"Living in Saint Thomas in 1852, [although] employed in a well-paying business, I could not endure the situation any longer, and without thinking, I abandoned all I had there and fled to Caracas, thus breaking the bonds that tied me to bourgeois life. What I suffered is incredible, but I have lived: what I am suffering now is terrible, much worse even than when I was young, full of zeal and enthusiasm. Now I am convinced that my future is dead. Yet I think that if I had to start all over again, I would not hesitate to follow the same path."
Here, in a rare autobiographical flashback at the end of a letter to the painter, dealer, and collector Eugène Murer, forty-eight-year-old Camille Pissarro looked back in 1878 to the beginning of his artistic career, when, at twenty-two, he left his native Saint Thomas for Caracas. This letter sets the tone for any interpretative analysis of Pissarro's work by placing special emphasis on a concept central throughout Pissarro's correspondence: freedom. It stresses the acts of self-liberation and self-assertion which inaugurated the young Pissarro's career as he set off on that initial voyage, leaving behind family ties, a secure income, and a comfortable position as a clerk in order to venture on a new life as an artist. During his lifetime, the grasp at freedom - asserting his own position independent of accepted rules - took several forms: he distanced himself from the values and conventions imposed by his bourgeois background; when he reached Paris, in 1855, he gradually and increasingly came to resist the aesthetic dogmas conveyed by the Académie des Beaux-Arts and by the Salons, even though a few of his works were initially accepted for Salon exhibitions. From the 1870s onwards, Pissarro professed passionate disdain for the Salons and refused to exhibit at them. Among the Impressionists, only he and Degas persisted in their unwavering defiance of the Salons: they asserted their own beliefs with an almost militant resolution. Degas was, incidentally, the artist to whom Pissarro referred the most often throughout his correspondence: their intense and mutual admiration was based on a kinship of ethical as well as aesthetic concerns.
"Pissarro remained attached to several fundamental values during his life; they are reflected to various extents throughout his work. The letter to Murer suggests some of the mainstays of Pissarro's ethics as a painter: a headstrong courage and tenacity to undertake and sustain the career of an artist stubbornly unmoved by current fashions and market trends; a lack of fear of the immediate repercussions of such a choice - isolation from his well-to-do family and an extremely precarious financial situation, which he faced until he was in his sixties; a profound belief in the benefits of what he called "enthusiasm" and "ardor"; a confidence that his love of work was strong enough to bolster his morale and keep him going; and an unshakable conviction that he had made the right choice ("if I had to start all over again, I would not hesitate to follow the same path"). Pissarro remained committed to these values, which in turn later endowed "Père Pissarro" with a known mark of integrity that made others willingly turn to him for advice. His pivotal role in the formation and the preservation of the Impressionist group illustrates this. In fact, he was the only artist who showed his work at all of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, from 1874 to 1886.
"His unending search for freedom or autonomy - which meant not so much the capacity to do anything, but rather the capacity to invent new rules and to experiment with them - can be seen readily throughout his work. From his arrival in Paris in 1855 until his death in 1903, Pissarro displayed a profound and insatiable curiosity about the work of his younger colleagues: Paul Cezanne, with whom he worked and shared ideas and methods intermittently from 1872 to 1882; Paul Gauguin, who was his pupil and close colleague from 1879 to 1883; Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce, and in particular, Georges Seurat, with whom from 1886 to 1890, he shared a short-lived interest in Neo-Impressionism. Of course, Pissarro was also influenced by the work of his two eldest sons, Lucien and Georges, and a few years before his death, Pissarro was providing advice and guidance to two of his sons' friends: Henri Matisse and Francis Picabia.
"Pissarro was as determined to strive for the freedom necessary to conduct his own work as to keep an open mind about the works of others, to be a recipient and a beneficiary of tolerance. Of course, this does not in any way imply that he blindly accepted anything that happened in the contemporary art world: his severe comments on Bonnard's work. for instance, offer a strong case in point: 'Another of these Symbolists who has just produced a fiasco. All the painters who respect themselves - Puvis, Degas, Renoir, Monet, and your servant - are unanimous in finding the exhibition of that artist organized at Durand hideous. That Symbolist goes by the name Bonnard.'
"Pissarro's attachment to freedom extended into specifically technical aspects. Not only is it impossible to classify his style into neat chronological categories, but furthermore, his style often varies even within the same painting: his brushwork techniques, together with his compositional devices, seldom follow a single formulaic pattern within any given work. A comparison of two paintings as different and as far apart chronologically as Upper Norwood, Crystal Palace London of 1870, and The Siesta, Eragny, done nearly thirty years later, indicates clearly the extent to which these two works radically differ from each other technically, chromatically, and compositionally. More intriguing is that each work in itself displays at least four or five juxtaposed and distinct techniques. The speckled surface in the foreground of Upper Norwood Crystal Palace, London and its rather tight, agitated brushwork are in stark contrast with the more ample, serene swirls of paint that make up the sky; these in turn are offset by the smooth, homogeneous, earthy blocks of paint that form the sidewalks; all this, in turn, is heightened by many regular touches of paint which, in combination, suggest small, cubical units of architecture in the central part of the painting.
