PISSARRO in Copenhagen

Palm tree painting

Landscape from the Antilles, rider and donkey on the road, 1856, Ordrupgaard, Charlottenlund

Copenhagen feels a special connection with Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), and rightly so. The artist was, after all, a Danish citizen his whole life. And his early life was marked by a close connection with a Danish painter named Fritz Melbye (1826-1869). It was their friendship and their influence on each other which inspired the recent exhibition, “Pissarro, a meeting in St. Thomas” at the Ordrupgaard in the outskirts of Copenhagen.

Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830 in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. At that time, St. Thomas and its neighboring islands St. Croix and St. John were the Danish West Indies, a colony of Denmark. Thus, Pissarro was a Danish citizen at birth, and though he spent all of his adult life in France, he never became a French citizen.

After attending school in France, the young man was expected to enter the family business in the Caribbean. But he wanted to be an artist. It was while working on the docks at Charlotte Amalie that he met Fritz Melbye.

Because Melbye was four years older than Pissarro, it might be assumed that he had much to teach the young artist. But Pissarro’s early drawings and paintings show that his technique was already well advanced. What occurred was a collegial sharing of ideas and interests.  They traveled together to Venezuela where for almost two years they worked side-by-side, exploring the mountains and maintaining an art studio in Caracas where they painted and sold their works.

This exhibition brought together a large number of Pissarro’s early drawings, watercolors, and paintings, pairing them with drawings and paintings by Melbye. A large portion of the exhibition was based on work done previously by Richard Brettell on a cache of works that Melbye had left with Frederick William Church (1826-1900) in Olano, New York. Another sizable portion included Pissarro’s early drawings from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK, which were catalogued by Brettell and Christopher Lloyd.

One new discovery was the early Pissarro painting, “Landscape from the Antilles, rider and donkey on the road,” (1856), which was not included in the recent catalogue raisonne by Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts (2005). It may have been bought in France by Anton Melbye (1818-1875), artist and brother of Fritz, and taken back to Denmark at some point.

Pissarro’s drawing, “Rio de Maiquetia,” (1852) shows his skillful use of simple pencil marks to create form and volume. He uses parallel lines, not only to create light and darkness, but to shape the planes of the rocks. Later, he used a similar technique in painting with oils, one that Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) later adopted and developed into his signature technique.

mountains drawing

Rio de Maiquetia, 1852, Private collection.

This early watercolor, “Bridge in Caracas” (1854), much more than a sketch, is a complete painting. Pissarro and Melbye may have made paintings like this to sell in their studio.

new bridge wc

Bridge in Caracas, 1854 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The painting, “Mountain landscape with a cabin,” (c. 1854) leaves no doubt as to Pissarro’s capabilities.  It may have been painted en plein air during one of the trips Pissarro and Melbye took with friends into the mountains that surround Caracas.

hut painting

Mountain landscape with a cabin, c. 1854, Private collection

In our minds, Pissarro has a bald head and a long white beard. But we forget that he was once young and had a full head of hair.  This self-portrait (1857-58) shows him as he must have been during his sojourn in Venezuela—a handsome young man looking earnestly at us with just a hint of a smile.

self=portrait early

Self-portrait, 1857-1858, National Museum of Art, Copenhagen

The value of this exhibition is that it reminds us of the artist Pissarro was before he became an Impressionist.  His work was quite advanced, and he was already experimenting with new ideas and techniques. This inventiveness is what he would carry with him throughout his life, creating some of the most intriguing and beautiful paintings of all time.

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