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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pissarro’s People at the Clark Art Institute

Jeanne Pissarro, called Cocotte, Reading 1899 - Oil on canvas 22 x 26 3/8 in.
With a museum like the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute just down the road, you can tend to get a little spoiled. Every summer for as many as I can recall, the Clark has had a show good enough to top my list of the year’s best: Last year, it was Picasso Looks at Degas; the year before, it was Dove/O’Keeffe; and so on, going back (at least) to 2003’s amazing show of J.M.W. Turner’s late paintings.

This year is no exception: Pissarro’s People is a superb exhibition that brings together a wide range of the artist’s work in unique combinations for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Though it probably won’t draw huge crowds like Picasso or O’Keeffe (and that’s a shame), this exhibition offers rewards beyond the woozy feeling you get when confronted by genius on canvas, largely by telling a whopper of a true story.

The Little Country Maid 1882
Oil on canvas 25 x 20 7/8 in.
In effect, Camille Pissarro’s life and career were so fascinating as to almost overshadow the art itself – born half Jewish and half French in Danish-held Saint Thomas in 1830, he goes on to establish and lead the Impressionist movement and to personally mentor Modernism’s two key founders (Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin), all the while adhering to a lifelong anarchist philosophy and raising a brood of eight devoted children.

This amazing story is illustrated, so to speak, by Pissarro’s many paintings and works on paper in the show – a thin slice of his life’s work, really, due to the “people” theme. The works also nicely delineate the artistic process in effective ways. And, along the way, they happen to include enough eye-popping masterpieces to keep even the hungriest sensation-seeker satisfied.

As one of those types myself, I might have preferred an arrangement where just the 10 or 12 knockouts were grouped in a room and the rest of the lesson could be left for the more academically inclined – but that’s not what curators tend to do. Anyway, the lesson is more than worth the trouble, and so is the process of hunting down the best stuff in this selection.

Washerwoman, Study 1880
Oil on canvas 28 3/4 x 23 1/4 in.
Among those standouts is a later painting that’s hung in the first gallery (the show’s organizing principle is based on subject, not chronology), and which all alone would be sufficient to nail down Pissarro’s position among the most important painters of his time. That 1899 painting of one of the artist’s daughters, titled Jeanne Pissarro, called Cocotte, Reading (shown at the top of this post), forms a bridge across the two centuries of Pissarro’s life (he died in 1903), and provides a template for the full-blown Modernism of similar work done by Henri Matisse just a few years later. It’s not surprising that such a piece is in the private collection of Ann and Gordon Getty, he the heir to the oil fortune that funded the family’s sprawling Los Angeles museum.

Cocotte, Reading is part of the exhibition’s first section, labeled Family and Friends (an overview with very informative text and just a few exemplary paintings is provided on the museum’s main floor, while the body of the exhibition is upstairs). Several other fine works are in this section, including many portraits of all generations of the family, and one of Cezanne, in etching, that captures the younger artist’s intensity.

One immediately understands from this grouping that there was not a separation of the personal and the professional for Pissarro, a fact that is reaffirmed throughout the rest of the exhibition. Indeed, his personal, familial, and political philosophies all blended to create a powerful approach to picture-making.

Beyond family, the most represented people in Pissarro’s world are servants, workers, and market-goers; the equal footing each has been given shows their portrayer’s deep commitment to the humanism that was spawned by his early Moravian schooling.

Peasant Woman Lying in the Grass, Pontoise 1882
Oil on canvas 25 3/8 x 30 3/4 in.
Pissarro expressed this equality upon the backdrop of a utopian world of rural work and rural leisure. One fine example is an oversized tempera painting, on loan from a museum in Tokyo, titled The Harvest (and shown at the bottom of this post). It is a fine painting, but the show makes it even better by offering a special treat in the form of several graphite-and-wash studies, which were the basis for some of the figures in the painting, on view nearby.

These and many other studies throughout the exhibition provide similar insights into the artist’s working process, as well as the additional excitement that comes from knowing he never exhibited them himself – most were preserved by family members – but that we have the privilege of seeing them now in a new context.

Leisure is captured best in another outstanding painting, titled Peasant Woman Lying in the Grass, Pontoise, where the pleasure of resting in the sun is as palpable as the countless brushstrokes that build the image. Though not yet Pointillist, this painting prefigures the scientific approach to dots of color that Pissarro would soon immerse himself in. Much of the work to follow would be done in that almost ecstatic style; but, for me, it was a digression that lacks the pure energy and emotion of the work he did both before and after.

Pissarro’s People continues at the Clark through Oct. 2.

Rating: Must See

Note: Also at the Clark are two exhibitions of contemporary art that are both well worth seeing. Ghanain sculptor El Anatsui has three monumental works on view in the Stone Hill Center through Oct. 16; and Spaces: Photographs by Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth is on view in the main collection area through Sept. 5 (filling space that was liberated by an international tour of a large group of the museum’s Impressionist holdings).

Robin Kelsey, Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography, Harvard University, will present a gallery talk on Spaces at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13. The talk is free with admission.

The Harvest 1882 - Tempera on canvas 27 11/16 x 49 9/16 in.

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