It has been suggested that the Impressionists painted as they did partly because they deliberately abandoned their academic training before it was complete, and were therefore incapable of painting “realistically”; as though they were the punk rockers of their day, eschewing the facile technique of their predecessors for the “honesty” of making art without the “creative restrictions” of training.
I beg to differ.
As a case in point I present the early landscapes of Camille Pissarro, who, as much if not more than Monet, was responsible for the techniques of French Impressionism and the tenants of their philosophical approach to painting.
Pissarro actually did have little academic training, and that weakness shows when viewing the rather weak and stiff figures in his early work; but his command of the techniques of landscape, learned from his study with Jean-Babtiste Camille Corot, is visibly solid, if not particularly exciting, in his early landscapes (image at left, top).
Pissarro’s progression into the short, broken strokes we associate with French Impressionism, as seen in his painting of a haystack at left, was a gradual one. There is a sweet spot for me, in between his Corot and Courbet inspired naturalism and full-on Impressionism, where his early experimentation led him to use broad painterly strokes of color in a manner similar to later work by the “American impressionists” and others.
These paintings are fresh, open, lively, and rich with the sense of light and atmosphere that is evident in Impressionist work, but less overwhelmed with the staccato of individual brushstrokes; and drawing is not yet being sacrificed on the altar of color. For more, see my previous post on Pissarro.
Camille Pissarro was restless and relentless in his pursuit of the Impressionist ideals, which led him, ironically, to “Neo-Impressionism” and the Pointillism of Seurat, in which almost everything is sacrificed to the ideal of “pure” color. In Pointillism the individual daubs of unblended color were to be mixed in the viewer’s eye rather than on the artist’s palette or the canvas.
These, for me, are Pissarro’s least successful works (image at left, bottom); and presage modernism not only in their distance from academic realism, but in the reliance on theory over direct interpretation of the artist’s vision.
There is a new exhibit of Pissarro’s work that offers a broad view of his work over his entire career, a rare treat, as most exhibitions of Impressionist paintings concentrate only on the high period from which their most recognizable works are taken.
The exhibit, Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country, is at the Jewish Museum in New York from November 4, 2007 to March 16, 2008.
There is an online feature on the museum’s website that, despite a poorly implemented system for scrolling text, offers a nice glimpse of the evolution of Pissarros’ work over time.
If you can, however, try to see the actual exhibit. The run is longer that most, which will hopefully give more people the chance to see this aspect of Pissarro’s artistic legacy. It may change your impression of how a major art movement arose and developed over the lifetime of one its most important figures.