That, at least, is the theory. In practice, centenaries allow this, but they tend also to offer concurrent proof of the tenacity of prejudice. If something was held against an artist 100 years ago, it is astonishing how often the same thing is still held against them 100 years later. I can prove this.
There’s a chance this year to compare the achievements of two exceptional artists who died a century ago. Both were much more than pioneers. Both altered not only the direction that art took but also the definition of what art is. One of them is an art star whom everyone knows and whom museums across Europe and America have been queuing up to commemorate in the months ahead. The other ought to be as well known, but isn’t. He achieved at least as much and perhaps more. But he won’t be celebrated from pole to pole, because the mention of his name doesn’t quicken enough pulses. The lucky one is Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903. The unlucky one is Camille Pissarro, 1831-1903.
I won’t waste too much of your Sunday thinking space summarising Gauguin’s achievements. He doesn’t need it. There will be numerous occasions later in this year of centenaries to savour Gauguin more fully. Various exhibitions are planned. I’ve been making a biography about him for the BBC, and found the process revelatory. We’ve been getting Gauguin wrong. But not as wrong as we’ve been getting Pissarro.
If you know him at all, you’ll know him as one of the founders of impressionism: the one who keeps getting overshadowed by the other founders of impressionism. Monet’s popularity with the public continues to grow. Renoir’s popularity with Texan millionaires continues to grow. But Pissarro’s reputation is stuck in the mud of worthiness. We know he drafted the impressionist rule book. We know he was the glue that held impressionism together and made it happen. We know he is the only impressionist to have shown in all the impressionist exhibitions. But instead of admiring his constancy, we mistake it for averageness and assume that only a dog could be this dogged.
His appearance was certainly unfortunate. What a beard he had on him! It was huge, white, biblical and had the disastrous effect of making him appear permanently old. Pissarro must have been young once, but his known appearance never offered any proof of this. And you don’t need me to tell you how prejudiced against old age the past century has been. The time may come when maturity, constancy and resoluteness are valued above youngness, hipness and entrepreneurial flash, but it hasn’t come yet.
Anyway, Pissarro is someone I kept bumping into in the course of tracing Gauguin’s biography. He was like a crossroads I could never avoid, no matter which route I was following. Basically, he taught Gauguin how to paint. Gauguin was a stockbroker who took up art in his spare time, and who used to pop over to Pissarro’s house on Sundays for guidance. These short Sundays became long and entire summers. A hobby became an obsession. Pissarro’s coaching made Gauguin an artist.
There was something else.
Pissarro was born in St Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. He grew up in the Caribbean and was, I propose, the first modern artist to attempt that elemental escape towards the sun that defined the careers of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and so many 20th-century others.
Pissarro had palm trees in his imagination. He invented the impressionist brushstroke in order to capture a relationship with the sun’s glow that nobody else in art had previously desired. The sun was an emotional choice for him, not just a physical one. The value of his example is incalculable.
Yet, remarkably, had I been making a film about Cézanne, I would have kept fetching up at the same crossroads. Because Pissarro taught Cézanne to paint too. And a film about Seurat would also have taken you past him recurrently. When all the other impressionists were dismissing the dotty revolution, only Pissarro steadfastly supported Seurat. It was Pissarro who recommended Dr Gachet to Van Gogh, and it was in Dr Gachet’s orbit that Van Gogh shot himself: a film about Van Gogh would have had you bumping into Pissarro all over the place. To all these artists, Pissarro was the starting block of modernism. As the four greatest postimpressionists, they are the four most important influences on the art of our times.
But we’ll never appreciate Pissarro the teacher fully, because, in our cultural heart of hearts, we are lovers of pupils, not of mentors. Cézanne called him “the humble and colossal Pissarro”. But the revealing word here is not “colossal”. It’s “humble”. Pissarro’s tragedy is to keep getting mistaken for the mortar when, in truth, he was one of the best bricks.
This is what a proper centenary reassessment of him could have established. To begin with, he was the first notable Jewish artist. We have grown used now to great Jewish artists, from Rothko to Freud, from Newman to Modigliani, from Chagall to Epstein. But for 2,000 years of international creativity, from the birth of Jesus to the death of Manet, no Jewish artists popped their heads above the parapet. Until Pissarro. The fact that he did so was another factor in his demotion. When the Dreyfus affair blew up in France, his impressionist pals, notably Renoir and Degas, sided with the anti-semites, and Renoir, with whom Pissarro had worked so closely, dismissed him as “that Israelite”. It was, at the time, the worst insult going.