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The Arts Voyager, 12-13: Impressionist as Humanist
"Pissarro's People" revived in San Francisco

Camille Pissaro, "Self-Portrait with Hat," 1903. Tate Gallery, London. Presented by Lucien
Pissarro, the artist's son 1931. Images courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

PONTOISE (Val-d'Oise), France -- On a side street off the rue de L'Hermitage in this mundane outlying suburb of Paris sits a cluster of four unremarkable houses. You wouldn't be looking for them at all unless you happened to know that their roofs were memorialized by one Camille Pissarro in his 1877 oil painting "Les Toits Rouges." But this was the genius of Pissarro, to elevate the mundane to the level of the pastoral. To combine eye, the ability to see beauty in the ordinary, with technique, the ability to deploy the tools to bring to the premiere plain, in color and its application, the aspects of a subject, be it a country passage or a family portrait, a group of field laborers harvesting apples or a domestic worker holding with both hands her cup of coffee, that make it memorable.

When it came to people, Pissarro stood alone among the Impressionists -- rivaled only by Berthe Morisot, his fellow pupil at the Rue du Faubourg-Poissonniere atelier of Camille Corot, who schooled him in color values -- in his ability to capture elusive human qualities. "Minette," painted in 1872 not long before the death of his daughter Jeanne (a.k.a. Minette) at age 9, captures the child's fragility as she regards the viewer directly, vaporous in a blue dress, a select sash of red near her throat indicating her vulnerability. A lithograph portrait of his son Lucien in 1874 conveys the child's seriousness and also projects his own future, capturing him intently drawing on a pad; Lucien would become a painter in his own right. (You can find many of his paintings at the Pissarro Museum in a former chateau high atop a windy promontory in Pontoise, overlooking the Oise Valley and River.) His portraits of the domestic workers who entoured the Pissarros' home on the rue de l'Hermitage here and from around Pontoise bring forth their nobility ("Washerwoman," 1880), humanity coupled with self-effacement ("Young Peasant Woman Drinking her Café au Lait," 1981, a study in blue if there ever was one), and native innocence ("The Little Country Maid," 1882). Others subjects remain inscrutable, notably in "Self-Portrait with Hat," painted in 1903, the year of the artist's death; incredibly considering a recent eye infection, this portrait is not only a magnificent achievement in portraiture, but a brilliant canvas that uses a myriad of muted colors to convey complexity of subject as well as setting.

Camille Pissarro, "Apple Harvest," 1888. Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 1/8 in. (61 x 74 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund, 1955.17.M.

All of these works are among the 100 oil paintings and works on paper from museum and private collections around the world assembled for "Pissarro's People," on view through January 22 at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Moving beyond portraiture, the exhibition also includes works that flesh out the artist's engagement with social movements of the time, chief among them his album of illustrations "Turpitudes sociales," created in 1889-90 and, the museum says, being shown here in its entirety for the first time, on loan from a private collection. Most of the works were invariably drawn from the latter part of the artist's career; in trying to create any survey of Pissarro, curators are hampered by the fact that 1,500 of his works, all created before he was 40, were destroyed by the Prussians in Louviciennes after he fled their oncoming troops for London in 1871. This gap also accounts for fellow Impressionists like Cezanne and Monet often getting more attention than Pissarro in major museum exhibitions; his works are just less numerous. All the more reason to applaud the Legion and exhibition curator Richard Brettell for culling 100 works. (Even France's Orsay Museum, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Pissarro's death in an embarrassingly under-publicized exhibition in 2003 shuttled off to a room two floors below its major Impressionism hall, only displayed 35 works, the sum total of its own collection, reflecting an historic lack of tenacity by French museums to hold on to their own heritage.)

"Scholars have tended to treat Pissarro's politics and his art in two separate categories, often refusing to see the most basic connections between them," says Brettell, on whose scholarship the exhibition is based. "This is largely because Pissarro was less a political activist than a social and economic philosopher. The title of the exhibition, 'Pissarro's People,' is not merely an allusion to his politics, but points to a larger attempt to explore all aspects of his humanism. The exhibition embodies his pictorial humanism and creates a series of contexts, linking his web of family and friends to his profound social and economic concerns."

Camille Pissarro, "Minette," ca. 1872. Oil on canvas, 18 1/16 x 14 in. (46 x 35 cm). Wadsworth
Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, the Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin
Sumner Collection Fund, 1958.144.

Camille Pissarro, "In the Garden at Pontoise: A Young Woman Washing Dishes," 1882. Oil
on canvas, 32 1/4 x 25 11/16 in. (81.9 x 65.3 cm). The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum,
Cambridge, acquired with assistance of the National Art Collections Fund, 1947, PD.53-1947.

Camille Pissarro, "Young Peasant Woman Drinking Her Café au Lait," 1881. Oil on canvas,
25 11/16 x 21 9/16 in. (65.3 x 54.8 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection,

Camille Pissarro "Washerwoman, Study," 1880. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 23 1/4 in. (73 x 59.1
cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Nate B. Spingold, 1956, 56.184.1.

Camille Pissarro, "The Marketplace," 1882. Gouache on paper, 31 3/4 x 25 1/2 in. (80.6 x
64.8 cm). Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, private collection, L.1984.54.

Camille Pissarro, "The Little Country Maid," 1882. Oil on canvas, 25 x 20 7/8 in. (63.5 x 53
cm). Tate: Bequeathed by Lucien Pissarro, the artist's son, 1944, N05575.

Camille Pissarro, "Portrait of the Artist's Son, Lucien," 1874. Lithograph. Plate: 8 1/4 x 11 in. (21 x 28 cm); sheet: 9 5/16 x 11 13/16 in. (23.7 x 30 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Stephen Bullard Memorial Fund, 1972.54.

Camille Pissarro, "Jeanne Pissarro, Called Cocotte, Reading," 1899. Oil on canvas, 22 x 26 3/8 in. (56 x 67 cm). Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty.

Camille Pissarro, "The Harvest," 1882. Tempera on canvas, 27 11/16 x 49 9/16 in. (70.3 x 126 cm). The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, donated by the heirs of Mr. Kojiro Matsukata, P.1984-3.

Camille Pissarro, "Jeanne Pissarro, Called Minette, Sitting in the Garden, Pontoise," ca.
1872. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 23 5/8 in. (73 x 60 cm). Private collection.

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