Justice to Pissarro
by Dana Gordon
The “winter landscape” to which Zola referred, Banks of the Marne in Winter, was one of these works. Included in the MOMA show, it is full of the abstraction Pissarro was inventing. The trees on the left of the painting are an essay of lines, the houses on the right make up a play of triangular and trapezoidal shapes. The entire lower-right quadrant is a kind of “color-field” painting, concerned with the communicative powers of color and brushstroke independently of what they depict. The smudges of paint on the far right, standing in for houses, declare that smudges of paint carry qualities of beauty in their own right.
For over a century, the painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) has been considered the father of modern art. His ascendancy, which began around 1894, had a tidal influence on the development of the avant-garde, leading to both abstraction and expressionism, commanding the fealty of Picasso and Matisse, dominating the standard narrative of the development of modernism through the late 20th century, and lingering today.
But things did not always look this way. For most of the late 19th century, it was not Cézanne but the painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who was revered as the greater master, and as one of the most influential creators of modern art. Thanks to the twists of history, however, Pissarro’s reputation subsequently ebbed to the point where he came to be recalled, often dismissively, as a vaguely important and skillful landscapist among the Impressionists and, dimly, as the first great Jewish modern artist.
Over the past quarter-century, in a quiet countermovement, Pissarro’s significance has been revived. Essays and exhibitions, including one at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1995, have shed new light on his achievement, suggesting in particular that Cézanne’s own career would not have been possible without the precedence of Pissarro. Recently abetting this trend has been a vibrant and informative show organized this past summer by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York and now on tour [please note this exhibition took place in 2005 - ed.].
From 1861 until the mid-1880’s, Pissarro and Cézanne carried on a deep artistic and personal in- teraction that had a determining effect on the future of art. This interaction is the subject of the exhibit now on tour. But despite its many virtues, the show does not by itself illumine the full story of the Pissarro-Cézanne relationship, or of Pissarro himself; nor does it really make clear how to appreciate the latter’s work. Most cultured eyes still see early modern art, including Pissarro’s, through a Cézanne-derived screen, and a whole understanding of the modernist movement in art follows from this perception.
Pissarro’s significance was recognized early on by his peers—and fitfully by officialdom. In the 1850’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, international “Salon” exhibitions offered the only hope for commercial success and acclaim in France. But admission was controlled by adherents of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, whose teachers held to a petrifying methodology. Vanguard artists had to deal with the Salons or, somehow, without them.
One of Pissarro’s unorthodox landscapes was accepted for the 1859 Salon, where it was noted appreciatively by the critic Alexandre Astruc. In 1863, his participation in the Salon des Refusés—a protest against the official Salon—made him anathema, but his work was so strong that it was nevertheless accepted for the Salons of 1864, ’65, and ’66. In his review of the last of these, Emile Zola, the great novelist and art critic, and a supporter of the avant-garde, wrote about Pissarro: “Thank you, Sir, your winter landscape refreshed me for a good half-hour during my trip through the great desert of the Salon. I know that you were admitted only with great difficulty.” In the same year, the painter Guillemet would write, “Pissarro alone continues to produce masterpieces.”
These early responses indicate clearly enough that Pissarro was creating something unusual. In fact, he was inventing abstraction, the ingredients of which he had gleaned from his precursors. As early as 1864, he was using elements of landscape as abstract designs, making lines and shapes be lines and shapes as well as representations of objects and scenic depth.
Camille Pissarro was born on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, a child of middle-class Jewish merchants originally from Bordeaux. Schooled in Paris from 1841 to 1847, he went back to the island to enter the family business, but eventually sloughed off his family’s expectations to go draw and paint in Venezuela. He returned to Paris for good in 1855, followed not long afterward by his parents.
In 1860, Pissarro began a liaison with Julie Vellay, his mother’s cook’s assistant. They married in 1871, had eight children, and remained together until Camille’s death in 1903. The relationship cost him a large part of his mother’s affections and financial support; as a consequence, most of Pissarro’s adult life would be a dire struggle for money.
And Cézanne? For over 20 years, from the time they met in 1861, he sought and received Pissarro’s advice and help. The young Cézanne, awkward in art as in person, was ridiculed in Paris—but not by Pissarro, who, perhaps seeing something of himself in the impolitic frankness of the younger man’s work, recognized his unusual talent immediately and never faltered in his support.
The two became close friends; by the early 1870’s, Cézanne was so eager to work in Pissarro’s company that he moved near him. That they influenced each other is beyond doubt. “We were al- ways together!,” Pissarro wrote of those years, when the volatile Cézanne’s attachment was intense. In particular, Pissarro’s obsessive approach to work, to mining his own vision, helped Cézanne to release his blocked personality, showing him how emotional content would come on its own and allowing him to channel his anxious energy into the formal problems of painting.
Monet has often been represented as the genius of Impressionism, and a genius he certainly was. He was also the instigator of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Nevertheless, in a review of that show, the critic Armand Silvestre could refer to Pissarro as “basically the inventor of this painting.” One can see why.