Monday, October 13, 2014

The Canvas

Thoughts on Camille Pissarro

When I find myself in a different city I make it a point to visit the major museum located there. Walking through the large, quiet rooms and contemplating the different periods of art throughout the ages feels like the closest I will ever come to time travel. While I am enthralled by the early artistic periods and am awed by the large canvases from the Enlightenment period, often florid and dramatic depictions of biblical and mythological events, ultimately they leave me cold. They stir my senses, certainly, but not my heart.

However, once I happen upon the collection of Impressionistic art, I feel truly transported. Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, and even that son of a bitch Gaugin ( he left his wife and children to paint and live in a hut in Tahiti, an act of selfishness that is shameful as much as it is provocatively alluring). The dreamy, stylized depictions of everyday goings-on of the emerging bourgeois as well as the bucolic scenes of peasants employed in labor throughout sunny countrysides, leaves one feeling as if he is peering through portals into the hazy past. As these things happen, in recent years I found myself noting a particular painter from this period. While strolling through a gallery, I found myself arrested by his artwork, stunned stock still by his graceful, pleasant scenes.

I would immediately forget his name after admiring his work, but a few months later, while at a different museum, I would find myself once again ensnared by his work. It was during a recent visit to The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC that I finally took action and wrote his name down; Camille Pissarro. Pissarro, one of the leading painters of the Impressionist and Post Impressionist movements, he was highly regarded by his contemporaries, and played a paternal role in their artistic and personal lives. Paul Cezanne said of Pissarro," he was a father for me. A man to consult and a little like the good Lord." However, this is what I learned only after a brief, cursory visit to Camille Pissarro's Wikipedia page.

Last week I wrote of the eerie, pastoral work of Andrew Wyeth. Pissarro, too, concerns himself with the remote hills of the countryside, but where Wyeth's farms are cold and stark, Pissaro's outdoor scenes are warm and lively.

While Pissarro certainly devoted much of his work to these pleasant scenes of country life, some of his most famous works are his arial views of bustling Paris.

Pissarro would ultimately return to his early themes of peasant life, after turning to the Neo-Impressionistic movement that directly followed Impressionism. At 54, he studied under artists such as George Seurat, working extensively with the technique that has come to be known as pointillism. Employing this technique, Pissarro felt that he could accurately portray the world of country laborers with both humility and nobility.

As for what drew me to his work, I am not sure that I can properly express that. I love almost all of the painters from this period, as the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists often skip past the senses that are so easily confounded by other pieces of art, and speak directly to my heart. And please know that I am not the sort of person who goes around saying that things "speak to their heart", yet no other phrase feels quite adequate. When I look at great murals of gods fighting in mid-air, or religious figures altruistically giving up life for our sins, there is a grandeur depicted that keeps me at a distance. But when I look at Pissarro's work; his warm, airy representations of humble, working life, I feel a bond to the fragile echo of what it means to be human.

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