New York

Camille Pissarro

Center for Inter-American Relations

It is very good to see the show of early drawings by Camille Pissarro at the gallery of the Center for Inter-American Relations: after all, they could have shown instead the Venezuelan equivalent of de Kooning or Oldenburg, which is what foundations of this sort, with a primarily regional interest, usually do. How much you will learn from this show depends on what you bring to it; if you bring to it the notion that Impressionist work is formed in the school of nature, you will learn a lot.

The most interesting, if not the best part of the show was the room of paintings and drawings by the Danish artist Frederick S. G. Melbye. A few drawings by him were included in the show organized by John Rewald, Camille Pissarro in Venezuela, held in the Hammer Galleries in 1964, but there are more here, as well as some oils, and the catalog essay by Sr. Alfredo Boulton summarizes in English the substance of research that until now has only been available in Spanish. Before the studies of Messrs. Rewald and Boulton, Pissarro was not generally thought to have had any serious instruction in art until he reached Paris in 1855, introduced himself to Anton Melbye and was exposed to Corot and Millet; but it was Anton’s younger brother, Frederick, who taught him first. Fritz Melbye was a competent workman who had been well received in the circle of King Christian in Denmark and of both Louis Philippe and Napoleon III in France. He went to Venezuela in 1850, seems to have met Pissarro in St. Thomas, and in 1852 persuaded Pissarro to leave his native island and return with him to Venezuela.

The two shared a house and a studio in both Caracas and its port city, La Guaira, between 1852 and 1854. Fritz Melbye’s style is basically an adaptation of Claude Lorraine after the fashion of the 18th-century followers of Claude—I suppose the best-known in this country is the Englishman, Richard Wilson. In addition, he owes a great deal to the views painters of 18th-century Venice, like Canaletto; in fact, their influence produced a kind of travel painting that seems to have had its own generic characteristics, although it has not been well studied: what Chinnery painted in China, for example, is not unlike what Fritz Melbye was later to do in Venezuela. His was very conventional work, both in style and in motif. In style he was painterly, but not wholly; the inevitable influence of the graphic arts on a views painter, whose oils were so often turned into etchings or lithographs, and the prevalent NeoClassicism of the times combined to produce a certain dryness of handling. In motif, Melbye may say he is painting the harbor of La Guaira, but he is thinking of the Bay of Naples, and his views of the road to the port are patterned after some baroque Flight into Egypt. All this is very clear, and how writers like Messrs. Rewald and Boulton can say that nature was these artists’ only teacher is puzzling to me. Baroque conventions informed stylistic procedures throughout the 19th-century, and one need not limit their influence to the few spectacular cases, like Delacroix or Puvis. Robert Herbert has shown the extent of Millet’s indebtedness to baroque procedures (Sr. Boulton, in his catalog essay for the present show, characteristically describes Millet as a naturalist) and I have done the same for another Barbizon painter, Daubigny. The interest of Fritz Melbye is that he affords additional evidence of the persistence of baroque methods in 19th-century painting.

The drawings by Pissarro continue this vein: the Netherlandish genre style of Ostade, and the river and shore scenes of Van Goyen come to join hands with the Italianate landscape vision of Claude in a way that often resembles what Horace Vernet and Eugene Isabey had already achieved in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Isabey was a popular artist, and Horace Vernet, of whom Isabey was a follower, was also a very strong influence. We know that engravings by or after them were to be found in Caracas (as they were in New York and Philadelphia, or Baltimore and St. Louis) at that time, and they had the same effect on an artist working in Venezuela as on American landscape painting of the last century. Sr. Boulton has studied the availability of prints of the work of these artists, whether they are of the 17th or of the early 19th century, but I think that he underestimates their importance. I do not doubt that Pissarro was working directly from nature and trying to render perceived effects, as Sr. Boulton insists, but he was trying to render them as an artist working in an established art medium; and even before he asked himself questions about the way to render what he saw, his very way of looking had been led along certain channels by those who had looked before him, even if they had looked at different scenes. The pencil drawings of trees that make up much of the present show are excellent, as fine as anything Pissarro was to do later, but they owe everything to Claude, even though Claude calls them birches or laurels, while in Pissarro they are tropical plants. I think that one reason why Sr. Boulton, like so many others, is reluctant to acknowledge so evident a debt is that he views the tradition of Vernet and Isabey as being completely opposed to that of Corot, Millet and Daubigny, in style and above all in ideology. But Corot, Millet and Daubigny did not think in this way. They are always eager to discuss what they had found in their baroque predecessors—Daubigny, describing a landscape he had found, spontaneously turns to baroque prototypes as the readiest way of conveying its quality: “It is like what you see in Claude, Gaspar Dughet and Salvator Rosa,” he wrote—and Pissarro was like them in this respect as in others.

Jerrold Lanes