If you know the difference between Camille Pissarro, the French Impressionist painter, and Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish explorer, you may also know that Pissarro was considered the Father of Impressionism and is celebrated and loved for his gentle, soft focus landscapes and scenes of rural life. What you may not know is that Camille Pissarro was also an aesthetic revolutionary and a radical anarchist.
Pissarro’s People at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (through October 2) assembles some 40 oil paintings and 50 works on paper focused on his figurative art in an attempt to illuminate both his rich family life and his progressive social philosophy.
“These works,” explains the Clark’s website, “explore the three dimensions of Pissarro’s life that are essential to an understanding of his pictorial humanism: his family ties, his friendships, and his intense intellectual involvement with the social and political theories of his time.”
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was a thoroughly modern man of his times. Born in St.Thomas, Virgin Island, then Danish colony, he was the son of a Creole mother and Portuguese Jewish father. He was a lifelong Danish citizenship, lived for several years in Venezuela, and eventually became a key figure in French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, a friend and colleague of Cassatt, Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Morisot, Renoir, Sisley and of the Pointillist painters Seurat and Signac.
Though the lyrical confections of Impressionism – free use of color and loose brushstrokes meant to evoke the dynamics of light and perception – are almost universally loved a century and more after the fact, Impressionism was as radical and controversial in its day as whatever the latest offensive art is today. Pissarro, who showed in all of the Impressionist exhibitions, was a central figure in the movement, a gentle, kindly soul who managed to get along with all the prickly egos of the group.
But as Pissaro’s People also demonstrates, Pissarro was also a social radical, an anarchist who believed in individual liberty, egalitarianism, and local control and who did not believe in private property or national governments. An unconventional man, he married Julie Vellay, one of his mother’s maids, and fathered eight children with her both in and out of wedlock. For the most part, Pissarro’s non-violent anarchism played out pictorially in paintings and drawings that celebrate common people working the land in harmony with nature.
A more discordant and didactic note is struck, however, by Turpitudes sociale, an album of black and white drawings in which Pissarro illustrated the evils of capitalism – poverty, starvation, exploitation of workers, material greed – and his disdain for the conventional morality of marriage and religion.
This being the felicitous Pissarro and the polite Clark Art Institute, the little subversive album should not give much offense. The major import of the exhibition is to highlight Pissarro as a family man and a figurative artist.
“Pissarro’s People is the first exhibition to bring together portraits of every member of Pissarro’s immediate family,” notes the Clark website, “reflecting his abiding allegiance to his wife and children. The exhibition will also include paintings that reveal Pissarro’s numerous friendships with artists, business colleagues, neighbors, agriculturalists, rural workers, and his extended network of acquaintances.”
[Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, South St., Williamstown, MA. 413-458-2303]