Orovida Camille Pissarro: Forging Imaginative Territories

By Florence Woodfield Morais for ArtVerve, September 2017

 

P999 Big Leaves

Orovida Pissarrro, Big Leaves, Egg tempera on silk, 56 x 65.5 cm (22 x 25¾ inches), 1932

 

Orovida Camille Pissarro, born in Epping in 1893, came into the world with a name already endowed with considerable art-historical weight. The only daughter to Lucien Pissarro (the eldest of Camille Pissarro’s seven children) and Esther Pissarro (née Bensusan), she was the only grandchild of Camille Pissarro to be born during his lifetime. She was also the first professional female artist in the Pissarro family. Her unique family position early on presented her with a creative conundrum – how to carry such a weight, and simultaneously forge new ground as an artist; respecting her artistic legacy whilst committing to find a new pictorial language and an authentic artistic voice? Orovida Pissarro would tread this fine line between tradition and innovation throughout her lifetime as a painter and a printmaker.

 

Currently, Orovida (as she was known, choosing early to discard the name Pissarro when she signed her works) is perhaps at her most visible at the Ashmolean, Oxford, where a portrait of her by Carel Wright hangs in the Modern Art gallery on the 3rd floor. Hanging alongside many works by Modern British icons, such as Ben Nicholson and Stanley Spencer, the portrait in fact was commissioned by Orovida herself to accompany the large amount of Pissarro family works that were donated to the museum by herself and her mother in the setting up of the Pissarro Family Archive, which is still housed today at the Ashmolean and can be visited on request. Large and indomitable in loudly striped clothing, the portrait hints at Orovida’s strength and character. However, it is somewhat a shame that she is remembered among her Modern British peers in this room as a donor, rather than an artist. Why don’t her pictures hang alongside those of Nicholson and Spencer? Exploring this question will always entail a certain amount of speculation, and surely is a question that can be repeated for many female artists of this period who have not quite had their place cemented in the canon.

 

 

(left) Orovida Pissarro, Gazelles, Etching, 27.6 x 17.5 cm (107/8 x 67/8 inches)

Signed, inscribed with title and dated 1930

(right) Orovida Pissarro Fear, Etching, 26 x 19.5 cm (10 ¼ x 7 ⅝ inches)

Signed and dated 1917, trial proof no.2

 

To re-visit Orovida’s oeuvre, and to understand her circumstance as an artist and an individual, an analysis of important personal and artistic relationships within her family is an important starting point. Orovida’s father Lucien Pissarro, eldest son to Camille Pissarro and an Impressionist painter in his own right, had an extremely close and formative relationship with his father. When Lucien settled in England in 1890, father and son kept up a lively correspondence. The letters, so sensitively collected, translated and edited for publication by Pissarro scholar John Rewald in 1943, show a remarkable degree of tenderness and friendship between father and son. They also provide an insight into the unwavering commitment Camille Pissarro had to his art, as well as providing an insight into the theoretical nuances of the Impressionist movement, the Parisian art scene, and Pissarro’s often complex relationship to his peers.

 

P1453 Siamese Cat & Kittens 1934

Orovida Pissarro, Siamese Cat with Kittens, Gouache on linen, 39 x 48 cm (15 ⅜ x 18 ⅞ inches), 1934

 

It was into this close-knit family metier, driven by discussions of art, that Orovida was born. In turn, her own relationship with her father Lucien Pissarro was supportive, loving and warm. Having studied for a period with Walter Sickert, in 1914 Orovida abandoned her formal studies, and her father would remain the most important teacher in her artistic career. She showed artistic promise young, and was untiring in her wish to paint and draw for days on end, often exhausting herself in the process. Her early work, therefore, happened within a family context, either in the family home or on frequent painting trips that she undertook with her father. As Kristen L.Erickson has noted, the importance of this equal and supportive artistic environment, presided over by Camille Pissarro, really cannot be underestimated. She writes of Orovida and her father, ‘Their relationship mirrored in many ways that of Camille and Lucien, not least because they established a steady and fascinating correspondence in which technique, style art theory and criticism are discussed.’[1] Orovida’s work was encouraged by her father and grandfather, as we see in a letter from Camille Pissarro to Lucien on 4 December 1898, in which Camille reacts to an early drawing of Orovida’s. He writes, “The deuce! Here is still another potential artist…Kiddie shows skill in drawing, it was written that she would. Her drawings are already full of sentiment, elegance, waywardness’.[2]

