Pissarro: Impressionism and ‘Peaceful Anarchism’ at the Ashmolean

Camille Pissarro, 'The Sower’, lithograph, 1896 (printed 1933 in anarchist journal, Les Temps Nouveaux)
Camille Pissarro, 'The Sower’, lithograph, 1896 (printed 1933 in anarchist journal, Les Temps Nouveaux)

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism

Daily, 10:00 - 17:00

From: 18 Feb 2022

To: 12 Jun 2022

Ashmolean Museum
Beaumont Street

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As the only artist to show at all eight Impressionist exhibitions, Camille Pissarro is readily painted as the father of the French art movement. But rather than canonising the nineteenth-century artist, Pissarro: Father of Impressionism focuses instead on his commitment to collaboration.

Drawing on their own collection – the world’s largest dedicated to a single Impressionist artist – the Ashmolean stages Pissarro’s works in conversation with his contemporaries, revealing personality through his – and their – processes. Spanning the artist’s life in France, ‘before’ to ‘neoimpressionism’, we see two-way flows of exchange with Degas, Monet, Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, and, briefly, Van Gogh. 

Though there’s a romance to his traditional landscapes, these early works are offered up as historical evidence. Nanterre (c. 1860), for instance, is highlighted as the only record of him having spent time in the area. Others clue at his playing with perspective, showing the world sidelong rather than directly, or placing natural features repoussir – the technique creating an impression of depth by placing large objects in the foreground, like stage props.

Camille Pissarro, ‘The Countryside near Louveciennes, Summer’, oil on canvas, 1870
‘The Countryside near Louveciennes, Summer’, oil on canvas, 1870

Pissarro’s characteristic ‘working landscapes’ reflect a political commitment to depict the ‘honourable lives’ of those who work the land. Figures are hunched hard over heaps of hay, backs sore from labour. In Farm at Montefouchault in Snow (1874), a sheep’s backside is boasted at the viewer.

Unlike Renoir’s middle classes at play, or Monet’s often empty landscapes, Pissarro draws our attention to these human encounters – sometimes, as unsubtly, by staking a scene with a bright green cart and horse.

Camille Pissarro, ‘Père Melon Sawing Wood’, oil on canvas, 1879
‘Père Melon Sawing Wood’, oil on canvas, 1879

Pissarro sought collaboration not to create some common, unified style, but to exchange constructive criticism, and develop each other’s practices. Challenging the traditional master-pupil hierarchy, often it was others who prompted his own experimentation – the surprisingly modern monochrome etchings made by Dr. Gachet’s printing press, Degas’ suggestion to use silk fans as canvasses, or the fine details captured in his bustling market scenes, from Piette. 

We see these artists as comrades in their self-coined ‘peaceful anarchism’, who use artworks as badges of friendship – poking fun at the conservative politician Adolphe Thiers in an unflattering cartoon, or applauding their contemporary Courbet’s rebellion against the Salon, and arts establishment. 

Camille Pissarro, ‘Portrait of Paul Cézanne’, oil on canvas, 1894
‘Portrait of Paul Cézanne’, oil on canvas, 1894

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism is peppered with these personal touches, like the sign-offs used by each artist to distinguish their prints (Pissarro the flower, Cézanne the hanged man). Beyond hasty pastel sketches around the kitchen table, Pissarro passed on a passion for political art to his family, mandating his sons to regularly contribute to their own satirical journal. 

A series of father-son watercolours and wood engravings is lovingly signed off ‘Lucien, after Camille’, and accompanied by the father’s own handwritten letters to his son living in London. 

Camille Pissarro, ‘Woman on the Road’, aquatint, soft ground etching, 1879
‘Woman on the Road’, aquatint, soft ground etching, 1879

Though indulgent in curation, Pissarro: Father of Impressionism glows with the honesty, and humour, of the artist. We witness his obsession with process; the first to show his painterly, hazy aquatints – more watercolours than prints – in various states in a single frame. This fixation with capturing the changing states of light and life would define Impressionism – and 20 years later in Rouen, cause him to dart between several canvasses at once to capture to course of life throughout the day.

Pissarro permeates the movement’s offshoots, like post-Impressionism and pointillism. His personal influence over Gauguin – as the one to persuade him to quit stockbroking and start painting full-time – is reinstated. In some works, we can imagine Pissarro standing behind the artist, recommending he use shorter or varied brush strokes, flatten out his perspective, or add a person to his pastoral scenes – advice Gauguin often eschewed in favour of more homogenous, hierarchical depictions of human life.

Paul Gauguin, ‘Interior with Aline’, oil on canvas, 1881
Paul Gauguin, ‘Interior with Aline’, oil on canvas, 1881

By focusing on France alone, the exhibition risks fostering an insular view of Impressionism, ignoring the impact of the artist’s own colonial experience in the Danish West Indies, and the movement’s international influences. Pissarro is applauded for introducing Van Gogh to the printer Gachet, but there is no acknowledgement of the latter’s own formative collection of Japanese prints.

Camille Pissarro, 'The Sower’, lithograph, 1896 (printed 1933 in anarchist journal, Les Temps Nouveaux)
‘The Sower’, lithograph, 1896 (printed 1933 in anarchist journal, Les Temps Nouveaux)

Van Gogh’s spectre looms large over this exhibition, as a well-stocked shop promises more than a single painting inside. Women too are present everywhere and nowhere, as labouring subjects or enduring family members. 

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism still treads a steady line, showing an artist who is not paternalistic, but is nevertheless at the pinnacle of a movement of unruly artists. Beyond the icon, the Ashmolean reveals an artist who enjoyed experimentation, an artist with an appreciation of familial and cultural community – and an artist with a political point.

Entry is ,by ticket booked via the Museum’s website.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review. Their podcast EMPIRE LINES uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

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