Joachim Pissarro on the 'Free Spirit' of the Impressionists

Joachim Pissarro on the 'Free Spirit' of the Impressionists

D uring his studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, art historian Joachim Pissarro found that having a famous name came with certain expectations. This was the 1970s and the great-grandson of the Impressionist master Camille Pissarro was more interested in Minimalism than Impressionism. Talking to me from his home in Manhattan he laughs as he recalls how he would skip lectures on the Impressionists. Today, however, he is a world authority on Camille’s work (in 2005, he co-authored the catalogue raisonne with Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts).

As Cézanne once observed, Camille Pissarro was very close to nature; but he also understood the subtleties of the city. This March, Pissarro’s 1903 painting Le Pont-Royal, après-midi, temps couvert is offered in the Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction, a painting that captures Paris on the cusp of the Modern age, as horse-drawn carriages give way to motorised omnibuses. The work, notes Sotheby’s specialist, is from Pissarro’s “final series created from the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire on the left bank, overlooking the Pont Royal and the Jardins des Tuileries and is one of seven paintings that the artist devoted to this specific vista.”

As the art world celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Impressionist movement, I talked to Joachim about Camille’s life and art and his role as the Impressionists’ elder-statesman. And how I ask does Joachim balance being a renowned academic – he was formerly a curator at MoMA – with his familial attachment to that meeting of minds in the late 19th century.

Christian House: The reputations of artistic movements ebb and flow over the years. How do you think the Impressionists’ legacy sits today?

Joachim Pissarro: When I was at the Courtauld, it was almost impossible to get in to seminars on the Impressionists because they were so packed. The bees’ knees, the most popular type of art topic you could get. I mean, you could get into any seminars on 18th century and medieval art, no problem. Today, it’s the exact reverse. Everybody is very into medieval art. Now that’s the academic world, which is a very small word. The popularity, I don’t know if it’s changed that much. There continues to be the flow of regular Impressionist exhibitions. If I judge by what is happening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: we just had Manet and Degas, and it was a packed show. And Musée d’Orsay continues to be one of the leading institutions in the world in terms of popularity.

While Camille played a huge role in both the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist movements, do you think he always ploughed his own field?

Absolutely. But you could say that about most members of most art movements. Art movements are something of a glue that sticks to you, and you don’t really appreciate it. I think with Impressionism, what is important to understand is that it’s an association of free spirits. Actually, when you ask about his role in Impressionism, few people know that he’s the one who drew the legal contract binding the Impressionists together.

"Today, I don’t think he would be a painter because he was such an experimenter at heart... Would he be doing NFTs? I don’t know. He would definitely be looking at different forms of expression."
Joachim Pissarro on his great-grandfather, Camille Pissarro

As his great-grandson, did you feel an instinctive draw to his art as you grew up?

No, I didn’t. I was brought up by my grandfather, so I would see the paintings around by Camille. It was filled with art, but if anything, I was more sort of put off by it and studied German philosophy in school. Then I ended up at the Courtauld, doing an MPhil thesis, but again I wanted to work on Carl Andre, but this was turned down. The fact is, no, I was absolutely not into Impressionism.

But your feelings about his works changed over the years?

I was sort of grinding my heels, but I discovered in fact that Pissarro was a much more interesting person. I discovered that he was a thinker. He wrote. That he read, he read tons. I had absolutely no idea. So that was the turning point. Alma Egger and I are co-writing the catalogue of his drawings. I would say barely a week or month passes without us seeing drawings we’ve never seen. And, among those drawings, there are always some surprises. There are always things that come, and you ask yourself, did he do that?

Camille Pissarro, 1831-1903.

Camille seems to have been a benevolent and paternal figure in the movement – is that fair?

Completely. If you look at the biographies of the group, he is by far the oldest. He is, I think, two years older than Manet, and four years older than Degas. He is about half a generation older than Cezanne, Monet and Renoir. That gives him a certain seniority. When he does his self-portrait which is in the Musée d’Orsay, which my grandfather actually gave to the Louvre, he is 44 years old, I think, or 43. He has this big white beard. Some critic said he looks like a prophet from Moses’ time. He had this particular feature of looking much older, much more senior. Then I think, as a mensch, as a psyche, as a personality, he was very much one to open his door and his arms, open his mind to others.

Sotheby’s are offering one of Camille’s Paris scenes from 1903. How do you view these late works?

He takes a hotel, and he decides to go on painting the streets of Paris with its hustle and bustle. And they are fascinating, those works. I think he decides it’s a project and they rent a room at this particular hotel and they crack on. Just to go at it serially: looking at the instant, looking at the fleeting moment, looking at the light. Of course, the light changes all the time, as does time, the atmosphere. He is completely turned on by the industrial, you could say, the industrial revolution.

If Camille was here with us today, what would you ask him?

I feel like I am sitting in front of a psychoanalyst. The problem here is that I am torn suddenly between my own personal history, my family relationship with him and with my grandfather, and my job. I would give priority to my personal affiliation to him and ask him about my grandfather. I would love to know more about their relationship.

I’ve never been asked that question. I thought you would ask me what I’m often asked, which is what would he be doing? I don’t think he would be a painter because he was such an experimenter at heart. I think [he] would be looking at different things. Would he be doing NFTs? I don’t know. He would definitely be looking at different forms of expression.

Impressionist & Modern Art

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