 

This word ‘waywardness’, used by her grandfather, is in fact a word that could well be applied to Orovida’s work throughout her career. Indeed, it is immediately clear that Orovida’s varied practise is aesthetically a huge departure from the work of her father and grandfather. Her work, slotted most easily under the umbrella of Modern British art, clearly shows a wider pool of interest than that of Impressionism. The Orientalism movement of fin-de-siècle Paris was influential to her, not least in her visit to her uncle Georges Manzana-Pissarro’s solo show at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1914. She was enchanted by her uncle’s use of gild and silver tints, his stylised animal portraits and bold art-nouveau furniture. Exhibitions on Persian art at Burlington House and at the British Museum from 1930-31 also had a profound effect on her developing aesthetic. She was also a great admirer of Paul Gauguin, whose work she had seen in Paris in 1914.  Her increasing interest in non-Western art is significant in the development of her unique style. Her letters from this time begin to suggest that her intense and precocious experience of the cutting edge of European art had in fact led her to a desire to forge new ground. Crucially, her discovery of non-Western art is intrinsically linked with an idea of artistic freedom. She writes during this time, ‘Western art has lead us straight to the photo and eastern art is still free’.[3] We can perhaps see this as a rebellion against the logical or rational progression of the use of the picture plain from Impressionism onwards, as well as Camille Pissarro’s unwavering commitment to realism. In fact, she scorned would-be followers of the Impressionist movement such as Gustave Loiseau and Henry Moret (both now considered distinguished post-Impressionist artists in their own right). Her departure from an Impressionist-led attitude can be read in part as a need to seek a more modern aesthetic, and a free expression for herself. Indeed, the notions of freedom, movement and migration, become the enduring themes of much of her later work. Forced migration had indeed also been a theme present in her own family’s history, the Pissarro family having left Portugal in the latter half of the 18th Century, due to increased persecution suffered by ‘Murranos’ (Jews who had been forced to convert to Roman Catholicism after the expelling of the Jewish population by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, but who often continued to practise Judaism in secret).

 

P1848 Nomads 21of42 copy  Orovida Pissarro, The Nomads, Etching, final slate 32/42, 18 x 25 cm (7 ⅛ x 9 ⅞ inches), 1925

 

Imagination is another key element of Orovida’s oeuvre, as many of her subjects are, at least in part, imagined. She pored over depictions of Mongolian and South Sea Island cultures at the British Library, collecting any images that she could find of these places.  However, Orovida famously said in a newspaper interview that the furthest east she had ever travelled was the British Museum. The flattening of the picture plane, and stylised treatment of many of her subjects, certainly suggest a radical departure from European art. A theme that has continued importance to her work is the theme of migration, and she painted many works that depict refugees and nomadic peoples. There is a sense of spaciousness in her compositions, almost as if the subjects have been captured in the middle of intense movement and are intensely free. In a mirroring of the Impressionist preoccupation with nature, and the natural landscape, Orovida would be equally dedicated to a study of nature, as a dedicated animal lover. Indeed, her paintings from 1917 to 1944 are devoted mainly to animals. The raw expression and vitality of the beasts that she frequently paints suggest a true imaginative connection with the animals depicted, although never seen by her in the flesh (unless perhaps seen at London zoo, where she obtained a drawing pass and visited frequently). Her reverence to the wild, rawness of nature is so different from the often bucolic or realist depictions of Northern French landscapes found in the works of her closest relatives. The presence of an emotional or imaginative element is also entirely new to the Pissarro family.

