As we celebrate the life and extraordinary art of Camille Pissarro on this day, we are challenged to take a new and fresh look at his work. For Pissarro, art demanded no less than the “whiplash of originality,” (his words).1 The paintings we see most often and remember are frequently those that conform with our idea of Impressionism. But Pissarro was not bound by any rules or standards. Even while he was inventing Impressionism, he was investigating techniques unthinkable at that time—no narrative, no focal point, lack of perspective, visible brushstrokes, flattened structures, and nontraditional composition.
His painting, Landscape with Haystacks, Osny, 1883 [PDRS 718], shows how Pissarro looked at an ordinary motif and created an unconventional painting that defies tradition with its tightly woven brushstrokes in colors almost Fauvist, nearly unrecognizable forms that seem to melt into the background, and the opposition of sharp diagonal lines. Truly, a masterpiece, radical for its time and even now.
His genius was not lost on Paul Gauguin, who according to Sotheby’s,2 was the first owner of the painting. Sotheby’s also points out that this painting by Pissarro foreshadows Monet’s haystacks painted in 1891, which are more traditional in composition and execution.
To properly honor Pissarro, we must look closely at all of his works, not just those easy to understand, and appreciate the immensity of his creativity and inventiveness. There is much more to be learned from Camille Pissarro.
1 John Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien, p. 323.