Archive for Sunday, July 16, 2000

St. Thomas: birthplace of Impressionism?

July 16, 2000


— Camille Pissarro is considered the father of Impressionism, a painting style that won huge popularity and influence with its celebration of life, beauty and color, and a style generally associated with France.

But the 19th-century master's great-grandson says the key to Pissarro lies in his little-studied origins a world away from the drawing rooms and gardens of Paris. It was here, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where an impressionable young man of Jewish descent came to know the island blacks who greatly influenced his work.

Learn more about artist Camille Pissarro at

"St. Thomas had a huge impact on his life and on his art," says Joachim Pissarro, an art historian at Yale University. "The role of the Caribbean in Pissarro's early career was much more important than we think."

Deeply affected by the arduous living conditions of fellow islanders -- many still slaves -- Pissarro developed a "dedication to unglamorous human reality. ... All he cared about were people of very simple, very ordinary backgrounds," Joachim says.

That sensibility is evident in "Two Women Chatting by the Sea" (1856), which depicts two dark-skinned women -- one carrying a basket, the other balancing a tray on her head -- on a barren beach front hardly recognizable as today's stunning, yacht-filled bay at Charlotte Amalie.

A low-traffic site

Since Pissarro's time, the island has shifted from Danish to U.S. rule, and the town itself has been transformed into a mecca of duty-free shopping.

Pissarro's childhood home still stands -- a three-story beige building that was sold by the artist's family in 1914 and today is owned by a local realty agency. It is unknown to most tourists despite a small sign above its doorway declaring: "Camille Pissarro Building: Birthplace of the famous Impressionist."

Visitors pass through a tunnel-like hallway of brick and stone leading to an open-air courtyard. The "Camille Pissarro Gallery" on the third floor offers original works by local artists and prints of some Pissarros, including "Coconuts by the Sea" (1856), depicting the current site of a luxury hotel.

An accountant's office occupies rooms where the Pissarro family lived. Jewelry and crystal stores are on the first floor, where Pissarro's father, Frederic, ran a haberdashery and young Camille counted inventory.

Only a few dozen tourists and locals visit the gallery each day, a small fraction of the masses scouring the town for T-shirts, watches and trinkets.

"If this was in France, I know this would be a shrine," says gallery owner Randall Wombold.

The Tourism Department does not mention the house in its brochures. "There are much more significant aspects of a Virgin Islands vacation," Tourism Commissioner Rafael Jackson says. "(But) that is not to say that is not important."

Drawing what he knew

Frederic Pissarro was originally of Sephardic Jewish ancestry and had moved to St. Thomas from Bordeaux, France, in the first half of the 19th century. Less is known about the artist's mother, Rachel Manzana, who hailed from what is now the Dominican Republic.

The marriage was opposed by St. Thomas' Jewish elders because Rachel was the recent widow of Frederic's uncle and had already given birth to his child.

The four Pissarro children were deemed illegitimate, and because of this Camille attended an all-black primary school run by Moravian pastors instead of the white community's school.

So when Pissarro began drawing, he portrayed blacks, something few white artists did.

He drew dozens of drawings of blacks before he left for Venezuela with Danish artist Fritz Melbye in 1852. He returned to the island in 1854 but soon left again, for Paris. There he made his name -- establishing Impressionism along with Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir -- and he never came back.

"On the one hand, Pissarro ran away like crazy, like he was almost in prison on St. Thomas," Joachim Pissarro says. "What he could not stand were the constrictions, the pressure, the family establishment conventions. ... He could not do what he wanted to do.

"If you really wanted to be an artist, you couldn't do it in St. Thomas. ... You had to go to where it all happened -- and that was Paris."

A humanistic approach

Pissarro's Caribbean connection also explains his attraction to political anarchy, says Ivan Gaskell, a curator at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum. "In that anarchist literature of the later 19th century there is no distinction among the races drawn. ... There is a rather wonderful idealistic conception of humanity as a totality."

Gaskell agrees that Pissarro's paintings are extraordinary in their humanism.

"Although you can see them predominantly as landscape works, most of the time you are reminded of the presence of how that landscape is a setting for human labor and human activity," he says. "Whereas some of his fellow Impressionists concentrated more on leisure activities in the landscape, Pissarro seems consistently to concentrate on how the landscape is a setting for necessary human labor."

Even when he was painting garden workers and field laborers in France, the influence of the island persisted.

"They were not slaves, but they were people working for their bread and butter," Joachim Pissarro says. "What he saw in St. Thomas was desperately unglamorous and he decided to make it the ongoing subject of his art for the rest of his life."

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