Madame Pissarro's cabbages and roses

GARDENS and paintings of gardens - who can resist them? The Impressionist oeuvre abounds with them. One can imagine that, after lugging canvases across rough fields or up and down steep streets, it would be a relief to step outside the door to record the artist's own intimate, blooming Eden. While it is difficult to associate brightly painted, cheery gardens with poverty, both Camille Pissarro and his friend, Claude Monet, painted their gardens while enduring much privation. Monet's early scenes are many times graced with his wife, dressed in a fashionable crinolined costume complete with frilled parasol. Monet was determined to obtain worldly success with his art no matter how untraditionally he might paint, and he wasn't about to admit to living a marginal existence.

Pissarro was quite different. He was a staunch egalitarian as well as an intensely, selflessly dedicated artist, whose ambition inclined not at all toward honors, critical acclaim, and riches. This ambition appears to have gone no further than caring for his family and painting. There was no hint of self-promotion in his nature.

``The Artist's Garden at Eragny'' acknowledges - no, exalts - the toil and struggle of his home life. It is without a doubt his steadfast Julie who is painted in the foreground stooped over the vegetables that, thanks to her care, fed their large family. Eragny, their last home, was quite a bit removed from Paris, its art dealers and collectors.

In this rural setting Julie also raised chickens and rabbits, and she gave generously to the wives of other struggling painters. As far as I know, Pissarro was the only artist to include the kitchen garden - the cabbages along with the roses.

Pissarro was born into a family of well-to-do merchants in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands. As a young man he had run away on a painting trip with another aspiring artist. Eventually, he was permitted to go to Paris to try to fulfill his ambition. His parents followed several years later.

Julie was hired as a cook's assistant at their house. For many painful years, she and the young artist could only establish a common-law marriage, because of his parents' objection to his union with a Burgundian servant of different religion. Pissarro was very much a family man. This, and the tiny stipend his parents provided which allowed him to keep painting, made him unwilling to offend them. Years and many children later, his mother relented after his father's death and a legal ceremony in London confirmed their nuptials.

This painting not only tells us about Pissarro's private life but also much about his long career. Camille Pissarro was the oldest and most consistent member of the Impressionist group. An art critic, writing about the first Impressionist exhibition, called Pissarro ``basically the inventor of this painting.''

In his recollections, Paul C'ezanne recognized him as ``the first Impressionist.'' C'ezanne participated in the first and third of the Impressionists' group shows. Pissarro helped organize and contributed canvases to all of the eight exhibits. Of course, during those years of derision none of the Impressionists fared well monetarily from their art.

Later, when Georges Seurat introduced Pointillism as the logical development in Impressionism, Pissarro tried for four years to come to terms with that laborious divisionist technique. In the end, he decided that it made it impossible for him to ``render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the so random and so admirable effects of nature.'' This detour was disastrous financially. There were virtually no sales of his pointillist paintings.

``The Artist's Garden at Eragny'' is a lovely example of Pisarro's late style. Painted during a period of prosperity, it shows that after his struggles he brought his canvases to that harmonious unity he had always sought.

One of Pissarro's great contributions to Impressionism was his ability to combine spontaneity and deliberation in the one canvas. Here, we see contrasting bands of firmly modeled structures alternating with the evanescent, breeze-blown flowers and clouds.

The simplicity of the rendering - the sober reddish-browns and greens - gives an elemental feeling to the peasantlike posture of Julie in her brown dress, the rich earth, the green growing things.

The next band carries the Impressionist theme of sparkling immediacy and a sense of the fleeting changes of nature in the subtly varied greens - some shadowed, some shimmering - of the trees and the bushes bedecked with pink, red, and yellow blossoms. The brushwork in this and the band of the sky is swift, sure, and active.

The background walls and buildings of the village constitute a band painted with an uncanny solidity and beauty in finely varied shades of lavenders and tans. Although the overall impression has little in it to suggest that Pissarro was one of the main influences on Paul C'ezanne, a close look at these buildings reveals an affinity. C'ezanne acknowledged his debt, even signing one early canvas ``Pupil of Pissarro.''

Pissarro's generosity toward C'ezanne was not only in the area of explaining art theories and Impressionism. After C'ezanne had withdrawn from Paris to paint in virtual seclusion at his southern home of Aix, Pissarro persuaded Ambroise Vollard, the legendary art dealer, to contact C'ezanne. Vollard did so and mounted a one-man show with 150 of C'ezanne's paintings.

Pissarro's relationship with his family reflected his warm, generous nature. Despite the hardships they had had to endure, his sons wished to follow their father's profession. The eldest, Lucien, became a well-known engraver. As Pissarro became more secure financially, he gave liberally to his children and grandchildren.

One wonders why Pissarro's reputation had been so slow in coming up, and why to this day there is a tendency among art historians to play down his achievements, his contribution to the Impressionist movement, and the quality of his landscapes and cityscapes.

From the time he arrived in Paris in 1855 until 1903, when his last canvas was painted, his output of strongly composed, beautifully executed canvases is astonishing. ``The Artist's Garden at Eragny'' is a sincere, deeply felt tribute to his hardworking wife in what we may think of as a kind of portrait that reveals how she shared in the burdens of their spare existence, while surrounded by his art and the beauty that he found everywhere.

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