Camille Pissarro: A Case Study in Impressionist Drawing
The following is an excerpt from an article written with Christopher Llyod in the December 1997 issue of On Paper. For the full article please download the PDF.
It is an irony symptomatic of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist studies that, while the volumes of literature on this moment in the history of art never cease to multiply, whole segments of the production of its celebrated artists remain, if not unexplored, relatively little studied. The subject of drawing as a medium exploited by the Impres- sionists and their followers falls into this category.. One can immediately see why. As visitors to museums and readers of art books and periodicals, we still spontaneously associate Impressionism with feats of color, lyrical compositions, paint surfaces saturated with rich pigments directly applied on the canvas-not with drab shades of gray, nor black and white lines drawn on a sheer of paper. This view sadly conceals the fact that the more radical innovations of the Impressionists entailed a redistribution of the hierarchical roles and functions of all media and a redefinition of what drawings and prints as autonomous media were about. For the Impressionists, in short, drawing ceased to be considered merely as an ancillaty technique leading to a more noble and desirable end: the tableau. Every single step-even the slightest-in an artist’s whole. Creative process became equally significant. Arguably, among all the Impressionists, the two who pushed an interest in diverse techniques, media, and processes the furthest were Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.
With the recent exception of Nicholas Wadley’s book,1 the theme of Impressionist and Post Impressionist drawing as a whole has largely eluded serious investigation. Thankfully monographic exhibitions and publications on Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Redon, Seurat, Toulouse Lautrec, and van Gogh have acknowledged the great accomplishments of these artists as draftsmen, although, even there, works on paper often tend to be regarded as tangential to their paintings. Their graphic oeuvre, either considered in general terms or as a focal point in a wider context, merits gteater attention. The drarrings of Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and Sisler, are even less readily acknowledged (despite Peter Zeegers’s remarkabie essar in the catalogue of the Gauguin retrospective). Of course, the relatively small number of drawings they produced partially explains this neglect. It is fair to recall, however that until the recent publication of Daniel Wildenstein’s fifth volume in the catalogue raisonne of Monett work, published in 1991, most of us had little knowledge that Monet, who is known as one of the scarcest draftsmen among the Impressionists, produced as manv as 515 drawings.
There is one artist of this period whose oeuvre, both graphic and pictorial, is considerable, and whose role in Impressionism was pivotal and makes an interesting case study. Camilie Pissarro (1830-1903) regarded drawing as an activity central and indispensable to his art. He incessantly repeated to his eldest son, artist Lucien, that drawing was crucial to him. In a letter dated July 25, 1983, Camille ‘wrote to Lucien (then a young apprentice artist), “It is good to draw everythnsg, anything…. When you harve trained yourself to see a tree truly, you know how to Iook at the human figure.”, This was possibly one of the most revolutionary statements ever pronounced by the anarchistically minded Pissarro. Nobody had ever dared advise an artist to “draw everything, anything.” The implication was that if everything could be the subject matter for an artist, then a hierarchy of genres (reiigious, historical, landscape, etc.) should no longer prevail. If “everything” or'”anything” was worthy of being drawn, then Pissarro was indeed an anarchist- not just in politics, but in art, a fact remarked on by both Cezanne and Degas. Not onlv was every subject equally worthy, but every technique, experiment, or discovery was equailly exciting. Monotypes offer a direct case in point, as do hand-painted etchings, and drawings and other works that combine more media than can be listed on an average museum label. Pissarro’s multifarious technical imagination defied the imagination.