The Vale Artists, III.—Lucien Pissarro
Lucien Pissarro is the eldest son of the famous French Impressionist, Camille Pissarro, who, though he was working in the time of Manet, and before the advent of Degas, still retains the exquisite skill as a colourist which has brought him to the front rank of contemporary art. Lucien Pissarro was the first artist in France to engrave his own work on wood, and may, perhaps, claim to have initiated much of the charming colour-printing now met with in France.
His work has appeared in the Dial, from which “Solitude” is taken.
He has just completed a little book called “The Queen of the Fishes,” founded on an old Valois legend, from which it has been translated by Margaret Rust. This he has engraved with his own hand, and he has printed it in colours and gold. The production of this work, which is being published by John Lane, and limited to a hundred and fifty copies, has taken him nearly a year, and many of the pages have received six printings. A photographic reproduction of one of the pages of the book is given here. In the original there are no fewer than six colours, including the border, which is of gold. Of course, the bright-light effects obtained cannot be reproduced.
The art education that Camille Pissarro gave his eldest son was pecular in its simplicity. When he was but a boy, the father took him into the fields round their home in the heart of Normandy, and said, “Work, my son.” And so the experience started, unfettered by the rules of Schools of Art. “All rules are arbitrary,” said the famous old artist; “make your own, remembering only that Art is the expression of a man’s individuality.” So it came about that, by study in Nature’s Academy, Lucien Pissarro progressed, and made his first public appearance in the Revue Illustrée, engraving his own illustrations for a story by Octave Mirbeau. An example of the eagerness with which the Vale artists watch contemporary progress is shown by the fact that, when Pissarro came to London, in later years, Ricketts welcomed him as the engraver of that story in the Revue. Moreover, Degas found the engravings so much to his liking that he wrote an encouraging letter to the young artist, offering him one of his own matchless drawings of a dancing-girl in exchange for a set of the proofs. It goes without saying that the offer was accepted, and the sketch hangs in Pissarro’s studio, among many unfinished studies of his own.
Very few artists engrave their own work, and the idea of printing in colour with various blocks is entirely Pissarro’s own. The result has been completely successful, and, with very slight touches of gold and silver, he has obtained the delicate effect of dew on grass, or sunlight on fallen leaves. These effects are just what is wanted to complete the charm of his work, which, though robust and cheerful, is slight and simple in design. This simplicity is not without charm, reflecting, as it does, the atmosphere of the quaint old-world Normandy villages in which the artist studied. Nay, more: in his bold, though often arbitrary, handling of fanciful and delicate subjects, he has something of the artistic spontaneity which characterised Blake in his lighter moods, notably in the “Songs of Innocence.” Granted that he lacks that intensity of purpose so evident in Blake’s work, it may be recollected, to his advantage, that he deals with idyllic subjects.
The “Queen of the Fishes” has almost the richness of a missal, and has the added interest to collectors of being a “block” book, in the strictest sense of the term; while, despite the time and labour of its accomplishment, Pissarro has found time to publish a portfolio simultaneously with that of Shannon, to which I have already referred. This portfolio contains his reproduction of his father’s designs, and is of great interest so far as it combines the work of the veteran, whose labour is near completion, with that of the enthusiast, whose success is just commencing.
In common with his brethren of the Vale, Pissarro is an intense lover of Japanese Art, and the happy possessor of some very old designs by great Japanese artists. Perhaps these have taught him his hatred of conventionality and complete disregard of the dogmas of shcools. Yet those who are familiar with his work, and can appreciate its simplicity and truth, can have no possible ground for complaint in the fact that he has elected to treat Nature as he has founder rather than seek inspiration second-hand. Such a training as his might well have been disastrous to an artist who acquires art as others acquire knowledge of law or medicine; but for the man who inherits the true instinct, freedom is the best possible aid. It saves all the worry of learning first and discarding afterwards, and keeps a man from falling into the rut of commonplace mediocrity, which is surely the worst fate that can befall him. Success is glorious; failure is pardonable, and possibly meritorious; but mediocrity is nothing better than absolute failure decked out in the garb of moderate success.
There is one curious fact I have so far forgotten to note. Lucien Pissarro came to England with an introduction to Shannon and Ricketts, whose work had attracted much attention in France and Belgium. When he arrived he discovered that the Continent had been first in recognising the Vale and its workers.
Theocritus. “The Vale Artists, III.—Lucien Pissarro.” Rev. of The Dial, The Sketch, vol. 9, 17 April 1895, pp. 615-616. Yellow Nineties 2.0 , edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020. https://www.1890s.ca/Dial-Review-The-Sketch-Apr-17-1895/