BALTIMORE - Impressionist exhibitions might be so popular that they overexpose a few 19th-century French painters, but that doesn't mean they can't continue to be instructive as well as pleasurable.
For instance, through May 20 the Cleveland Museum of Art is offering an exhibition called "Monet in Normandy." Of all the impressionists, Monet is the most shopworn, yet this handsome show makes one fully aware of how many of his major themes he found in his native province.
More convenient to home, the Baltimore Museum of Art is presenting "Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape" through May 13. Like Monet, Camille Pissarro has been heavily trafficked by American museums over the last three decades. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, for one, presented a show of his city paintings in 1993.
Like the Monet show, "Creating the Impressionist Landscape," organized in Baltimore, is modestly scaled at about 50 paintings, which makes it a comfortable experience. It covers only 10 years of Pissarro's career, the period between 1864 and the first impressionist exhibition in 1874. This was the time when Pissarro, the oldest of the major impressionist painters, evolved from a Salon painter into a full-fledged avant-gardist.
This transition is noteworthy because Pissarro was one of impressionism's two principal innovators, the other being Monet, who was 10 years younger. Yet as we see in this show, impressionism didn't spring full-blown from the brow of either man. With Pissarro, it revealed itself incrementally over a period of many months. No Eureka! moments here.
Baltimore curator Katherine Rothkopf extrapolated the show from one of two Pissarros in her museum's collection, a small genre landscape of 1864 called Strollers on a Country Road. She explained that she became fascinated by the picture because, had it not been signed, she wouldn't have recognized it as a Pissarro. The paint-handling is loose, but otherwise the subdued palette and the picturesque subject are more traditional for the time than revolutionary.
The painting suggests the strong influence of Camille Corot, one of Pissarro's role models during this period, along with Charles Daubigny, whose landscapes are more poetic. This isn't surprising, because during the 1860s Pissarro was still painting for, and submitting to, the official Salon exhibitions, whose juries were averse to radical innovation.
In the show's first section, Rothkopf has included three larger-than-average landscapes that Pissarro exhibited in the Salons during the mid-to-late 1860s. She also includes, for comparison, single canvases by Corot, Daubigny and realist Gustave Courbet. The consonances are striking, particularly with Corot.
Except for about seven months during and after the Franco-Prussian War, when Pissarro fled to London, all the pictures in this show were painted in towns downstream from Paris, particularly Louveciennes and Pontoise. If you were forced to identify the moment when gestating impressionism emerged from its egg, it could well be The Versailles Road at Louveciennes, a snow scene painted in late 1869. The scumbled brightness of sky and ground firmly breaks with the more sedate and polished landscapes he had made to this point.
Pissarro looked for subjects in ordinary surroundings. As he said, "Happy are those who see beauty in the modest spots where others see nothing." This exhibition is full of such "modest spots." A prime example is View of the Village of Louveciennes, made from an orchard in which the village is nearly buried in foliage. A row of small trees in the foreground pulls the viewer's eye into the scene. More frequently, Pissarro used a receding road or a village street to achieve this, as Dutch painters had done in the 17th century.
Unlike Monet, who riled critics of the day with his Impression, Sunrise, Pissarro didn't attack artistic conventions head-on. His paintings, mostly of easel scale, are solidly composed and never flamboyant. His innovations were more surreptitious, particularly his depiction of such "modern" intrusions on the bucolic landscape as trains, steamboats and factories belching dark smoke from tall stacks. These demonstrate that Pissarro was a realist and a modernist; he didn't try to idealize nature, as the previous generation, the Barbizon painters like Daubigny, did.
"Creating the Impressionist Landscape" isn't a spectacular exhibition but it is deeply satisfying, especially in the way it affirms impressionism as a logical progression beyond Courbet's muscular realism and the languid lyricism of Daubigny's crowd.
Pissarro would become more radical later, when he experimented with what its practitioners called divisionism (more commonly known as pointillism), but during the period of this exhibition he was content to nudge European painting politely and inexorably toward the future cataclysm of modern art.
Ramírez show extended. The American Folk Art Museum in New York has extended the Martín Ramírez exhibition for two weeks, to May 13.
Art | Impressionist Dawn
"Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape" continues at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive (North Charles and 31st Streets) through May 13. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, to 9 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month, and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $15 general, $12 for seniors, $10 for students, and $6 for visitors ages 6 to 18. They may be purchased online at www.tickets.com or ordered by telephone at 1-800-919-6272. Information: 443-573-1700 or www.artbma.org.
Contact art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.