In Review

Pissarro: Father of Impressionism – a fitting tribute to a quiet trailblazer

Ashmolean Museum show brings together 80 works by the painter

When you think of impressionism, Camille Pissarro might not be the first painter who springs to mind, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Born in 1830, Pissarro was significantly older than Monet, Renoir or Cézanne – all artists whose posthumous reputations eclipse his own. And though he did sometimes depict the “sun-dappled landscapes” associated with impressionism, he was just as often “a painter of rain, snow and frost”.

Yet as this new exhibition at the Ashmolean reminds us, in his lifetime Pissarro was seen as a pioneer of this “most popular of modern-art movements”, a trailblazer who mentored and inspired the likes of Monet, Gauguin, Sisley and Degas.

The show brings together 80 works by Pissarro alongside 40 by his friends and contemporaries, and explores his influence on art history. Many of the paintings, drawings and prints here are understated by comparison to the most famous impressionist paintings, but what they lack in the way of “flushed sunsets, bright poppy fields or shimmering lily pads”, they make up for in subtlety and intimacy.

At his best, Pissarro was remarkably inventive, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. A thrilling 1899 view of the Tuileries in the rain, for instance, is an “ode to life’s unremarkable, drizzly normality”: figures in the park are rendered as “abbreviated and vaporous silhouettes” amid “muddy puddles shimmering with reflected light”.

Sadly, such highlights are few and far between. Much of Pissarro’s work is “characterised by meek composition”, and in truth, “it’s hard to get fired up about art that’s so lowkey”. What’s more, when hung next to his fellow impressionists, he invariably comes off worse; pairing Pissarro with an artist of Cézanne’s intensity “feels almost cruel”.

Rubbish, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. If anything, the show could have done with fewer works by Pissarro’s contemporaries and a heartier championing of his “own genius”. His art was “fundamentally honest”, and pointed the way towards “radical new visions” – incorporating both a political edge (he had anarchist sympathies) and “subtle meditations” on the puzzle of visual perception itself.

His work Plum Trees in Blossom, for instance, “makes you choose between two foci”, a group of houses on a hill and “the snowstorm of white blossom that gets in the way”. He looked at things that artists were traditionally “schooled to ignore”, a lesson that Cézanne would adopt and use to change art forever. This “intimate” exhibition is a fitting tribute to a quiet trailblazer.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (01865-278000, ashmolean.org). Until 12 June

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