Little Daubs Will Do You

"Impressionism to the Present: Camille Pissarro and His Descendants"

"Too much of a good thing," Mae West once quipped, "can be wonderful." That's pretty much the position we're in this season in South Florida.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the embarrassment of riches on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in "Paris 1860-1930: Birthplace of European Modernism." Now it's time to consider an exhibition that, by a fortuitous coincidence, nicely complements the Boca Museum's show: "Impressionism to the Present: Camille Pissarro and His Descendants," now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

Where the Boca show goes for breadth -- 131 works by 77 artists, including a dozen by Pissarro -- its Fort Lauderdale counterpart goes for depth, showcasing 157 pieces, most by Pissarro, but many by his sons, grandchildren, and great-granddaughter. The museum has devoted its entire second floor to the exhibition, and the preponderance of Pissarros gets so potentially confusing that a wide corridor linking the main upstairs galleries to the smaller ones has been transformed into a sort of Pissarro resource center, complete with an elaborate family tree, a wall of family photographs, and a long reading table stocked with several books.

Avenue de l'Opéra, Place du Théâtre (1898), by the father of it all


On display through April 30.
Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-5500.

The fuss, of course, is over a major retrospective focusing on the painter widely acknowledged as the patriarch of impressionism. That movement may have been considered radical in its own time, but given the upheavals of latter-day modernism and postmodernism, today there's something almost comforting and reassuring about impressionism -- it's not too far removed from realism to be as unsettling as, say, abstract expressionism, and yet it's not as intimidating as more classical or academic art. Which probably explains, at least in part, the popularity of the Pissarro show.

I was surprised (and a little appalled) to overhear several people approaching the show as a sort of chic travelogue, examining the paintings for landmarks that reminded them of their vacations in France: "Oh, there's the Louvre!" "Remember that bridge?" But most visitors seemed content to bask in the celebration of light and its many manifestations that is a hallmark of impressionism and neoimpressionism.

Although he seems quintessentially French, Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born in 1830 on St. Thomas, now one of the U.S. Virgin Islands but at the time part of the Danish West Indies. He went to boarding school outside Paris, then spent a couple of years in Venezuela before settling in France in 1855. There he became friends with such fellow painters as Monet, Gauguin, and Cézanne.

After a brief residence in England in the early 1870s, Pissarro returned to France in time to help organize the first impressionist exhibition in 1874. He went on to participate in the seven subsequent impressionist exhibitions, the only artist in his circle to do so.

"Impressionism to the Present" groups Pissarro's works, most of them oils on canvas, by general subject matter. The first section focuses largely on rural landscapes that are typically anchored to very specific places, such as Eragny, where Pissarro had a country home. Sun Setting at Eragny (1894) and Sunset at Eragny, Autumn (1902) offer contrasting takes on the play of light at sunset in different seasons.

The former is a stark, wintry landscape, with tall, bare-limbed trees set off by unexpected accents of purple and orange and with the sun reduced to a vaguely defined blur of pale yellow that seems to have been snagged by the treetops; the latter captures what might be the first moments of a fall sunset, with a pale gold glow settling over the trees and the faintest hints of salmony pinks beginning to show up in the clouds.

With Poplars at Eragny, an undated pastel, Pissarro turns to a different medium and a different technique, with striking results. Here he uses soft smudges of greens and browns to suggest, rather than to portray, a beautifully simple hillside landscape.

A fourth Eragny painting, hanging at the overlit juncture of the first two galleries, introduces human and animal elements more prominently into the mix. Girl Tending Cows at Eragny (1886) offers a shimmering range of subtle colors, and the artist has applied the pigment in little daubs that leave behind a highly textured surface.

The second gallery includes more than two dozen pieces, most of them with a much greater emphasis on the human form. There are several gouaches and a watercolor portraying peasants at work, along with a wall of mostly unremarkable portraits. (The exception is Portrait of Rodo, Reading, from 1893, a vibrant, colorful image of one of the artist's sons sitting at a desk.)

When he tries to capture the nuances of the human face, Pissarro doesn't quite hit the mark. The people in Woman Digging (1883) and Figures on a Grey Morning, Eragny (1899), for instance, never rise above the generic. Even with Seated Peasant, Sunset (1892), one of a series of peasant paintings done from the mid-1880s on, Pissarro has his self-doubts. "[T]he difficulty is that there is no room for mediocrity, otherwise it will become romantic," he wrote in a letter to a critic. "I hate romanticism. How can I avoid committing this crime?" To my mind he doesn't, at least not here.

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