WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. Along time ago, in the countryside northwest of Paris, the natural beauty and goodness of a middle-aged, rosy-faced farm woman caught the eye of Camille Pissarro.
Her name was Marie Adeline, she was his neighbor, and she apparently agreed to pose for him. For those who gaze upon her face 180 years later, those details aren’t that important. What catches our eyes and minds is that Pissarro painted “The Washerwoman” as a real person, someone who had value in his world.
“Pissarro was the only Impressionist who made paintings of domestic workers,” said Richard Rand, senior curator of paintings at the Clark Art Institute.
Pissarro was a landscape painter, and for 17 years he lived in Pontoise, northwest of Paris, where he carted his easel and brushes outdoors to work. But as “Pissarro’s People,” a groundbreaking exhibit at the Clark now reveals, the human condition and his own precious family were always on his mind and in his artwork.
WHERE: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, Mass.
WHEN: Through Oct. 2. Museum open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
HOW MUCH: $15, free for children age 18 and under and college students with ID
MORE INFO: (413) 458-2303 or clarkart.edu
“Pissarro painted only a handful of unpopulated landscapes; indeed, one struggles to find a landscape by Pissarro without a human figure,” asserted Richard R. Brettell, a leading Pissarro scholar who curated the Clark’s major summer/fall exhibit. “These show another Pissarro.”
For the viewer, the exhibit of 40 oil paintings and 52 prints and drawings lent from the world’s greatest Impressionist collections, is a journey in which we deeply explore “People” themes in Pissarro’s landscapes, portraits and figure drawings, beginning with his most intimate relationships and moving outward to his politics and worldview.
“Pissarro’s People” opens with family portraits and “Two Women Chatting by the Sea, Saint Thomas,” an oil painting depicting dark-skinned Afro-Caribbean women.
Pissarro was born on Saint Thomas in 1830 when the Caribbean island was a Danish colony.
A cultural outsider
While the artist with the long, flowing beard and piercing eyes is regarded as the dean of French Impressionists and the most experimental of the group, he was also an outsider, culturally distant from the country and people he painted.
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“He was a Jewish Danish anarchist. Both his parents were Sephardic Jews. He was a foreign person,” said Brettell.
Julie, his French Catholic wife, is intent on her handiwork, her eyes cast down, seemingly unaware that Pissarro is painting her in “Madame Pissarro Sewing Beside a Window.” In another charming painting, his 5-year-old son Georges plays a toy drum in the private family garden as he stands against a row of flowering fruit trees.
In several paintings, family members are reading or pose with books in their hands.
“It was an intellectual household,” said Rand.
There are heartbreaking images of his daughter Jeanne-Rachel, nicknamed Minette, who died of tuberculosis at age 8. In the painting “Minette,” her thin legs poke out from a blue smock and her complexion is pale. The lithograph “Dead Child” shows little Minette as she lies dying in bed.
“He was family man. He and his wife had eight children, five of whom survived,” says Brettell.
The next of “Pissarro’s People” are the maids and servants who worked in his home, young women who are presented as healthy and comfortable and apparently content in their service roles.
“Washerwoman” appears in a section titled “The Rural Worker,” where peasants gather hay, pick apples and chop wood.
Where other Impressionists, such as Monet, portray people en masse, with the individual barely distinguished, Pissarro defines the person and his role in society.
“Each figure is individual,” said Brettell. “He is the visual poet of their rural life. This sense of involvement and social intimacy is completely unique to Pissarro among Impressionist landscape painters.”
A self-portrait of the artist.
An ardent anarchist, Pissarro envisioned a Utopian society where all people were equals and could co-exist harmoniously in small agrarian communities.
In “Apple-Picking,” an 1886 oil on canvas borrowed from the Ohara Museum of Japan, the scene of three women working in an orchard is dreamlike and infused with golden light, suggesting perhaps Pissarro’s vision of a future ideal world.
“Pissarro found country life closer to ideal of human equality than life in the city,” said Rand.
“In Pissarro’s ideal world, labor would be balanced by plentiful leisure time. The idea was that we don’t need government. . . . that we need each other.”
In 1889, Pissarro sent his nieces a series of ink drawings to educate them about what he perceived as the horrors of modern capitalist society. Titled “Turpitudes sociales” (“social disgraces”), the album of 30 drawings — depicting poverty, the dire existence of factory workers and other urban ills — is revealed to the public for the first time at the Clark.
“He was a friend of major anarchists,” said Rand.
When anarchists in France were rounded up and jailed, Pissarro probably would have been imprisoned with them, but he happened to be in Belgium at the time, Rand says.
Brettell, one of the world’s top scholars of Impressionism and French painting from 1830 to 1930, is a professor at the University of Dallas and works as an international museum consultant in Europe, Asia and the United States.
In 2000, he was the Clark’s guest curator for “Impression: Painting Quickly in France 1860-1890,” another major summer exhibit.
Working with family
Described as an “honorary member” of the Pissarro family, Brettell worked closely with Joachim and Lionel Pissarro, great-grandsons of Pissarro, and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, the great-great granddaughter of Paul Durand-Ruel, Pissarro’s most important art dealer.
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Joachim, Lionel and Claire were in Williamstown for the exhibit opening and appeared at a press conference and exhibit tour.
While researching “Pissarro’s People,” Brettell combed through the thousands of letters that Pissarro wrote and received over his long life.
While he lived nearly his entire adult life in France, he kept close ties with Jewish relatives in England, America and South America and wrote to them in English, Spanish and French, even some rudimentary Danish.
“In this, he is all but unique among the Impressionists,” Brettell writes in the introduction to the 319-page catalog.
“Pissarro’s People” is one of the most important Impressionist shows we’ve ever done,” said Rand.