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Art Essay: Pissarro: Leading Spirit of "The Dear Unwanteds" (1830-1903)

By Susan Vreeland
ART TIMES online October 2014

Paul Cézanne called him “the great Pissarro, my master.”

Art critics thought otherwise. In a review of the Impressionists show of 1877, critic Ernest Fillonneau wrote in Le Moniteur des Arts, "Monsieur Pissarro is becoming completely unintelligible. He puts together...all the colors of the rainbow; he is violent, hard, brutal. From an effect which might well have been acceptable, he makes something unbelievable."*

And critic Léon de Lora said of Pissarro's landscapes, “Seen close up, they are incomprehensible and awful; seen from afar, they are awful and incomprehensible.”**

It would take decades before he was recognized, but he painted on. I admire him for that.

In his days of poverty during coldest, rainiest months, Camille Pissarro and his burgeoning family lived in a cramped apartment on boulevard Rochechouart at the base of Montmartre, and he painted in friends' studios. And in the days when the Impressionists suffered, Pissarro encouraged them, kept them painting, called them “the dear unwanteds.” All of them in this painting fraternity looked to Pissarro. He was a constant stabilizing factor, never missing showing his work in any of the Impressionist shows, even when the group was splitting apart and the need for their solidarity lessened as they were slowly becoming accepted.

Poverty, obscurity, doubt, loss were his demons, but he painted on.

During the Franco-Prussion War, 1870-71, he took exile in London and there he painted The Crystal Palace. He returned to his home in Louveciennes, southwest of Paris, to find straw and manure everywhere. Prussian soldiers had been billeted there. They had kept their horses downstairs in winter, which splintered the wooden floor, used the kitchen as a sheep pen, and his studio, a little stone outbuilding, as a stable and slaughterhouse. Imagine his pain when, under two feet of mud, bloody straw and manure, he found his sketchbooks from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where he had been born. Prussians had laid his dirt- caked paintings as paths from house to road. Twelve thousand paintings were taken or destroyed. He was able to save only fifty-one. Learning from the soldiers, the women of Louveciennes had stolen his paintings, removed them from their stretchers, punctured them and tied them with string as aprons when they did their washing on the banks of the Seine.

Nevertheless, that brave man painted on, standing absolutely still as a tree on a windless day, at one with his canvas, adoring the landscape before him, anointing it with his loving touches. He was influenced by Cézanne to take up the impressionist style. He moved his family of nine (five of his seven children were to take after their father and become painters) to the peasants' hamlet of L'Hermitage beside Pontoise north of Paris, where he had once lived, and there he found his spiritual and artistic home.

In my novel, Lisette's List, I have him say of Pontoise, “I love the stone houses, even the pigeons dumping on the tile roofs, the pattern of cultivated fields and wild ones, patches of different colors, the scattering of mills and smokestacks, the smell of this earth, even good, healthy manure. I belong here as much as the Voisne stream, which runs to the Oise, then to the Seine, and to the sea. Everything is connected here, that orchard offering its fruit to generations, that river that quenched the thirst of Romans, even of Celts. I am a part of them now; they are a part of me. Isn't there a hunger in every human being, painter or not, to find a place in the world that gives to him so richly that he wants to honor it, give back--that's it--give back--that's what I'm doing. That's what makes me feel good at the end of each day.”

That sensibility, recounted by my character Pascal who knew him, created in Lisette her decision to give two paintings to the village of Roussillon. Likewise, it animated my longing to write Lisette's List and to feature him, so I could not only share what he said, but satisfy my own yearning to give back something myself that I had gained from his paintings.

At sixty years old, Pissarro's paintings sold well, but in 1889, he had an eye infection. It could have been seen as a disaster because it prevented him from painting outdoors. He adjusted, gave up his rural milieu, and painted street scenes in Paris from hotel room windows. Bless him. He never gave up.

That determination to go on, that willingness to adjust has been a lesson I'm learning from him. No wonder Cézanne called him “mon bon Dieu,” my good God.


* and ** T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life. p. 19.

( Susan Vreeland is an internationally known author of art-related historical fiction including four New York Times best sellers. Her newest novel, Lisette’s List presents one woman’s yearning for art at a time when her family’s collection of paintings had to be hidden in the south of France from Nazi art thieves.

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