from 1874 to 1886, and the only Impressionist who was Jewish. Pissarro is celebrated for his Impressionist landscapes painted in and around the villages of the French countryside surrounding Paris. He also painted more cityscapes than any other Impressionist artist. Pissarro’s continual artistic experimentation revolutionized late-19th-century art. The artist espoused an anti-bourgeois, anarchist ideology and was passionate about the plight of the working classes. The Jewish Museum will present Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country from September 16, 2007 through February 3, 2008. This exhibition includes nearly 50 paintings and works on paper – drawn primarily from New York City-area private collections – many of which have rarely been on public view.  Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country examines how the painter’s artistic theories and social convictions influenced his Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist work.

Throughout his long career, Pissarro lived and worked in various villages in the French countryside, spent much time in Paris, and traveled to England, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Pissarro’s travels and his constant artistic experimentation reflect his ceaseless desire to seek out new motifs and explore new ideas in paint. Although he himself never voyaged to the United States, Pissarro’s works were exhibited in New York City as early as 1883, and American collectors began buying his works during the artist’s lifetime. Today, some of the greatest Pissarro paintings are in American collections, with a large number in public and private collections in the New York City area. 

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see works spanning Pissarro’s career from his arrival in Paris in 1855 with subjects from his Caribbean homeland, to scenes of peasants working in the French countryside, and later works depicting Parisian bridges and boulevards. The Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist landscapes and cityscapes presented in Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country, reveal the artist’s innovative techniques, his determined individualism, and the links between his artistic and political ideas.

Born in 1830 on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, then part of the Danish Virgin Islands, Pissarro was raised in a Sephardic Jewish family from Bordeaux, France. He grew up in a bourgeois household and was sent to Paris at the age of twelve for a formal education and artistic training. Upon his return to St. Thomas six years later, he was expected to work in the family mercantile business but, in an act of defiance, left to paint, first in Venezuela, and then to the center of the nineteenth century art world, Paris.

After his arrival in Paris in 1855, Pissarro studied with the renowned Barbizon landscapist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and became influenced by the gritty realism of Gustave Courbet. He soon sought to escape the social and political pressures of Parisian life, including the art establishment embodied by the official Salon. By the 1860s, Pissarro and other modern painters became to explore the regions around Paris made newly accessible by railway. Artists including Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley retreated to the rural villages and farms to paint outdoors, finding motifs in modern everyday life rather than in the historical and mythological subject matter favored by their predecessors and the judges of the official Salon, the annual juried exhibition that defined which artists gained recognition and became successful. Their early experimentations in light and color would eventually be associated with Impressionism. Pissarro was also interested in the utopian ideal of living and working in accord with nature. For Pissarro, the country was a means to commune with the rural working class, at least on canvas, and to escape the conventions of city living.

In the early 1870s, a group of artists and writers met frequently at the Café Guerbois in Paris to discuss painting and politics. Tired of having their work judged and often rejected, Pissarro and Monet, joined by Renoir, Sisley, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, among others, decided to form a group of artists completely independent of the Salon. On April 15, 1874, the first Impressionist exhibition, as it came to be known, opened.

Pissarro and the other Impressionists took an avant-garde approach, using visible strokes of paint applied with brush and palette knife, foregoing detail, and leaving paint unmixed so as to create an optical blending of colors. At the time, the unconventional techniques they pursued were considered revolutionary, and provoked the harsh rebuke of the public and critics.

Pissarro’s artistic methodology is linked to his ideological outlook. This centered around a retreat from the authority of government and the artistic establishment, as well as a belief in an egalitarian society, influenced by anarchist literature. He based his approach to art on two concepts mentioned frequently in his correspondence: “nature” and “sensation.” While stressing the importance of studying nature and faithfully representing the visual world, his concept of nature in art is mediated by sensations – those feelings, perceptions, and memories that are personal, subjective and continuously shifting.

Pissarro’s painting process was closely tied to his leftist leanings, which were embodied in the radicalism of the Impressionist technique. His anarchism and painting technique became even more radical in the mid-1880s when he became associated with the Neo-Impressionists – Georges Seurat and Paul Signac – and their pointillist style. As with Impressionism a decade earlier, Neo-Impressionism provoked the disdain of critics and dealers, and Pissarro’s Neo-Impressionist works did not sell well during his lifetime.

After several years of working in the Neo-Impressionist style, Pissarro felt that the labor-intensive process of the pointillist technique took him away from the sensations that had previously animated his work. While he returned to his Impressionist style, his subject matter took a turn towards urban themes. In his later years, Pissarro spent a great deal of time in Paris, as well as in London and Rouen, and devoted himself mostly to city scenes. Pissarro painted more than three hundred such subjects, often in series, becoming the foremost Impressionist painter of cityscapes. 

Pissarro was deeply affected by the growing unrest and anti-Semitism that had gripped Paris at the end of the nineteenth century during the time of the Dreyfus Affair. Although the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus had been convicted of espionage several years earlier, it was not until the late 1890s that the public became aware that the evidence used to convict him was false and based on anti-Semitic assumptions. Public opinion was fiercely divided, as were the attitudes of the Impressionist artists. While Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Mary Cassatt aligned themselves with the Dreyfusards, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas supported the French government and even made anti-Semitic comments against Pissarro, their former friend and colleague. However, as was characteristic of his work, Pissarro’s paintings from this volatile time avoid references to current events while exploring the relationship between humanity and its environment, whether social, political, or natural.

Camille Pissarro followed his own path, never giving way to convention and always moving toward an individualistic aesthetic. Throughout his life, he remained an artist sustained by, as he wrote, the “satisfaction of living by my ideas.”

The exhibition has been organized by Karen Levitov, Associate Curator at The Jewish Museum. In conjunction with the exhibition, The Jewish Museum is publishing a 96-page catalogue by Karen Levitov and Richard Shiff, which is being distributed by Yale University Press. Dr. Shiff holds the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art and directs the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas in Austin. The paperback book features 76 color illustrations and sells for $19.95 at The Jewish Museum’s Cooper Shop and bookstores everywhere.

Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country is sponsored, in part, by Toll Brothers, Inc., and The Grand Marnier Foundation. Important support was also provided by The Mailman Foundation, Inc. and other generous donors.

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