Camille Pissarro- Father of Impressionism, on view at the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, Germany, presents a number of pieces from Camille Pissarro’s (1830-1903) oeuvre that are not well known to the public.
The comprehensive retrospective includes a number of pieces from the artist’s formative years. Pissarro’s early paintings are hard to come by because most of the artworks he made before age forty were destroyed by Franco-Prussian soldiers, who, among other travesties, used his canvases as butchering aprons. Even so, this exhibition includes very early landscapes as well as a good selection of his Impressionist rural compositions from Eragny and Montfoucault, and scenes of Rouen, Dieppe, Le Havre, and Paris. Pissarro’s flower still lifes and figure paintings are also here. The only gap is his Pointillist work, with just a single canvas from that period.
Several paintings here are on loan from European collections and are seldom seen in America, including “Chemin des Creux, Louveciennes, Snow,” 1872, a quintessential Impressionist painting. In this beautiful picture, weak winter sunlight provides a touch of warmth on the gleaming snow, painted with pale pink, coral, yellow and cream. The deep shadows are made with nuanced shades of blue, grey and mauve. An old tree’s rotten trunk is filled with snow beneath a graceful tangle of delicate branches.
The exhibition pairs Pissarro’s paintings with select artworks by a number of his contemporaries, canvases drawn from the Von der Heydt museum’s own collection. Work by Corot, Courbet, Daubigny, Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Seurat and Daumier provide welcome context. A couple of obscure yet interesting paintings here are by two of Pissarro’s closest friends- Fritz Melbye, his painting companion in St. Thomas and Venezuela, and Ludovic Piette, a friend from Paris and Montfoucault, where the Pissarro family often visited.
The Von der Heydt’s impressive holdings of Pissarro drawings and prints were matched by generous loans from the Musée Pissarro in Pontoise, France, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. One tiny sketch of trees with a village in the background contains notes on the colors Pissarro planned to use in a future painting, providing insight into the artist’s creative process.
Pissarro painted, “Two Women Chatting by the Sea,” 1856, in Paris at the age of 26. He was already a mature artist by then, having spent more than a year in Venezuela selling paintings and teaching art lessons. This work has all the hallmarks of Impressionism. It depicts a common scene of two women, possibly slaves, with loads of laundry on their heads. Intense light and shadow from the tropical sun is portrayed in Impressionistic strokes. Pissarro knew his painting style would be unacceptable by French Salon standards, yet the young artist intentionally ignored accepted practice, painting in an Impressionist manner some fourteen years before the First Impressionist Exhibition.
While other artists made pictures that told stories or recorded pleasant views, Pissarro went down a different path. For him, fields or city streets were an opportunity to arrange paint on canvas. He used paint liberally, slathering it on with a palette knife or using broad, heavy brush strokes, often working wet-into-wet so that colors ran together.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his painting, “Boulevard Montmartre, Night Effect,” c. 1897. The emphasis in this picture is not on the scene itself, but on the mix of yellow and red framed by light and dark. Pissarro designed the streetscape into a large X composition, one line beginning at the rooflines near the top left corner and extending to the lower right corner, the other diagonal extending from the rooflines on the upper right corner to the white store canopies at lower left. This painting, like so many other Pissarros, can be enjoyed as much for its abstract arrangement of color and shape as for its representation, though no one was using the term “abstract” to describe art in those days.
This show establishes Pissarro as more than an Impressionist. It confirms that Pissarro’s early artistic techniques were the source of new art reaching far beyond Impressionism. That is a side of Pissarro that has yet to be fully explored.
Pissarro: Father of Impressionism, through February 22, 2015, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, Germany, 0049-202-2626, www.pissarro-ausstellung.de