Leo J. O'Donovan
Image

No painting in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York is more iconic than Paul Cézanne’s “Bather,” the pensive young man walking on water in a spare blue and beige landscape. For decades he greeted visitors in the first room of the earlier museum. He currently presides over the Post-Impressionist canvases that open Yoshio Taniguchi’s spacious galleries in the museum’s new buildings. The painting, usually dated 1885, has served as the starting point for the story the museum has to tell in its current exhibit. In recent years, though, with a series of exhibitions called ModernStarts, the museum experimented with a more pluralist interpretation of its collection. This summer it adds to that effort with a glorious show, “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885,” which pushes modern painting back a full two decades.

 

Though not wholly unfamiliar, the story has seldom been told so beautifully—and instructively. It concerns two outsiders and rebels of different temperaments but with a concerted purpose: to sabotage the establishment and reinvent the world of art from top to bottom. (What to do about French art? Pissarro was once asked. “Burn down the Louvre!” he answered.) Many of the several hundred paintings they produced over a two-decade period of friendship are so well known that their originality is easily overlooked. But seen together, and especially in the dozen or so pairings of paintings done side by side or on the same motif, they teach our eyes again to see.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was born in St. Thomas in the West Indies, to a Jewish father from Bordeaux and a Creole mother from Santo Domingo (before they were legally married). Educated in France, he was expected to enter his father’s business, but fled to Venezuela and there decided to become an artist. After returning briefly to St. Thomas, he left in 1855 for Paris where, six years later, he met “that peculiar Provençal.”

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was born in Aix-en-Provence and spoke always—often very profanely—with a heavy southern accent. His father had founded a local bank and was intent on his son’s studying law; but his mother was more indulgent and, like Pissarro’s, helped persuade her husband to let the rebellious young man go to Paris to become an artist. A moving portrait of his father from 1866 shows him reading not his usual conservative newspaper, but the liberal L’événement, in which Paul’s childhood friend émile Zola had vigorously defended him. Opposite it in the exhibition hangs Pissarro’s monumental “Banks of the Marne in Winter” (also 1866)—like the Cézanne, a deceptively simple, powerful study of ordinary daily life for which no academician would take time.

The year 1863 had been a decisive one for French art. Napoleon III himself ordered a special exhibition, the Salon des Refusés, for artists who had been rejected by the official salon, with édouard Manet and his much-vilified “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” taking pride of place among them. When the two friends painted their self-portraits a decade later, they revealed not only themselves but their allegiance to the new painting: Pissarro glancing toward his viewers with gentle, wise eyes, Cézanne accosting them with a fierce and searching stare. Their still-lifes from the late 1860’s are remarkably alike. An urban scene by Pissarro echoes the style of a portrait by Cézanne. They quote each other’s paintings and use each other’s props. One feels them watching and learning from each other, even as they seek to be true to their own particular “sensation,” as Pissarro put it.

The early 1870’s saw their dialogue become inspired. In 1871 Pissarro painted a large autumnal scene of the village of Louveciennes, its gray, silver and gold landscape subtly ordered into the foreground with a mother and child on a bending road, the village velvet in the middle distance and the sky beyond a pearly pale blue. Cézanne borrowed the painting and the following year produced a slightly smaller version, all but identical in content but distinctive in its simplified forms, more intense palette and greater frontality. To have joined these two paintings from private collections is a curatorial triumph. To see them immediately after pondering Cézanne’s “House of the Hanged Man” (1873), arguably his greatest Impressionist work, and next to it Pissarro’s “The Conversation, chemin du chou. Pontoise” (1874), a summer rhapsody in green, is to see Impressionism at its peak—but also to sense what might follow.

While the Pissarro family lived in Pontoise between 1872 and 1882, Cézanne visited them frequently. Bringing his young friend to study nature outdoors, Pissarro helped him to tame his earlier, rather fevered Romanticism. The two men painted the town together in winter, celebrated its fields in summer, used the same vase for flower studies, did charming pencil sketches of each other at work. They also experimented boldly, painting at times with a palette knife in one hand and a brush in the other. They began to leave very thin lines of exposed canvas around the contours of objects (painting “in reserve,” so that forms were defined by neighboring forms). They pressed their refusal of preparatory drawing and allowed their brush strokes to become so palpably individualized that color seems ready to float off the canvas. Their collaboration comes to a sort of climax with a green wall of paintings in the third gallery of the show that can bring the viewer to tears, so lavishly has the lush countryside of the île-de-France been brought alive into the heart of untidy, noisy Manhattan.

Their similarity of inspiration but divergence of expression is evident in two paintings that were exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, each entitled “Orchard, Côte Saint-Denis, at Pontoise.” The considerably larger Pissarro, with its lacy forms and muted colors thickly painted with a hard dry brush, is thoughtful, even contemplative. The Cézanne, done mostly with a palette knife, with a higher-pitched palette and starker forms, draws an arresting dynamism from its combination of strong verticals and diagonals. Each painting is stunning. Together they are magnificent, emblematically embodying Cézanne’s famous aphorism: “Art is a harmony parallel to nature.”

The pathos of a dialogue coming to its close arises in the show’s final gallery. From the older master are two of his greatest canvases, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Jalais Hill, Pontoise” and the Guggenheim’s “L’Hermitage at Pontoise” (both 1867). But the Cézannes hanging next to them come from the early 1880’s, when the younger man had begun to find his associate less interesting. “If Pissarro had always painted as he did in 1870,” he later said, “he would have been the strongest among us.” Two summer landscapes from 1882 tell us of their working side by side for the last time. Then, in 1885, Cézanne abruptly left Pontoise for Aix. The two men met subsequently on a number of occasions, but their partnership of mutual influence and independence had ended.

Joachim Pissarro, the painter’s great-grandson and a curator at the Modern, has installed this humanely scaled exhibition (85 paintings and 7 works on paper) with loving finesse. His central concern is to show the reciprocity of the relationship between the two painters, something rather like “a spectacular chess game,” he writes in his lengthy and informative catalogue essay, with “each move coming as a surprise, a drama—rather than as the first [calculated] step toward modernism.” (Mr. Pissarro has recently completed the catalogue raisonné of his great-grandfather’s paintings, sponsored by the Wildenstein Institute.) At the press preview, he graciously acknowledged that the final pairing of paintings had been suggested by his colleague John Elderfield. It is a stroke of genius. In one of his largest canvases, Pissarro sings of the “Edge of the Woods near L’Ermitage” (1879), a dappled idyll of deep summer green unified by gracefully bending trees centered around bright orange rooftops. He offers respite early in a chaotic industrial age. Cézanne’s “Forest,” from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, painted some 15 years later, is a tangle of twisted trunks and branches brushed by a rainbow of acid green, orange and yellow foliage. It offers its own pledge of harmony just before the bloodiest of centuries. The two paintings in dialogue, one the artistic summation of an age, its companion heralding what was to come, give one an aching hope that, despite everything, history may somehow be whole—and friendship prevail.

“Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissaro 1865-1885” remains at the Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 12, after which it travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Oct. 20-Jan 16, 2006) and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (Feb. 27-May 28, 2006).

Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J., is president emeritus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.