"Similar observations could be made of The Siesta, Eragny, though there again the range of techniques used is considerably different. Here a crust of thick layers of flecks of paint (foliage) is intertwined with an accumulation of long, thin or thick threads of paint (haystack) with a more or less rhythmical juxtaposition of intermediate brushstrokes (foreground). In short, Pissarro's use of a broad repertoire of techniques is characteristic both within single works and throughout his career: each single work itself went through different phases, acting like a microcosm of his whole career.
"Pissarro's conception of painting was in this sense analogous to his conception of print making: his prints and his paintings on the whole reveal an amazing degree of curiosity and of concern for new technical devices. The artist with whom he most shared this passionate technical audacity was again Degas, whose methods he studied and regularly mentioned in his correspondence with his son Lucien, with whom he collaborated on certain prints in the late seventies. This ongoing technical exploration not only underscored his free, almost playful approach to painting but also elevated pictorial technique from its traditionally ancillary role.
"In Salon or academic practice, techniques do not call attention to themselves. A technique well-mastered should first serve to represent something well; the better the representation, the less noticeable the technique should be. By heightening our awareness of the welter of techniques he resorted to, Pissarro did the precise reverse. He thus also suggested that techniques were plastic equivalents not necessarily subservient to their representational functions. Throughout Pissarro's work, techniques acquired a certain autonomy.
"In his correspondence, Pissarro consistently established a distinction between what he called "literary painting" and what he called "a painter's painting."' In the former group he would place any work whose raison d'être is external: whose function is narrative, whose point is to tell a story - be it literary, historical, sentimental, social, mythological, or political. Thus, he was opposed to painters such as Louis Welden Hawkins, of whose painting Pissarro wrote: 'His painting, like that of many [otherl English artists, is literary - which is not a drawback - but it lacks something on the painterly side; it is thin and tough, and the values are weak; however, it is intelligent, a little Puvis de Chavannes-like: sentimental and feminine ... but ... it is not painting.'
"Among the other category - the true painters, those who do do painting - Pissarro would place the Impressionists at large, and among them, Degas and Cézanne in particular. He viewed Cezanne's 1895 exhibition at Vollard's with wild enthusiasm: 'I was thinking of Cezanne's exhibition, where exquisite things can be seen, still lifes of an irreproachable finish, others very worked out and yet left halfway; however, the latter are even more beautiful than the others: one can see landscapes, nudes, some heads that are unfinished and yet truly grandiose, and it is so painterly, so supple.' So one might ask, What stands in the way of a painting's becoming a true painting - or a painter's painting? Referring specifically to Puvis de Chavannes again, Pissarro answered: 'It was not made to be seen as a picture.' It may look astonishing when presented in the right environment, 'but it is not painting'.
"To the parallel question, What makes a true painter? Pissarro would answer that a true painter is very seldom found: he is one who can put two tones of color in harmony. In other words, Pissarro defines the nature of true painting in specifically visual terms.
"With painting liberated from its traditional hierarchy of subjects, Pissarro's work could draw upon a wide choice of subjects, themes, and motifs - the diversity of which escapes conventional categories. Throughout his career, exotic landscapes and indigenous figures are painted just before views of Montmartre or of the outskirts of Paris; riverscapes appear next to kitchen-garden landscapes in Pontoise, or Louveciennes and are succeeded by winter scenes in London. Twenty years later, views of London parks interrupt the continuum created by his series of Paris boulevards or avenues his London bridges announce, in part, and collide with, his series of Rouen bridges. All of these look very different from his quiet and almost subdued, solitary, asocial Eragny landscapes, or from his intimate and seldom-seen family portraits, or from his exquisite still lifes - all of which were executed within the last decade of his life. Bare landscapes are offset by bustling market scenes, with milling crowds deeply engaged in socializing and commerce. All of this again seems to have little to do with his monumental single or dual figure paintings of the 1880s.
"Though in different ways, his biography also stresses the importance of freedom in Pissarro's life. Born on July 10, 1830, he was brought up in Saint Thomas, which was, at the time, a possession of the Danish crown. The island became a privileged independent trading zone after the King of Denmark made it a 'free port' in 1764.
"Pissarro was a descendant of a family from Braganza, a Portuguese medieval fortified city near the Spanish border. The family were Marranos - Sephardic Jews who had been prohibited to practice their own creed and forced to convert to Christianity or suffer at the hands of the Inquisition. Pissarro's parents, Frederic and Rachel, had married away from the synagogue. Pissarro's father had come from France to Saint Thomas in 1824 to serve as the executor of his late uncle's will and to help the widow sort out the affairs of the estate. Frederic's liaison with Rachel, his uncle's widow, resulted in their expecting a child, and they soon announced their intention to marry. However, the elders of the synagogue refused to acknowledge the wedding, which in some ways contravened Jewish religious tenets; it was not until 1833, eight years later, that the synagogue agreed to recognize the marriage officially.
