The Moses Of Impressionism
(courtesy of the Jewish Week, N.Y,)
In a long career, Camille Pissarro — one of his artistic movement's only Jews — painted a wide range of landscapes and got caught up in the Dreyfus Affair.
Caroline Lagnado - Special To The Jewish Week
Ethereal cityscape: Pissarro's
Camille Pissarro may have been reluctant to embrace his Jewish background, but his work is no stranger to New York's Jewish Museum. Opening this Sunday, "Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country" is the museum's third exhibit about the 19th-century artist. This multifaceted show is drawn mainly from pieces borrowed from private collections, and is replete with many harvest scenes.
Born Jacob Pizarro in 1830 on St. Thomas, Pissarro enjoyed a long and productive career, painting the French countryside in addition to England and the Danish West Indies. A founding member of the Impressionists, a radical group of 19th-century artists that decided to take their easels outside, use visible brushstrokes and embrace scenes of everyday life, Pissarro was one of the only Jews to exhibit with them.
Considered the "Father of Impressionism," for sporting a long, flowing white beard, adopting the nickname Moses and being perhaps the most committed Impressionist artist, Pissarro exhibited in and helped coordinate each of the movement's eight shows until the group's dissolution in 1886.
Joachim Pissarro, Camille's great-grandson and a preeminent scholar of the artist's work, notes in a catalog from a 1994 exhibit at the Israel Museum that though Pissarro didn't live a particularly Jewish life, he never denied being Jewish. In fact, Pissarro saw his espousal of Impressionism as somewhat ironic, "he himself a Jew, belonging to a millennia-old tradition, was making a total break with all forms of tradition."
Pissarro's family, Sephardim originally from Portugal, were Marranos who later became re-involved with Judaism, enough to hold prominent standing in the St. Thomas Jewish community. However, his father Frederic's relationship with the community became strained when Frederic married his uncle's widow, Rachel. This arrangement is permitted in neither Christian nor Jewish law, and children born are considered illegitimate. It wasn't until Pissarro's mother gave birth to their fourth child that the synagogue legitimized the marriage.
It is probable that after such an ordeal with the Jewish establishment, Rachel and Frederic raised their children to view religion with a critical eye. Until the Pissarro children were legitimized, they went to school with the children of slaves and were most likely among the only white and non-Christian children there.
In choosing to become a painter instead of a businessman, Pissarro rejected his father's life. He moved to Paris to paint in 1855 and later married a non-Jewish servant. Adopting an anarchist ideology, he saw art as the philosophy of his time, despised authoritarianism and raised his children without religion, encouraging them to instead value their independence and autonomy.
The France of Pissarro's time was relatively tolerant towards its sizable and mostly Ashkenazi Jewish population, a community in which the Sephardic Pissarro may have felt uncomfortable. Pissarro did fit in with the Impressionists, and enjoyed his position as an established, successful artist, discussing work with fellow artists like Degas and Cezanne.
Associate curator Karen Levitov focuses on Pissarro's use of paths in his art, a natural intersection of nature and civilization. Pissarro's own path or his trajectory as painter of the country to painter of the city is followed throughout the show.
As art historian Meyer Schapiro has noted, Pissarro began his career with bucolic scenes, and as he aged, painted streets and crowds, the opposite of his peer, Monet. His earlier works are signed C. Pizarro, the Sephardic spelling of the artist's name. He stopped spelling his name with a "z" in 1859, shortly before the writer Emile Zola took note of Pissarro's art and commended him on a landscape.
Pissarro shows himself to be expert at integrating his figures into their backgrounds; it is sometimes hard to distinguish one from the other. In "Kew Gardens, London, The Rhododendron Path," from 1892, the figures shown walking on a path are tiny, almost overtaken completely by Pissarro's depiction of nature using bright and vibrant, sometimes unmixed, colors. In "The Haystack, Sunset, Eragny," from 1895, Pissarro adopts a familiar Impressionist theme. This foreground-heavy picture includes two figures at the left who are so small they seem almost like an afterthought. In her catalog essay, Levitov asserts that Pissarro felt a kinship with the peasantry because of his "marginal status in society as a non-French (Danish) citizen, an anarchist, and a Jew."
Though France was one of the first European counties to grant Jews full civil equality around 1791, anti-Semitism was latent in the society, rising to the surface during the Dreyfus Affair, when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, was wrongly convicted of treason. While Pissarro and Emile Zola hadn't been in touch because of what Pissarro considered Zola's "critical attitude" towards Impressionism, once Zola published "J'Accuse," an open letter on the front page of L'Aurore newspaper, accusing the French government of mistreating Dreyfus's case, Pissarro immediately wrote a letter of support to Zola. The streets of Paris housed anti-Semitic mobs and Monet and Cassat joined Zola as Dreyfus supporters.
Degas, a misanthrope and anti-Semite, blamed France's troubles on the Jews and was joined by Cezanne and Renoir in siding with the government. The artists still admired each other's work even though they couldn't stand each other. Renoir and Degas were said to have shunned Pissarro, who called Degas a "ferocious anti-Semite" in a letter to his son, Lucien.
Throughout the Dreyfus Affair, Pissarro tried to remain focused on his work and continued painting prolifically: he produced nearly 50 pieces. By this point he was painting city scenes in addition to rural scenes; he never depicted the anti-Jewish riots. These later pieces, like the ethereal "Place du Theatre Francais and the Avenue de l'Opera, Hazy Weather," of 1898 from the Klapper collection, are often painted with a bird's-eye view from his hotel room high above Paris. They show Pissarro to be keeping "a certain distance while viewing the outside world," commented Levov.
Following the success of a blockbuster exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005 (which also traveled to Paris and the Los Angeles) and a more recent exhibit in Baltimore last spring, Pissarro's name is well known.
The Jewish Museum show is mounted on earth-colored walls, with the exception of a small red room that brings out strong contrasts on small yet lovely etchings hung there. This exhibit can appeal to different viewers with its three foci: a great Jewish artist, Impressionist art and a rare glimpse at many privately owned pieces rarely seen in museum settings. n
"Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country" runs from Sept. 16 to Feb. 3 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street. Saturday-Wednesday, 11a.m.-5:45 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Fridays and all major Jewish holidays. For more information, go to www.thejewishmuseum.org or call (212) 423-3200.