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Family matters

Posted by Sebastian Smee  June 28, 2011 07:13 PM

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pissarro.jpgFor me, the highlight of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute's excellent "Pissarro's People" exhibition was the chance to see the series of ferociously political drawings he did in the late 1880s and 1890 called "Les Turpitudes Sociales" (click link for a slideshow)

Pissarro was an avowed anarchist when that word meant something more hopeful than it tends to mean today. But if anything, governments were less tolerant of self-described anarchists than they are today, and Pissarro, a Sephardic Jew with Danish citizenship, was watched closely by the French government.

Only a few years after making the series, which most people - even Pissarro fans - don't know about, Pissarro had to deal with the foul anti-Semitic fall-out of the Dreyfus Affair. His former friends - and influences - Degas and Renoir revealed their worst sides during this period - really rancid opinions, revolting betrayals.

During the Dreyfus Affair Pissarro was confined to a few rooms in his Paris home. So his optimism bore little fruit. Except, perhaps, in his relations with family. This is from my review of the show in Sunday's Globe:

"In his art, as in his intellectual life, Pissarro was curious, hungry, open to influence. His letters to his eldest son, Lucien, stand beside van Gogh's letters and Delacroix's journals as among the great documents of 19th-century art. In these letters, as in his pictures, Pissarro comes across as integrity incarnate.

"The problem he poses for a critic is that, although he painted a steady stream of very good pictures, he never really painted a masterpiece. Can one be a great artist without painting masterpieces? The short, honest answer is no. But you can be an exemplary artist, and Pissarro was that.

"If you don't know Pissarro, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute's wonderful summer show "Pissarro's People" is a fine introduction. If you do know him, it will make you feel you didn't.

"The exhibition is the first serious attempt to focus on Pissarro's family pictures and figure paintings. If, as a result, we miss out on the dew-kissed, mint-fresh landscapes or the late, magisterial cityscapes for which he is best known, the windfall is that we get a much stronger sense of what he was like as a man - what mattered to him.

"What mattered most was family."


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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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