"After his death, in 1865, Frederic's will revealed that he had left a bequest of an unusual kind - a sum to be shared equally between the synagogue and the Protestant church in Saint Thomas. This unorthodox bequest may simply have stemmed from a survival of the Marranos' ambiguous religious position: a foot in the church and a foot in the synagogue, or it may have been a reflection of Frederic's annoyance at the Elders for having refused at first to legitimize his marriage. It was in Braganza, where Pissarro's forefathers had originated, that, in the eighteenth century, one of his ancestors was awarded the knighthood of the Order of Christ and the Pope himself granted him the special and rare privilege of building his own chapel there.
"The duality in religious allegiances was clearly still alive with Pissarro's father and may have generated in the son's mind a strong sense of not wanting to belong to either. Camille, who later married a Catholic-born woman in a civil wedding, always professed a strong atheism, defining himself as a freethinker. In the 1880s, he became a fervent adept of the libertarian anarchism preached by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (although he had earlier in life professed more conservative views).
"Yet what appears particularly clear-cut about Pissarro is that he was able to act both as a painter and as a political or social thinker without mixing or confusing the two fields: his art cannot be seen as in illustration of a political thesis - he does not use his colors and paints to depict a set of anarchistic 'ideas' or 'ideals' - and his political positions were certainly not solely dependent on his own interests as a painter. His art raises our awareness of the fact that a painting need not carry a revolutionary message in order to perform a revolutionary function. To depict the miseries and sufferings of the toiling masses or of the peasantry could indeed be seen as a fine and noble task: Pissarro knew, however, that these images did nothing to relieve oppression. He viewed commentaries which read illustrations of class opposition or visual commentaries of sociological treatises into his work as prototypes of reactionary thinking. Even if the narratives are of a sociological order rather than a religious or mythological one, the thinking process is identical. A recent trend of interpretations puts the image, or the 'message' before or above the action of painting. Its practitioners continue to envisage painting as 'literary,' with a pointed meaning - be it social or otherwise - and the action of painting as consequently subservient to the message or thesis to be understood. It has been my choice in this book to consider these questions through Pissarro's own thouqhts; his letters have been a principal source of analysis. There one finds that his reflections, pictorial and epistolary, are rivetingly alive and that their dynamics consistently escape the grasp of any preconceived monolithic 'meaning'.
"Pissarro's radicalism is commensurate with the extent to which he subverted this traditional order of things; within his art, what grants signification to a painting is not so much its "meaning" as its "praxis," the fact that before anything, it was painted as a painting, not as a literary painting. That is one reason that he rejected first and foremost sentimentality in art: 'In my opinion, the art that is the most corrupt is sentimental art.' He also rebelled against anything that stands in the way of 'art - and art seen through our sensations.' The kinds of art that involves are many: religious, social, mythological, historical art - i.e., art with a narrative, art based on hypocrisy, on pretense, on careerism, or on false motives: he rejected any art that goes against the artist's sensations.
"Sensation here evokes the intimate subjectivity of the artist's vision, or to put it otherwise, what is irreducibly idiosyncratic in his way of looking at things. Pissarro's pictorial reflection was a complex, self-questioning, recurrent, disparate, often paradoxical process. The chapters of this study tend to follow a broadly chronological progression, and in turn, the places where he lived - Caracas, Paris, Pontoise, London, Louveciennes, and Pontoise again - put their mark upon his work.
"From 1882 onwards, after he left Pontoise, he essentially lived in the same village, Eragny, creating there the largest bulk of his work and, paradoxically, the work least often seen or reproduced. He also made increasingly frequent visits to Paris, where he generated a new interest in urban pictorial imagery in his series of cityscapes. Throughout the 1880s, he also developed a keen, though not exclusionary interest in figures, set in isolation or in groups.
"Pissarro's art, it is essential to remember, escapes neat categorization or chronologies. The market theme, for instance, archetypical of his later years, was first developed in Caracas; his earliest view of Pontoise, Banks of the Oise in Pontoise, was executed while he lived in Louveciennes; his first major figure paintings were created, not in the 1880s, but in Paris, shortly after his arrival from the West Indies, Woman Carrying a Pitcher on Her Head, Saint Thomas, and then in Pontoise, La Bonne in the late sixties. In the midst of his intense Neo-Impressionist phase, Pissarro nonetheless executed market scenes, such as The Market at Gisors or Le Marché de Pontoise, which display almost nothing of the dot-to-dot fragmented application of color or of other technical aspects of his Neo-Impressionism. Neither the successive places where he lived, nor the successive technical periods that traditionally divide his work can satisfactorily explain, or exhaustively encompass, his oeuvre.
"Essentially complex, his work made use of a phenomenal imagination, an unusually rich, innovative visual mind, a vast curiosity about techniques of all sorts, a profound poetic sensitivity, and an unquenchable passion for painting, as well as a strongly defined set of intellectual positions."
- Text from "Camille Pissarro", by Joachim Pissarro
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