Although Camille Pissarro isn’t the name that springs to most minds when thinking of Impressionism, “Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape,” a major new show that opens at Milwaukee Art Museum on Saturday, June 9, ought to change that.
The exhibition, with more than 40 canvases, focuses on the decade leading up to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and shows how the painter’s experiments in technique and modern subject matter made him what some have called “a daring pioneer of Impressionism.”
"He’s never had the same amount of attention,” says Baltimore Museum of Art curator Katy Rothkopf, who created the show, “certainly during his lifetime, but since his death for being such a modern painter, for being as important, I think, as Monet, Degas and Renoir, (who) always even have more exhibitions. They’re written about more and I, of course, believe that’s completely not fair and unjustified in every way.”
The exhibition Rothkopf spent six years building backs up that assertion. MAM’s Baker/Rowland Galleries are awash in sunlit colors as Pissarro walks us down country lanes and village streets that wind though his luscious French -- and English -- landscapes.
There are expansive works painted for salon exhibitions and more intimate works, many of which served as studies for larger pieces. But, one and all, they show how Pissarro was eager to try new techniques and to parse influences into something uniquely his own.
And that’s why Rothkopf found the decade of 1864-'74 so intriguing.
“At this moment we really see Pissarro struggling with these two great masters (Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot) to try to find his own voice and that’s why I thought it would be a fun show to do.”
Rothkopf can – and does – point to a single painting that sparked the show. “Strollers on a Country Road, La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire, Path by the River (near La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire),” 1864, was one she came across when she arrived at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“I had studied Pissarro before (and) I really didn’t recognize it,” Rothkopf recalls, and she thought, “If this is the Pissarro of the 1860s, how did he become the Pissarro of the 1870s and the 1880s and 1890s?
“So the show really began as a focused show of the 1860s. When I started working on the show in 2001, the previous catalog raisonne of the artist’s paintings had been published in 1939, so it was pretty useless. So I started looking … trying to piece together what led up to that impressionist moment and I decided to start with 1864 because it was the year of our picture but also because it was the year where he started to have success exhibiting in the annual salons.”
At the end of six years of hard work creating “Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape” and writing the accompanying catalog, Rothkopf is more than a little pleased.
“You just couldn’t believe how beautiful and how much sense (the paintings) made together,” she enthuses.
It is definitely the kind of eye-opening show that will lead you to reassess Pissarro and his place in the pantheon of modern painters. If you wrote him off as a pretty landscape painter before, you likely will now see him as a forward-looking artist with a willingness to experiment that while expanding his horizons, painted some uncannily lovely landscapes.
“One of the things I love about this show is if you think you know Pissarro, this is a show to see, because you really don’t,” says Brigid Globensky, MAM’s senior director, education and programs.
You may also discover that he was the patriarch of a family of artists that are still active today. Four of his sons became painters, as did a grandson. His great-granddaughter Lelia Pissarro is also an artist and she is on hand for the opening of the show. Her brother Joachim, a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, will be here to wrap it all up Sept. 9.
“I’ve never studied his life,” Lelia Pissarro says frankly. “I’m born in his family and honestly I cannot remember the date of his birth or the date of his death. I’m very proud to be part of this family. I think I understand what it means.”
DeLind Gallery of Fine Arts, 400 E. Mason St., has represented Lelia Pissarro for a number of years and has a related show that runs concurrent with MAM’s exhibition.
“We are pleased to have a show of the Pissarro family,” gallery owner Bill DeLind says, “so what you should start with is this great show and then take the extension and learn about the four sons that I have in my show and grandson and Lelia’s fine paintings, for both perspectives.”
After closing at MAM, the Pissarro exhibition -- which debuted at BMA in February -- travels to Memphis' Brooks Museum of Art, where it runs until Jan. 6, 2008.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.