The tides of life have washed me up onto the shores of Oxfordshire and as such, shows I would have previously discounted are now accessible.
The Ashmolean is a museum I think I last attended about the age of 13 on a school trip. I was drawn there again more recently by the Pissarro show.
I am quite a fan of Pissarro but what I hadn’t clocked until this show is that are in fact two of them, father (Camille the subject of this show) and son (Lucien). Well there are two famous ones anyway.
Lucien I had previously encountered as he lived in London and I had greatly admired his pictures of Kew Garden which had been shown at the Tate, but until now they had all just been lumped into my head under Pissarro.
Some of junior’s work is here, as is work by other of the children including a very charming sketch by George his dad with all the famous artists of the day, Cezanne (etc - see above). But the focus of the show is dad, Camille. Someone more French looking than Camille Pissaroo it is hard to imagine with his beret and great big bushy beard (see the self portrait at the top of the blog). He sired a large family and an equally large painting family.
Sometimes with shows like this the other artists work are shoe-horned in a little under the heading of – inspired by. In this one there is much more direct relevance in that Pissarro often directly mentored, or painted with them. There is one very revealing pair of paintings where Pissarro and Cezanne paint the same view, at the same time. That was quite a striking thing to see. It is interesting to see in which there styles are different, and the way in which they are similar. Cezanne does the better trees in my view. There are a number of examples of things in a similar vein snow scene by Pissarro and Monet for example.
The Pissarro paintings themselves are pretty spectacular. One of my favourites is a portrait of his wife, which is very closed off and intimate and seems to radiate love. Pissarro seems to be a rare example of an Impressionist with a stable family life. He had a large brood (including the aforementioned Lucien) most of whom became artists. And as previously mentioned he acted as mentor to many of the impressionists themselves. I have to say I envy this station. I would like to have acolytes. I guess well all would.
He encouraged his children to paint and draw and they produced annual albums together some of which are on display. It is in this context that another one of my favourite paintings really backs a punch. It is a portrait of one of his daughters. In the painting she has short hair because she has a fever and they are trying to keep her cool. She did not survive the fever and died aged 11. The painting seems to have a sad mournful quality anyway, but once you know this and look at the painting again it really hits you in the gut.
A theme I go on and on about is labelling of an exhibition. In this one they don’t tell you what to make of the painting. They do tell you the context though, and this alone can radically change how I at least perceive a painting. I always like to play with this by looking at a painting, reading the label and then looking back. History is fine, what the artist is trying to achieve is also fine. What the curator thinks it all means is not.
The exhibition explores Pissarro’s main subjects of rural life, and rural working people. These scenes in his hands take on an idyllic quality. I particularly like the fishmarket with it’s bustle of people. Like many impressionist paintings there is a dreamy quality to Pissarro’s work, particularly his where the border between different subjects and the background of the painting is often blurred or indistinct, marked by colour and tone rather than by a hard line.
The exhibition goes on to explore his pointillism phase, where he produced again some wonderful rural scenes but abandoned due to the fact he find it to time consuming and constraining. It is a strange thing to observe those how these little dots of contrasting colours can merge to form a consistent image, of a very different colour.
The finest piece in the show cannot be pictured here. It had a “no photo” sign next to it. It is of a Paris bridge at dusk with the lamps lit and the lights of the carriages and the buildings flaring. All orange and dark. I loved it. I suspect you will too so go and have a look. You have until the 12th June 2022 to do so.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.