Visual Arts Review: Get to Know Pissarro’s People at The Clark

Camille Pissarro lived to be 73. As he aged, he looked more and more like the prototype of a Sephardic Jew. The Dreyfus Affair triggered Anti-Semitic rioting; the painter found it prudent to stay inside his hotel room in Paris. One of the last self-portraits dates from this time.

Pissarro’s People. At the Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA, through October 2, 2011.

By Helen Epstein.

Camille Pissarro: Jeanne Holding a Fan

Although many of us are familiar with Pissaro’s French landscapes—old village roads glimpsed through falling snow, trees coming into leaf in early spring—no portraits by Pissarro leap readily to mind. That may change after this summer as thousands of visitors to the Berkshires view Pissarro’s People, the absorbing new exhibit at the Clark Institute in Williamstown. It brings together 40 oil paintings and 50 works on paper from far-flung collections famous and obscure, including his magnificent self-portrait from the Musée d’Orsay. A sumptuous catalogue, including newly discovered, unpublished Pissarro correspondence, elaborates on the artist’s unusual biography, his political and social interests, and the exhibit’s several weighty themes.

The Clark is both an art museum and a research center, intimately tied to the art history program at Williams College. Its exhibits tend to be scholarly, and this one is no exception. Curated by Richard Brettell, Professor of Art History at the University of Texas, the exhibit challenges our ideas about “the father of Impressionism” and documents its arguments in spades. In fact, it’s the first exhibit where I found myself thinking that between the wall text and the audio guide, I was getting too much information.

The exhibit itself is, however, just the right size. Not too small nor overwhelmingly large, Pissaro’s People omits the familiar landscapes almost entirely and focuses on the neglected but crucial aspects of the painter’s output: portraits of the members of his large and very close family; and portraits of workers—domestic and agricultural—whom he painted over and over again. In Brettell’s view, Pissarro is the quintessential outsider, whose social vision is deeply influenced by anarchism and other radical beliefs of his time. Nevertheless, he became a father figure for younger painters such as Seurat, Gauguin, and Cezanne.

Camille Pissaro (1830–1903) had a very different life from many of the painters—Renoir, Monet, Degas—we call Impressionists. He was a Sephardic Jew (the family name was once spelled Pizaro) from a large clan scattered over the various countries of the diaspora. Descended in part from Marranos who had moved from Spain to Portugal and Bordeaux, the painter himself was born on the island of St. Thomas, which was then a Danish colony. Although he lived most of his adult life in France, he retained his Danish citizenship until he died.

Camille Pissarro: Mme Pissarro Sewing

Pissarro attended a progressive school in St. Thomas run by the Moravian Brethren with other European as well as Afro-Caribbean students. He became a lifelong reader and possibly the most intellectual of the Impressionists, with a particular interest in radical political theory. Although not a practicing Jew, he retained a strong sense of Jewish identity and was much affected by the Dreyfus Affair. But, much to his mother Rachel’s dismay, he married Julie Vellay, the daughter of a French Catholic, peasant family who worked in the kitchen of his mother’s household (see portrait of Madame Pissarro). Together they had eight children.

The portraits of Pissarro’s wife, mother (who lived with the family), and children are perhaps the most striking in the exhibition. He was by all accounts—some of them are provided by his grandchildren on the audio guide—a doting father who encouraged his kids to read and draw and often drew or painted them as they did so. The settings, especially when compared to the haute bourgeoise settings of Renoir, are plain; there are no parrots or other pets. His favorite daughter, Jeanne-Rachel (nicknamed Minette), died while still a child and Pissarro painted her at several stages of her illness (see Jeanne with Fan) and ultimately on her deathbed. There is a deathbed etching of his mother Rachel as well. Both made me think of Edvard Munch’s depictions of family sorrow.

Unlike Impressionists who portrayed working class women in urban contexts, Pissarro was interested in rural women. His maids, washerwomen, market women, and harvesters all look as though the artist captured them as they went about their work. The Apple Pickers, one of the largest paintings on exhibit, troubled him for five years before he conferred with Seurat and decided to adopt his pointillist style for the work. There are also scenes of what we recognize as “farmer’s markets,” that depict working people buying and selling produce in a relaxed, almost idyllic way.

Camille Pissarro: The Apple Pickers

It’s difficult to inject anarchism into this bucolic and family context but, although not an activist, Pissarro considered himself an anarchist. He contributed articles to left-wing journals, had his correspondence censored, and was under surveillance by the police. His most overt political work is Turpitudes sociales, an album of drawings depicting politically disgraceful scenes inspired by anarchist texts that he made for his nieces Esther and Alice Isaacson.

Pissarro lived to be 73. As he aged, he looked more and more like the prototype of a Sephardic Jew. The Dreyfus Affair triggered Anti-Semitic rioting; the painter found it prudent to stay inside his hotel room in Paris. One of the last self-portraits dates from this time.

This exhibit gives the viewer an awful lot to look at and think about. I took a far too quick look at Spaces: Photographs by German artists Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth, a show (which runs through September 5, 2011) that is occupying the space where many of the Clark’s 31 Renoirs usually are hung. They are now being exhibited in Spain’s Prado. The very large, colorful, and sometimes funny photographs of people in sacred or secular spaces (or in unusually empty public spaces) deserve a longer look. I will go back.

Helen Epstein is the author of Meyer Schapiro: Portrait of an Art Historian and other work on Kindle.


  1. Shelley on July 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Aside from my hero Horton Foote, few artists have been able to convey visually the solitary nature of every child. But that top painting does.

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