Sunday, November 16, 2014

Pissarro. His Life and Work by Ralph Shikes and Paula Harper

Most biographies of Impressionists shower the reader with scenes of innovative artists standing in French fields, peacefully painting light and color with a wide palette. Certainly, there are enough such scenes in any book about Camille Pissarro. But because of who he was, the additional dimensions of his politics and ideas would have to be examined. Pissarro was an anarchist and an atheist of Jewish extraction, as well as a leading member of his generations’ most revolutionary artistic movement.

The authors who wrote this biography are politically suited to sympathetically cover Pissarro’s radicalism. Ralph Shikes was Public Relations Director for both The National Citizen’s Political Action Committee and Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, as well as having written for “The Nation.” He established the Shikes Fellowship for Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, at Harvard Law School.* Paula Harper was described as "one of the first art historians to bring a feminist perspective to the study of painting and sculpture"**.

For politically-minded readers, the authors do not disappoint. They suffuse their entire portrait of the artist with discussion of his anarchist and radical views. Not only do they show Pissarro actively involved with fellow anarchists (primarily through his illustrations for periodicals, political contacts and quotes of topical views), but additionally they discuss his painting in radical political terms. “Artists who painted in a non-academic, unconventional style…were attracted to anarchism’s stress on the rejection of authority and the exaltation of the individual” (Shikes & Harper, p. 226). The authors analyze Pissarro’s figures, pointing out that the people he chose to represent were “people in humble circumstances, the class to which he was consistently attracted most of his life” (Shikes & Harper, p. 30). Even when he is painting scenes of natural beauty without humans, the artist is aware of his revolutionary motives: “Pissarro…noted, ‘Proudhon says in La Justice that love of earth is linked with revolution, and consequently with the artistic ideal’” (Shikes & Harper, p. 67).

Pissarro’s anarchism and sense of social justice are closely related to his atheism. “Pissarro, a convinced atheist, felt that religious beliefs were a dangerous hindrance to social reform” (Shikes & Harper, p. 157). While the biographers mention several times that Pissarro was an atheist, they fail to explore his thoughts on the subject beyond its political implications.

Not just his politics, but also his life and times are seen through a radical lens. Shikes and Harper portray the artist’s ancestors as Marrano Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition, immigrated to Portugal and from there to St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. In spite of this experience of persecution, Pissarro’s family owned two slaves until slavery was abolished in 1848 (Shikes & Harper, p. 20). Later in Paris, the authors present the artist and his views against a backdrop of changing political regimes, French imperialism in Indochina, the Paris Commune and the socio-political scene of Pissarro’s subculture. Towards the end of the book, and the end of Pissarro’s life, Shikes and Harper discuss the Dreyfus Affair and resulting anti-Semitism endured by their subject from both society at large and his artistic circle. Renoir and Degas were both anti-Dreyfusards and anti-Semites, whereas Sisley and Monet sided with progressives and Pissarro on the issue (Shikes & Harper, pp. 304-309).

For an artistically sensitive, apolitical reader, this book would not be the best of choices unless that person were seeking to expand her horizons. By the same token, Pissarro's life itself would not be an enjoyable topic for any apolitical reader. But those who are art-focused, and political from any perspective, will find a great deal to activate their thinking in this book.

Shikes, Ralph E. & Harper, Paula. Pissarro. His Life and Work. New York: Horizon Press, 1980.

*"Ralph E. Shikes Is Dead at 79; Publisher, Editor and Art Writer." The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Mar. 1992. (Web. 10 Oct. 2014).

**Grady, Denise. "Paula Hays Harper, Art Historian, Is Dead at 81." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 June 2012. (Web. 10 Oct. 2014).