This insightful, beautifully illustrated documentary secures Pissarro’s place in history.

Joyce Glasser Reviews Pissarro: Father of Impressionism (in select theaters for a limited time beginning May 24, 2022) Cert. U, 94 minutes. You can find a demonstration near you by following this link.

The Exhibition on Screen series travels to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England and the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, where Camille Pissarro’s life and art are celebrated in a chance collaboration.

The Basel exhibition is over, but you can still see Pissarro: Father of Impressionism in Oxford until June 12th and you won’t want to miss it. This is not a retrospective: the defining paintings of the young painter’s time in Caracas, Venezuela; the London paintings during the 1870-71 Commune and an 1890 visit, and his first ‘commercial paintings’, the late cityscapes of Rouen and Paris, are absent or scarce.

But we are reaping the rewards of the Ashmoleans’ best kept secret. In 1952 the English widow of the eldest son Lucien Pissarro, with whom Lucien ran the Eragny Press in England, donated the Pissarro archive to the Ashmolean. And that makes this exhibition something special. The archive contains several paintings, 800 letters and works of art by the whole family, including a fascinating 1900 drawing by Georges Pissarro. Entitled The Impressionist Picnic, the humorous drawing shows Armand Guillaumin, Pissarro and Gauguin enjoying Madame Pissarro’s cooking while Cézanne works on a landscape. The archive contains hundreds of Pissarro’s pastels, drawings, drypoints and aquatints, etchings and engravings, including a brilliant portrait of Cézanne.

For, according to Claire Durand-Ruel, whose famous ancestor was Pissarro’s lifelong patron and dealer, Pissarro was the most versatile of all Impressionists. Versatile not only in the use of all media, but also in his changing style of oil painting. He began with the style of the Barbizon school; brightened his touch and palette with rural impressionism and dabbled in post-impressionism—even pointillism (View from my window Eragny,1886) – before returning to heightened Impressionism in the last decade of his life, circa 1893-1903. An eye ulcer forced him to paint indoors for the first time, and his hotel views of the bustling cities of Rouen and Paris sold so well that he was able to provide for his family after his death.

While the focus of the exhibition is on this rich family archive, the exhibition and film by David Bickerstaff (co-written with producer Phil Grabsky) gives us an intimate portrait of this dedicated artist. We see him as a great friend; a family man who, much to the chagrin of his ailing wife Julie, encouraged all his children to pursue a life of art; a painterly companion to Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin and even Van Gogh; a networker, an anarchist, a restless experimenter and an innovator.

Banish the thought of the withdrawn, self-obsessed, tormented artist. According to the seven eloquent and persuasive pundits who appear on screen, Pissarro was charismatic; open-hearted and outgoing, and in the words of Ashmolean’s Colin Harrison, “devoted to his family, accommodating, very inquisitive, and utterly upright – the epitome of honesty and probity.” The celebrated author and art critic Emile Zola wrote in 1868 that “a beautiful picture by this artist the act of an honest man. I can’t define his talent any better.’

But what about the claim to be the father of Impressionism? Not only that, he looked the part with his long patriarchal beard. Camille Pissarro was the driving force behind the Impressionist movement and responsible for its longevity. Paul Cézanne wrote: “Everything we do we learned from Pissarro. He really was the first impressionist.”

For although it was a critic’s snide remark about Monet’s paintings, impression, sunrise who gave the movement its name, it was Pissarro who, fed up with the hierarchical, bourgeois salon system in which his work languished unnoticed, spearheaded the establishment of a registered society of independent artists (of which Mademoiselle Berthe Morisot was a member). The first of eight “Impressionist exhibitions” from 1874 to 1886 was held in photographer Nadar’s Art Nouveau studio at 9 Blvd des Capucines. Pissarro was the only artist to exhibit in all eight.

However, his impressionism was never catered to bourgeois tastes or the needs of merchants. Instead of focusing on the activities of the bourgeoisie (ballet, opera, racetrack, cafes, pretty gardens) and the industrialization of Paris (bridges, train stations, chimneys) as did Manet, Sisley, Monet, Renoir and the post-impressionists like Seurat did and Signac painted Pissarro the working class in the country (Père Melone sawing wood1879) and the marketplaces (The porker, 1883). He was not a great portrait painter like Cezanne and Renoir, although there are some moving family and self-portraits in the exhibition. The majority of the people in his paintings are women, but he does not depict their femininity or women involved in domestic and parenting chores. Pissarro’s women are hard at work outside.

Pissarro was born on 10 July 1830 in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas in the (then) Dutch West Indies to Jewish parents of Sephardic descent, although Camille had no religious upbringing. His father moved there to take over an uncle’s hardware store and then caused a stir by marrying his uncle’s widow. Forty-one years later, Camille defied his parents by marrying (during their two years in London to escape the Franco-Prussian War) his parents’ former servant, a French Catholic peasant (painting, Julie Pissarro Sewing, The Red House, pontoise1877).

Camille knew what he needed. Julie’s ability to run the household on very little money, endure periods of abject poverty and Camille’s nomadic life, and raising her children – three of whom died under 10 – enabled him to paint. Julie even had the wisdom to borrow money from Monet behind her husband’s back to buy the house they rented in Eragny – with the large garden the family loved.

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism is able to go where the exhibition cannot or cannot go: to provide us with a detailed and rich biographical film and to show us artworks that are not on display in the exhibition. Thanks to the experts, we also learn about Pissarro’s anarchism (the family was friends with the notorious, wonderful anarchist Felix Fénéon) and his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), which the exhibition ignores. For although Pissarro was never a practicing Jew, the anti-Semites Renoir and Degas lashed out at the man to whom they owed so much with vile insults about his character and his art. They even poisoned the mind of the wealthy Julie Manet, whose late mother, Berthe Morisot, exhibited Pissarro in all but one Impressionist exhibition.

This insightful, beautifully illustrated documentary secures Pissarro’s place in history.

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