Camille Pissarro–Les Turpitudes Sociales

I was recently looking through the book Pissarro’s People, published in conjunction with a show at the Clark Art Institute and saw his wonderful Turpitudes Sociales drawings reproduced there in full. It was the first time I’d seen all 28 of them together and they’re far more coherent and direct when seen as a series than in seeing any few of them reproduced.

The Clark has them all on their website where they can be viewed:

One of the reasons I find them so wonderful is that Pissarro produced them  as a service to his two nieces, Esther and Alice Isaccson, in order to educate them about the horrors of capitalism. They can easily be viewed as just as pertinent and topical to the world today.

For example, here’s a sharp presentation of the 1 percent:

Interestingly we read that Pissarro withheld sending a half dozen of the drawings through the mail and delivered them by hand so as to avoid possible seizure of the material and his subsequent arrest.

The striking paradox is to see the work of an artist whose revolutionary manner of painting as well as radical political viewpoint has at this point in art history  been turned into an example of “pretty painting”. The Impressionists in general are seen as the model for some of the most tepid and banal paintings ever created. Yet if one really looks at any of the original Impressionist work closely it’s clear just how forceful and complex these paintings are. “Contemporary” Impressionism is rarely more than a parody of Impressionism. The Impressionists weren’t weekend hobby painters and there was nothing peaceful or soothing about how they painted. They were struggling to capture something by using paint in a way that it had never been used before. It wasn’t a matter of making things pretty or picturesque. It was an attempt to capture the subtleties of light and color. Monet captures some of the futility of their effort in his remark that color is his greatest joy and torment. “Contemporary” Impressionism leaves out all of the torment.

On top of that, Impressionism was not a popular style or way of painting. Sisley died broke and impoverished. Pissarro sold few paintings during his life but was one of the great leaders and teachers, a powerful influence on his contemporaries.

Cézanne wrote: He was a father for me. A man to consult and a little like the good Lord.” Gauguin wrote: “If we observe the totality of Pissarro’s work, we find there, despite fluctuations, not only an extreme artistic will, never belied, but also an essentially intuitive, purebred art… He was one of my masters and I do not deny him.” He also referred to him “as a force with which future artists will have to reckon.”

If only they would bother to do so.

There’s no small irony to find yourself looking at Pissarro’s anti-Capitalist drawings, which are a pure expression of Pissarro’s socialist politics, only to see  they’re far more incisive and filled with real content than all the absurd and preening nonsense concocted by the current “radicals.” While Pissarro spent his entire life scrambling to make ends meet and struggling until the end of his life to capture the life that he clearly loved so dearly.

His was a monumental accomplishment, at least on the order of Cezanne or van Gogh, or any of the other artists who have been paid far more attention because their work has an obvious “radical” quality. But I think that the radical nature of Pissarro’s accomplishment  has been largely obscured by the fact that there are so many dull and simplistic imitations.

I can still vividly recall the powerful show of his late city paintings that the Philadelphia Museum mounted in 1993. Near the end of his life he painted city scenes from various hotel windows in Rouen, Paris, Le Havre, Dieppe and London… largely because of eye problems that were aggravated by the wind or outdoor weather. He painted entire series of paintings from hotel windows. And, for me, they constitute some of the greatest paintings of that time of great paintings–the grand culmination of a lifetime of struggle and study.

I don’t want to post them here because any digital images do a complete disservice to this kind of painting. The paintings have to be seen, but more importantly, felt.

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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2 Responses to Camille Pissarro–Les Turpitudes Sociales

  1. Ann Saul says:

    What a thoughtful discussion of Pissarro’s social beliefs and how they relate to his paintings. I totally agree that Pissarro’s paintings were not meant to be “pretty” but to attempt the capture of light and color within the context of that place. As you point out, they are far too complex for a quick glance and reward those who take time to look at them closely. Thank you for your excellent commentary.
    Ann Saul

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks very much for your comment, Ann. And a great pleasure to be in touch with another admirer of Pissarro. I just briefly checked your wonderful blog and will be spending some time looking it over. It’s very exciting for me to find such a trove of information and enthusiasm for Pissarro in one location.

    I’ll also encourage anyone else reading here to visit your blog with this live link:

    I’m very much looking forward to your upcoming book. I knew the Terra Museum well, having gone to Graduate School at the Art Institute of Chicago. I also, of course, love the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has mounted so many fantastic shows over the years. Thanks for doing such good work on this fine artist. It’s very much appreciated.

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