Camille Pissarro (1839-1903) was central to the development of Impressionism, mounting the First Impressionist Exhibition with his friend Monet. At the vanguard of cutting-edge trends in painting, he took young Cezanne and Gauguin under his wing and briefly dabbled in Neo-Impressionism, making pointillist pictures with Seurat.
Yet unlike Monet, Pissarro struggled financially for most of his career and today he is less celebrated than many of his contemporaries. A retrospective now on view at The Museo Thyssen‐Bornemisza in Madrid offers visitors the opportunity to reassess the legacy of this artist who Guillermo Solana, exhibition curator, calls “the most important figure of impressionism.”
Mainly landscapes and cityscapes, the paintings here are grouped according to when and where they were made. The earliest works reveal Pissarro’s formative influences. Encouraged by his teacher Corot to paint outdoors, the earliest work in the show is “La Varenne‐Saint‐Hilaire, View from Champigny,” c. 1863. It features Corot-like small figures in a field awash in afternoon light, as fluttering strokes representing leaves and flowers dance across passages of subtle earth tones.
Pissarro was also a student of Courbet and “Banks of the Oise at Pontoise,” 1867 shows that master’s influence, with clouds painted with a palette knife and landscape laid down in heavy, earthy brushstrokes.
Working in the countryside on the outskirts of Paris, Pissarro’s landscapes examine various lighting and weather conditions with a naturalism that sets him apart from his colleagues. Because he faithfully studied the play of light and shadow throughout the seasons, Pissarro changed his palette and the size of his stroke to suit the scene he was depicting, painting quickly or slowly, colors sometimes muted, sometimes vivid. As a result, Pissarro’s works do not have the easily recognized style of Renoir or Monet. Writing about his faithful depiction of nature, Émile Zola said that in Pissarro’s landscapes “one hears the profound voices of the earth and feels the powerful life of the trees.”
“La Côte des Boeufs, L'Hermitage,” 1877, one of the larger canvases in the show, is masterful. Long, vertical stripes of trees, solid as prison bars, make this an ironclad composition, a curving country road, serpentine branches and a cluster of houses painted with red, white and blue add quirkiness to the sturdy composition. Heavily textured from being reworked, small dabs of paint coalesce into grey, overexposed areas of bramble.
Only one example from Pissarro’s flirtation with Neo-Impressionism is on display here, “L'île Lacroix, Rouen (The Effect of Fog),” 1888, a value-based, achromatic work. Though the objective, analytical approach to color espoused by Seurat initially appealed to Pissarro, ultimately the time-consuming pointillist process became confining.
In his last years, an eye ailment forced Pissarro indoors where he painted a large number of cityscape views from apartment windows in Paris and Rouen. These works are displayed in the final gallery of the exhibition. Here Pissarro’s nuanced palette and adept touch capture the hustle and bustle of Pont Neuf, the Louvre seen from the Left Bank and Boulevard Montmartre during Mardi Gras.
Included in this exhibition, on a wooden palette lined with dollops of paint, is a small landscape with a horse-drawn cart and two figures. The informal work by Pissarro is a painting that celebrates painting.
Eager to try on the latest stylistic possibilities of his craft, Pissarro’s work is difficult to categorize. Forever learning from the younger artists he admired, all the while pushing art history forward, “the first impressionist,” according to Cézanne, was “humble and colossal.”
Pissarro, on view through September 15, 2013. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Palacio de Villahermosa, Paseo del Prado 8, Madrid, Spain, 34 902 76 05 11, www.museothyssen.org
Pissarro, October 15, 2013 – January 26, 2014, Obra Social ”a Caixa”, CaixaForum, Av. Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, 6-8, ‘La Font de la Guatlla,’ Barcelona, Spain, 93 476 86 00, www.lacaixa.es/obrasocial
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com