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Pissarro Building, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

While on holidays on a cruise a few years back in the Caribbean I passed by this curious museum which, unfortunately was closed at the time and I couldn't return later much to my disappointment. Camille Pissarro was born and raised here on July 10, 1830, in this heaven-on-earth island, but he spent most of his adult life painting in Paris. Although not exactly a household name to many familiar with Impressionism, he was a huge influence and father figure to many artists of that era including Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat and Gauguin. What makes Pissarro cool is that he seems to get only better with age, and his urban landscapes are light years ahead of any painter in the genre.

The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, 1897

A perfect snapshot of the era and a stunning painting, this kind of work seems remarkably simplistic up close but step back and it has a photographic realism to it. This is obviously true of all Impressionism, but in Pissarro's case it is his unique ability to capture architecture and bystanders with crisp brushstrokes and accurate attention to value. The whole composition has a feeling of movement, that the horse-drawn carriages appear to move towards our eye and away from us, and yet it is merely a simple view from a rooftop of a busy street. Look at the sky and you will see a very complex palette of yellows, blues, greys, whites, and even tints of green. Now look at the slick streets below, and we see even more intricate color combinations. Squint and it all looks flawless...this is a painter's painter, folks. His understanding of color rivals any of his contemporaries.

Orchard in Bloom, 1872

Again, Pissarro's acute depiction of color temperature and value immediately draw us into the painting. The sense of presence and peacefulness in this rural scene are an attribute of his own visual poetry at work. A remarkably cool palette, Pissarro combines strong diagonals of the trees with subtle but distinct horizontals in the middleground figures and vibrant green horizon line in the far distance. Look at the shadow of the tree on the dirt: it completes the painting, and would be a flat composition without it. If you look up close at the brushstrokes we see mottled yellow-greens and very cool whites on the the tree foliage of the main tree, while the ground is a mass of big earth-tone strokes. That small bit of green separating the field also defines the composition, and note how the shadow of the tree makes the green darker on the edge. Despite the haphazard-like brushwork there is a serious amount of observation going on here, and enough to not make it as rushed as this style might appear.

Entrée du village de Voisins, 1872

Color-wise we see the polar opposite of Orchard in Bloom above. Warm, late-afternoon sun with long green shadows of the trees raking across the foreground. Pissarro is playing around with complementary colours here in a musical sort of way, with the deep blue sky harmonizing the entire painting. Simplicity and poetry are his music, and this is a timeless art that remains fresh and vibrant, never cheesy or sentimental, but real. I encourage anyone wanting to truly experience Impressionism like this to find a museum and see it in person—it is a true pleasure.


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