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Pissarro: Father of Impressionism. New show at Ashmolean a delight

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art's Correspondent

Camille Pissarro, Apple Picking, Eragny, 1887–8, Dallas Museum of Art

The weary, mildly quizzical gaze of a rheumy eyed old gentleman looks calmly out of the first painting you see. He seems to be looking at you, but he’s not; he’s is coolly scrutinising himself in a mirror for the earlier of the two self-portraits that are used to bookend this admirable exhibition about Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), the ‘father of Impressionism’.

There’s nothing fancy about this image painted in Paris in the summer of 1896; it’s very straightforward. You’d be happy if this elderly white bearded chap was your neighbour, happier still if you could apply the cherished epithet ‘friend and neighbour’.

Camille Pissarro, Self-Portrait with Palette, c. 1896, Dallas Museum of Art

Yet his friends and fellow artists in Paris might have said exactly that - they nicknamed him “father Pissarro” for he was already the ripe old age of 40 when the artists later to be called Impressionists first met him.

Not only was he the oldest, but importantly, was also one of the founding members of what was to become the most famous artistic movement of all time, Impressionism. He was the only one to exhibit at all eight of their exhibitions which he helped organise from 1874–86.

But despite being instrumental in its formation and an important cog in the wheel of the movement’s success, Camille Pissarro today remains less well-known than Cézanne, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, and Renoir.

Camille Pissarro, Pont Boieldieu, Rouen, Sunset, 1896, Birmingham Museum Trust

The Ashmolean’s spring exhibition sets out to rectify this. It is the first show in Britain in 20 years devoted to Camille Pissarro and features 120 works, 80 by Pissarro and 40 by his friends and contemporaries, with eight works on display for the first time in this country.

The exhibition draws hugely on the Ashmolean’s Pissarro archive, which is the world’s largest collection devoted to an Impressionist artist, to reveal intimate and fascinating details about Pissarro, his artist-friends and his relatives.

It’s a gentle show. Intimate. The family is here; all five of Pissarro’s sons became painters, apparently much to their mother’s despair. A portrait of Julie, his wife, who was a servant in his parents’ house when they met and fell in love (resulting, regrettably, in her dismissal), shows her absorbed in her sewing. All but one of her portraits shows her caring for her family or home. There are portraits of his son Lucien, and a poignant one of Jeanne, called ‘Minette’ who died aged nine after a prolonged fever. She is portrayed in the last stages of her illness with her hair cut short in an attempt to reduce the fever, and although it must have been painful to paint her knowing just how ill she was, it is a remarkably honest, unsentimental picture.

Camille Pissarro, Jeanne Pissarro (known as Minette) Holding a Doll, 1874, Private collection

This is an exhibition that begs to be seen first-hand; Pissarro’s works are subtle, whatever the medium, and those of his contemporaries and collaborators presented here complement that. Nonetheless his versatility and willingness to experiment are well illustrated, again rewarding close inspection. And there are some surprises.

One of which is Gauguin. Pissarro was a natural teacher and champion of others, and in 1874 he famously persuaded Gauguin to give up being a stockbroker and devote himself to art. A highlight of the show for me was to see Gauguin’s landscape painted five years after that awakening. Gauguin painted Apple Trees at l’Hermitage, 1879, in an orchard at the top of a hill near the hamlet where Pissarro lived during the 1970s; the solitary figure at work clearly shows Pissarro’s influence.

Everyday people at work featured in many of Pissarro’s works. Unlike his Impressionist contemporaries, he never painted the leisured middle classes or romantic landmarks, preferring simple pastoral scenes, farmers, or even just the view from his window. The small market scenes were a pleasant surprise, as were his experiments in printmaking.

Camille Pissarro, Spring: Plum Trees in Bloom, 1877, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

He was always ready to learn. His tried his hand at the punctilious art of the ‘Pointillists’ after meeting his son Lucien’s friends, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and becoming fascinated by their experiments inspired by contemporary ideas on ‘colour theory’ - building pictures by applying paint in small dots of complementary colours. It wasn’t a great success. His dealers found it difficult to sell these pictures, so abandoning the time-consuming dot technique he turned again to watercolour and painterly landscapes - and commercial success followed.

Georges Seurat, The Channel at Gravelines, Evening, 1890, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Georges Seurat’s unusual composition of 1890, The Channel at Gravelines, Evening is among the Pointillist works on view, in addition to Pissarro’s Apple Picking, Eragny, and View from my Window, Eragny.

Incidentally, views from windows are the subject of many of his paintings: the result of a recurring eye infection that forced him to paint indoors, looking through the windows of rented apartments or hotel rooms, rather than the archetypal Impressionist en plein air painting style.

Camille Pisarro, The Côte des Boeufs, Pontoise, 1877, National Gallery, London

It is hard to single out highlights in an exhibition of subtle virtuosity. But I must mention two Pissarro paintings that stood out for me. Both are of villages glimpsed through trees. One, painted in 1869, is wonderfully light, the paint almost translucent, showing a woman making her way along a path under spindly trees. The other, similar yet greater, The Côte des Boeufs at L’Hermitage painted in 1877 again shows village houses, but this time they are seen through a veil of tree trunks within which a couple of tiny figures are as good as hidden. With its mesmeric uprights and subtly abstract feel it is quite simply lovely. Perhaps also it exemplifies ‘autumn and its sadnesses’ as Pissarro referred to in a letter that year.

Left: Camille Pissarro, The Village Screened by Trees, 1869, Private collection;

Right: Paul Cezanne, The Côte Saint-Denis, at Pontoise, 1877, Private Collection.

For comparison, the painting is hung next to Cézanne’s 1877 painting of the same village seen through a barely penetrable screen of trees. Cézanne’s simpler yet bolder depiction gives the impression of being in a wood dazzled by light flickering through the canopy.

Finally, to highlight a couple of paintings on show for the first time in the UK: Pissarro’s The Countryside near Louveciennes, Summer (1870, private collection), and, finishing the exhibition with a flourish, Cézanne’s stunning La Vallée de l’Oise (c. 1880, private collection).

Camille Pissarro, The Countryside near Louveciennes, Summer, 1870, Private collection

Exhibition curator, Colin Harrison, says: ‘Camille Pissarro is unique among the Impressionists. His work rewards close and careful attention that reveals a hugely sympathetic and humane artist. Unlike his contemporaries, he never compromised for the market; he was willing to learn and experiment; but was always devoted to painting the ‘sensation’. Consequently he is the most sincere and authentic of all the Impressionists and his influence on his own and succeeding generations of artists is impossible to quantify.’

I hope you can go to see it. Camille Pissarro should be better known.

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Showing until 12 June.

Pissarro will also be the subject of a new feature-length film by critically-acclaimed production company, Exhibition on Screen, available in cinemas worldwide from 24 May 2022. Shot on location in France, with exclusive access to the exhibition and the Ashmolean’s Pissarro archive, the film includes interviews with leading experts and curators, exploring in detail Camille Pissarro’s fascinating life and career.

The exhibition is organised in collaboration with Kunstmuseum, Basel.


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