PRINT January 1964


John Rewald’s Pissarro

John Reward, Pissarro (New York: Abrams), 1963. 160 Pages, illustrated.

WITHOUT CAMILLE PISSARRO the history of Impressionism might very well have run a quite different course, yet it is remarkable in how much of the literature of Impressionism his role is slighted. This is perhaps because it is difficult—even Rewald sometimes has trouble—to strike a balance in evaluating his contribution as an artist and his contribution as a man. As an artist he is consistently overshadowed by his comrades, but it is he to whom they refer as their teacher, and when Cézanne, in 1906, now an idol of another generation, exhibits, he signs himself “pupil of Pissarro.” No landmark paintings stud his own oeuvre, yet we find that he is somehow always nearby with his warm encouragement, quick grasp of principles, key insight, when the landmark painting is created by Monet, or Renoir, or Cézanne. Of all the Impressionists, only one was able to rise above the quarrels that beset each of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions: Pissarro alone showed in all eight. He is again the only one to insist from the beginning on the genius of Cézanne, the only one to demand inclusion of the younger artists, in particular the young Paul Gauguin, and we find him alone of the group reaching gladly out to another generation in his enthusiastic response to the experiments of Seurat and, indeed, even painting in a pointillist style for several years. (Manet, Renoir, Monet and Gauguin violently resisted Pissarro’s insistence on including Seurat and Signac in the 8th Group Exhibition, the first three finally withdrawing altogether.) Yet he is the oldest, not the youngest, of the Impressionists.

Rewald assesses Pissarro with a generosity that matches Pissarro’s own. The selection of plates for this book stresses the strongest aspects of Pissarro’s oeuvre, and we find ourselves startled time and again at the selection of a plate that anticipates the volume and space-handling of the late Cézanne, or one that treats figure and setting in a manner that anticipates Vuillard, another whose placement anticipates Bonnard. Instead of the familiar, and sometimes dull, landscapes—forever being used by other writers to show how Cézanne or Monet did it better—Rewald offers a profusion of lesser-known figure paintings, and, in the landscapes he does select, shows us Pissarro painting on a level second to none.

The text is what we might expect of John Rewald. No poetry, no swooning, few enough adjectives; instead, a seemingly limitless flow of information. One feels that it is only in the interest of style and continuity that Rewald does not finally remove himself entirely, and simply offer up his source materials. (The text for one painting does simply that: Rewald offers a series of letters from Pissarro to his son as the only commentary.) For anyone familiar with the massive material in the author’s History of Impressionism, however, this is lightweight popularization. While it is true that Rewald offers us nothing that is not contained in the History of Impressionism, the profusion of illustration and the commentaries on the paintings make the book well-worth owning. Indeed, among the entire series published by Abrams under the title The Library of Great Painters, combining lavishness of color and elegance of presentation with often first quality writing, this book and William Seitz’s splendid Monet, are perhaps the best examples to date.

Philip Leider