 

P2115 Winter (The Skaters) HR

Orovida Pissarro, Winter (The Skaters), Egg tempera on linen, 91.5 x 114.3cm (36 x 45 inches), 1936-8

 

Orovida first favoured painting on linen using egg tempura paint, which she mixed herself. During the Second World War, the lack of eggs prevented her from continuing in this medium, and she switched to oil paint. Her work with etching was often very fine and masterful and she did much scholarly research into the invention of the Mezzotint printing method, which she believed to have been invented by Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Her etchings have previously been on display in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Although her works are often depict human and animal subjects in far-flung, partly imagined places, she also often depicts moments of quotidian nuclear family life that she herself would never experience as an adult, such as in Winter- The Skaters and Family Supper. These depictions of everyday family life seem to be equally embued with a sense of magic and rarity, in a stylised and perhaps idealised manner. The use of colour is reminiscent of her Modern British peers such as Vanessa Bell, and the expressive and stylised figures evoke Stanley Spencer’s works.

 

P1409 Family Supper

Orovida Pissarro, Family Supper, Egg tempera on canvas, 66 x 93 cm (26 x 36 ⅝ inches), 1938

 

Orovida’s visibility in the art historical canon is not as marked as you would expect from an artist that painted with such verve, such confidence and expressivity. It is left to us to suppose whether her status as a woman, and a single woman at that (she never married), contributed to the struggle for recognition that she suffered during her lifetime, and the subsequent lack of scholarship on her oeuvre after her death in 1968. The fact that her work was not included in a Pissarro family exhibition at the Galerie Marcel Bernheim, in 1934, despite the strong approval of her father that her works should be included, goes some way to describing the difficulties of finding an authentic voice as a female artist at the time, and crucially, to be taken seriously for it from society as a whole. It is clear that Orovida received ample support and encouragement in her work from some members of her family. Indeed, in correspondence from her father Lucien to her mother Esther, it is clear that he supported her artistic development above any material or societal concerns, stressing the importance of the realisation of her full talent. Lucien went so far as to say that he believed his true role as artist to be a conduit to her talent, which he considered to be greater than his own. [4] However, this being said, Orovida would encounter significant resistance from her mother, who was concerned about the material prospects of a career as an artist and wanted her daughter to follow a more commercial career, such as that of a musician.

 

Despite frequent pecuniary difficulties and periods of ill health (she suffered from a hormonal disorder in later life), Orovida did have significant successes as an artist, and her work can be found in some notable public collections, including at the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and at the Ferens Gallery, Hull, as well as further afield in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the San Diego Museum of Art. Her work was included in a total of three exhibitions at the Leicester Galleries, London, dedicated to the work of 3 generations of Pissarro family artists. Orovida’s work is notable for an imaginative engagement with a wider world and a respect for different ways of being, undertaken with an open heart, an inquisitive spirit and a strong eye for beauty. Orovida is long overdue a major museum show, but until then, a wide selection of her works, comprising oils, works in egg tempera, and prints can be viewed at Stern Pissarro Gallery in St James’s, London.

 

Lucien & Orovida hi res jpg

Orovida Pissarro and Lucien Pissarro. Pissarro family photograph.

 

© All images Stern Pissarro Gallery

 

Orovida Pissarro’s works can be viewed at

STERN PISSARRO GALLERY, LONDON
Open 10am-6pm Monday-Friday & 10am-5pm on Saturday

Email: stern@pissarro.com Web: www.pissarro.art

Archival Material from the Pissarro Family Archive, including works by Orovida Pissarro, can be seen by appointment in the Print Room, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Western Art Print Room
Ashmolean Museum
Beaumont Street
Oxford
OX1 2PH
T: +44(0)1865 278049
E: waprintroom@ashmus.ox.ac.uk Tel: +44 (0)1865 278000  Web: www.ashmolean.org

 

Footnotes:

[1] Kristen L.Erickson, Orovida Pissarro: Painter and Print-Maker with a catalogue Raisonné of Paintings’ (doctoral thesis), University College, Oxford, 1992. P. 5

[2] Camille Pissarro, letter to Lucien Pissarro, Dated December 4th 1898

[3] Orovida Pissarro, quoted in Kristen L.Erickson, Orovida Pissarro: Painter and Print-Maker with a catalogue Raisonné of Paintings’ (doctoral thesis), University College, Oxford, 1992. P. 73

[4] In a letter from Lucien to Esther Pissarro dated 4 February 1913

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