When you think of Impressionism, Camille Pissarro might not be the first painter that springs to mind, Rachel Campbell-Johnston said in The times. Pissarro was born in 1830 and was significantly older than Monet, Renoir or Cézanne – all artists whose posthumous reputation dwarfs his own. And although he sometimes depicted the “sun-dappled landscapes” associated with Impressionism, he was just as often “a painter of rain, snow, and frost.”
But as this new exhibition at the Ashmolean reminds us, Pissarro was seen as a pioneer of “modern art’s most popular movement” during his lifetime, a trailblazer who mentored the likes of Monet, Gauguin, Sisley and Degas.
The show brings together 80 works by Pissarro alongside 40 of his friends and contemporaries and examines his influence on art history. Many of the paintings, drawings, and prints here are understated compared to the most famous Impressionist paintings, but what they lack in “blushed sunsets, luminous fields of poppies, or shimmering lily pads” they make up for in subtlety and intimacy.
At his best, Pissarro was remarkably inventive, Alastair Sooke said The Daily Telegraph. A thrilling view of the Tuileries Gardens in the Rain from 1899, for example, is an “ode to the unassuming, rainy normality” of life: figures in the park are rendered as “abridged and hazy silhouettes” amidst “muddy puddles shimmering in the reflected light.”
Unfortunately, such highlights are few and far between. Much of Pissarro’s work is “characterized by modest composition” and, in truth, “it is difficult to become enthusiastic about such restrained art”. In addition, when he was hung alongside his Impressionist colleagues, he got worse and worse; Pairing Pissarro with an artist of Cézanne’s intensity “feels almost cruel”.
Bullshit, Jonathan Jones said in The guard. If anything, the show could have done with fewer works by Pissarro’s contemporaries and a more heartfelt defense of his “own genius.” His art was “fundamentally honest” and pointed the way to “radical new visions” – containing both a political edge (he had anarchist sympathies) and “subtle meditations” on the enigma of visual perception itself.
His work Plum trees in bloom, for example “makes you choose between two hot spots,” a cluster of houses on a hill, and “the blizzard of white blossoms getting in the way.” He considered things that artists had traditionally learned to “ignore,” a lesson Cézanne would adopt and use to change art forever. This “intimate” exhibition is a fitting tribute to a silent pioneer.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (01865-278000, ashmolean.org). Until June 12th
https://www.theweek.co.uk/arts-life/culture/art/955967/pissarro-father-of-impressionism-exhibition-review Pissarro: Father of Impressionism – a fitting tribute to a silent pioneer