- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

BALTIMORE — Camille Pissarro is not as famous as Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne, but he played a significant role in the development of French impressionism. A transitional figure between the academy and the avant-garde, Pissarro helped to push painting into the dappled, dotted and deliberately abstract world of modern art. His greatest strength was a willingness to gamble artistically — and to mentor younger colleagues, including Monet and Cezanne, who risked even more.

Recent years have produced museum exhibitions and books reassessing Pissarro’s role as impressionism’s instigator. Now, the Baltimore Museum of Art joins the effort in staging a show of the artist’s experimental works from the decade leading up to the first impressionist exhibition in 1874. “Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape,” opening tomorrow, is a sumptuous, nuanced exhibit of 45 paintings that reveals the artist to be more conservative than his better-known brethren, even while pioneering the new style.

While no revolutionary, Pissarro enjoyed trying out techniques, and his restless search for ways of capturing a cloudy sky, a plowed field or a snowy street is the great pleasure of this show. A technical section at the end of the exhibit demonstrates, through X-rays of several canvases, that he often altered entire compositions during the working process. This was an artist who loved to paint, and the exhibit succeeds in conveying his zest and growing confidence.

Curator Katherine Rothkopf was inspired to organize the show based on the museum’s own Pissarro, “Strollers on a Country Road, La Varenne Saint-Hilaire.” It was painted in 1864, a year after the artist had shown at the Salon des Refuses, where Edouard Manet’s picnicking nude in “Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe” caused a scandal. At this point in his career, Pissarro was still in the thrall of the Barbizon establishment, having moved to France in 1855 from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where he was born and raised. In the subdued meadow scene that starts the show, delicately rendered wildflowers and feathery trees show the influence of Camille Corot, and the big sky and broad horizon line recall Charles-Francois Daubigny’s panoramic views of the French countryside.

Pissarro also admired the earthy intensity of Gustave Courbet’s landscapes and similarly smeared and scraped his paint onto canvas with a palette knife. This impasto technique is particularly evident in “Banks of the Marne at Chennevieres,” one of the stunners in the show, a big marshy landscape set between brilliant blue water and sky.

Such direct handling of paint led writer Emile Zola to single out Pissarro’s austere “Banks of the Marne in Winter,” exhibited at the Salon in 1866, as “showing an extreme concern for the truth.” With its darkly mounded hill, planar white building and broad bands of green earth, this powerful work points toward the structured, analytic landscapes of Cezanne.

While painting large, somber landscapes for the Salon, Pissarro undertook smaller, brighter vignettes of suburban life. He and his impressionist-to-be colleagues lived in towns around Paris, where they sometimes painted side by side outdoors. When Monet visited Pissarro in the hamlet of Louveciennes in 1869, he got stuck in a snowstorm. The two, nevertheless, took advantage of the winter weather by painting the white-frosted street outside Pissarro’s house with the agitated, flecked-on brushwork that would become the hallmark of impressionism.

The following year, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Pissarro and Monet fled to London, where they met at museums to admire the works of British painters J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. Pissarro’s short exile led him to a looser and lighter technique, as evident in the Turner-inspired “Lordship Lane Station, East Dulwich,” with its apple-green hillside, red rooftops and train chugging toward the viewer.

Smoke-belching factories and steamboats appear in other landscapes from the 1870s, testifying to the increasing industrialization around Paris and the artist’s interest in portraying modern life. During this period, Pissarro and his family lived in Pontoise, a barge port on the Oise River northwest of Paris. Here, he painted with Cezanne, encouraging the younger artist to brighten his palette, while at the same time gaining the confidence to try new light and shadow effects.

The exhibit includes scenes of a wintry street in Pontoise painted by both artists from the same viewpoint; even in black and white, the reproduction of Cezanne’s canvas shows his predilection for strong geometry. Pissarro pays far more attention to details, including figures, in his version. His is the more civilized perspective.

One of the exhibit’s achievements is to gather three of five paintings that Pissarro displayed in the first impressionism show. (Pissarro was the only artist to participate in all eight of the group’s exhibitions.) These lush landscapes conclude the show by affirming the artist’s embrace of the broken brushstrokes and complementary colors that Monet and Cezanne more fully investigated. At the same time, their carefully arranged trees, banded hillsides and trudging peasants pay homage to the rustic scenes painted decades earlier by Corot and Jean-Francois Millet. For all his impressionist leanings, Pissarro couldn’t really let go of the past.

WHAT: “Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape”

WHERE: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets

WHEN: Feb. 11-May 13; Weds.-Fri., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; first Thursday of every month, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

TICKETS: Adults $15; seniors $12; students $10; children ages 6-18, $6 (plus a service and handling charge of $4 for all phone and Internet orders of tickets)

PHONE: 800/919-6272 (exhibition tickets); 443-573-1700 (museum information)

WEB SITE: www.artbma.org; www.tickets.com (to order tickets online)

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