To Pissarro, family mattered

Williamstown show focuses on portraits, figure paintings and drawings that show Pissarro’s evolution form his Caribbean roots to his role in the development of impressionism, Sebastian Smee reports for the Boston Globe.

Of all the Impressionists, Camille Pissarro was the most sympathetic. His name has never attained the luster of Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, or Seurat. And yet if you plotted all these Impressionists and Post-Impressionists on a Venn diagram, Pissarro would be the most frequent point of overlap.

Not only was he one of the prime movers in the formation of the breakaway Impressionist group (he contributed to all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions, held between 1874 and 1886), but he was also a friend and adviser to younger colleagues, including Gauguin, Seurat, and Cézanne.

In his art, as in his intellectual life, Pissarro was curious, hungry, open to influence. His letters to his eldest son, Lucien, stand beside van Gogh’s letters and Delacroix’s journals as among the great documents of 19th-century art. In these letters, as in his pictures, Pissarro comes across as integrity incarnate.

The problem he poses for a critic is that, although he painted a steady stream of very good pictures, he never really painted a masterpiece. Can one be a great artist without painting masterpieces? The short, honest answer is no. But you can be an exemplary artist, and Pissarro was that.

If you don’t know Pissarro, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s wonderful summer show “Pissarro’s People’’ is a fine introduction. If you do know him, it will make you feel you didn’t.

The exhibition is the first serious attempt to focus on Pissarro’s family pictures and figure paintings. If, as a result, we miss out on the dew-kissed, mint-fresh landscapes or the late, magisterial cityscapes for which he is best known, the windfall is that we get a much stronger sense of what he was like as a man — what mattered to him.

What mattered most was family. The show, which is organized by theme, is particularly rich in Pissarro’s portraits of his children.

A famous portrait of his third son, Félix, shows the boy in three-quarter profile against green patterned wallpaper. He wears a red beret, which chimes with his rosy cheek, his plump lower lip, and the pink scarf tied in a bow at his neck.

He is, in short, adorable.

His father clearly delighted in the boy’s loose brown locks, which come to a curling halt on his shoulders, and in his blue eyes. Dilated with trepidation, they arouse one’s protective impulses as surely as a playful kitten incites delight.

Fourteen years later, Pissarro depicted Félix again, this time as a young, bearded man reading a book. The contrast is great. Thick, liquid paint is briskly applied in a patchwork of rich colors. Like so much of Pissarro’s work, there is something admirably dogged — but not quite brilliant — about the result.

V.S. Pritchett was being kind, one feels — yet also insightful — about this doggedness, when he wrote: “Other Impressionists give us sensations of evanescence and the dance of suffused light. Pissarro seems to convey the haunting permanence of an hour that has been lost.’’

Félix died unexpectedly four years later, still in his 20s.

The sense of haunting becomes acute in a series of portraits Pissarro made of his favorite child, Jeanne-Rachel, nicknamed Minette, who was 7 when she died after a prolonged illness. Attired in blue smocks and dresses, she is shown holding a bouquet of flowers in the garden, standing awkwardly in a cold interior, seated despondently with a fan in one hand, and — finally, wrenchingly — desperately ill in bed.

Minette’s older sister, Adèle-Emma, had died as an infant. The remaining five children lived long and creative lives. Encouraged by their father, most were avid painters.

Pissarro’s background was highly unusual. He was born in 1830 into a Sephardic Jewish family on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. It was a Danish colony, where a sizable Jewish community, free from persecution, was able to prosper.

Pissarro’s Jewish identity has been underplayed by scholars in the past, because in adulthood he showed no inclination toward religious belief. But Richard Brettell, in the exhibition’s excellent catalog, convincingly connects Pissarro’s feeling for “the importance of extended family in negotiating life’s problems’’ with his family’s history as peripatetic, adaptable, and mutually supportive Jews.

In St. Thomas, Pissarro went to school with Afro-Caribbeans. The experience encouraged a lifelong hatred of prejudice and intolerance. His earliest painting here — a beauty — depicts two Afro-Caribbean women conversing on a path by the seaside on St. Thomas.

Pissarro was later an avowed anarchist, and his keen sense of the dignity of work, and of the rural and urban poor, permeates all his work.

Indeed, after the family pictures, we see a room of images of maids and servants. Pissarro married a woman who had been a maid in his mother’s house. His own career path was not well remunerated, so the couple remained poor, and could scarcely afford servants. But Pissarro’s niece Eugènie Astruc often stayed with them, helping around the house, and she is the subject of several compelling single figure portrayals of female “maids.’’

These pictures have enormous appeal as expressions of human dignity. But they do not, as Brettell points out, express anything resembling social tension. In this regard, Degas’s pictures of laboring laundresses and Manet’s of bored bar girls are much edgier, and in the end, more telling. Pissarro’s aims were different: He wanted to endow routine tasks like washing dishes and sweeping with an aura of health and serenity.

One feels the influence of Chardin and, later, Renoir, in these pictures, which posed challenges Pissarro continued to grapple with in his portrayals of peasants in the field: namely, how to unify monumental figures with their surroundings in an Impressionist idiom.

His solutions were often effective. See, for instance, the marvelous “Young Peasant Woman Drinking Her Café au Lait,’’ with its combination of cropped, Degas-like immediacy, Vermeer-like tranquillity, and rounded, Renoir-like heft. But they could be awkward, too.

By the 1880s, Impressionist principles (broken, high-keyed color, fleeting effects of light) no longer seemed quite adequate to the ambitions of avant-garde painters. Feeling the crisis, Pissarro flirted with different solutions, including the pointillism of Seurat. One sees Seurat’s influence (which went both ways) most strongly in “Apple-Picking,’’ a riveting, large-scale picture Pissarro worked on for several years. It was shown with Seurat’s masterpiece, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,’’ at the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886.

Ultimately, Pissarro’s restless sensibility wasn’t suited to the systematic, quasi-scientific approach of the Pointillists. Instead, his figure paintings saw him try to solidify Impressionist effects with drawing and modeling. The results were not so much an advance on Impressionism as a retreat, reminiscent more of Millet than of Cézanne.

Yet drawing was one of Pissarro’s great strengths, and one of this show’s strongest suits is the graphic work, which ranges from a superb academic study of a standing female nude from the 1850s to a series of highly charged political caricatures completed in 1890.

These last were, for me, the highlight.

Called “Les Turpitudes Sociales,’’ this series of 28 sensationally dramatic urban scenes was intended as a political education for Pissarro’s nieces Alice and Esther Isaacson, both in their 30s. They include shocking depictions of suicide, servitude, speculation, starvation, violence, drunkenness, and insurrection.

Incredibly, they have never before been shown in a major Pissarro exhibition. Having seen them now, I share the dismay of Brettell, who claims that “an understanding of Pissarro without ‘Les Turpitudes’ is like an understanding of Goya without ‘The Disasters of War’ — a misunderstanding.’’

Esther Isaacson, who was convinced that a benign social revolution was just around the corner, thanked her uncle, writing, “No doubt in the year 2000, … they will look back at these drawings and wonder how people in the 19th century could be so stupid as to let themselves be troubled by such problems.’’

Wrong! Most of these drawings — “The Suicide of a Stockbroker,’’ “No More Bread,’’ “The Hanged Millionaire,’’ and so on — feel uncannily up-to-date.

So this, too, was what mattered to Pissarro: the plight not just of his family but of his suffering fellows. It was this deep concern, as much as his robust, hauntingly beautiful art, that made him exemplary.

At: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. Through Oct. 2. 413-458-2303.

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