It's all uphill for the peasant who carries a large load of sticks on his back and walks up a plowed field in the early-morning light. We can almost hear the crunch of the man's feet crossing the frozen furrows and feel the biting cold penetrating his simple cotton jacket and britches in Camille Pissarro's painting Hoarfrost at Ennery, which now hangs with 39 other groundbreaking works in Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's exhibition, "Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape."
"There's no focus; the subject's inconsequential; and the painting's dingy and vile," railed the critics when Hoarfrost at Ennery appeared in the "First Impressionist Exhibition" in Paris in 1874, but novelist and social reformer Emile Zola found Pissarro's art powerful because of its "extreme concern for the truth."
It is a fitting footnote to history that 70-plus years after the French Revolution, a self-taught outsider and social anarchist like Pissarro jumpstarted a revolution in art that successfully challenged the social, cultural, and aesthetic attitudes of the day. Curator Katherine Rothkopf's beautifully nuanced show thoroughly acquaints us with this lesser-known painter whose innovative brushwork, iconoclastic subject matter, and mastery of atmosphere and light rival those of the more famous impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne.
Disenchanted with social and religious as well as artistic hierarchies, Pissarro painted peasants as large as gentry and smokestacks as large as church steeples and found all people, all employment, all weather, all terrain worthy of his art.
In the evocative, ephemeral Banks of the Oise, Saint-Ouen-L'Aumône, a river flowing past smokestacks in the Paris suburbs reflects the fumes billowing up, blending with clouds in the sky. Homes and landscape are obscured by heavy snowfall in Effect of Snow at L'Hermitage, Pontoise. At the center of View of the Village of Louveciennes, the viewer's attention is captured and held by thousands of dabs of color that look like brown summer grasses quivering with light.
While all the show's paintings were created from 1864 to 1874 — the decade leading up to the Impressionists' first exhibition — the video accompanying the artwork explores Pissarro's childhood on the Caribbean Island of St. Thomas, Pissarro's search for the new and unorthodox until his death in 1903 at the age of 73, the impact the Impressionists had on each other's work, and how these upstart painters dramatically changed the way we look at art and life.
One stunning example of Pissarro's command of the picture plane is his masterwork Côte des Jalais, Pontoise, with its descending/ascending perspectives. Point of view is plunged into a Paris suburb lining the floor of a valley far below. With a dramatic play of billowing gray clouds backlit by bright white light, the artist draws attention back up to the top of the canvas. An umber, then ochre, then deep-green field of crops covers the slopes of the valley. At the bend in an unpaved road, two strollers come into view. The road's loose patchwork of dirt and grass fans out at the bottom of the painting, encompassing viewers and reminding us that we, too, are part of these ever-changing patterns of earth, atmosphere, color, and light.
"Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape" at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through January 6th