Sunday, December 15, 2002

Indy museum buys rare neo-impressionist piece



By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hidden from view for nearly a century, "The House of the Deaf Woman and the Belfry at Eragny" by Camille Pissarro is on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

A rare and important example of the French painter's neo-impressionist period, the work is executed in dots or "points" of pure pigment, a technique known as pointillism.

An enormous coup for the Indianapolis museum, the painting was acquired from a private European collection, a purchase made possible through the beneficence of an anonymous museumpatron.

This is the first time the painting has been publicly exhibited since 1918 and the first time it has shown in the United States.

"The House of the Deaf Woman and the Belfry at Eragny" is among the first purely neo-impressionist landscape paintings," said Dr. Richard R. Brettell, professor of aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and a renowned Pissarro scholar.

"It incorporates - indeed purifies-the painted `dot' developed by Georges Seurat for `Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.' It is the most important new-impressionist acquisition by any museum during the past decade."

The estimated value, according to the museum's chief curator Ellen Lee is in the millions of dollars. "It's a very expensive painting," she said. "It's the largest gift for an individual object the museum has had."

Original frame re-created

The roughly 26- by 32-inch painting is in pristine condition and the museum has re-created its original frame. It is a luminescent landscape portraying a woman in a sun hat kneeling beneath an apple tree in a small orchard. In the distance we see the mansard roof of a neighboring house and behind it the steeple of the village church.

"It's a view of Pissarro's own yard," said Ms. Lee "It's looking north from his family home to the home of his neighbor."

Camille Pissarro was a key figure in the progressive painting of late 19th-century France. Although he is well known as an impressionist, he also played a pivotal role in the neo-impressionist movement.

After meeting the young Georges Seurat in 1885, the veteran artist adopted the revolutionary new approach to painting based on the science of optics and mixture of paint.

Produced a year after his meeting with Seurat, "The House of the Deaf Woman" illustrates Pissarro's mastery of the discipline and a break with the spontaneity of the impressionists.

"At no point does one better measure Pissarro's wild enthusiasm for neo-impressionism than in 1886," said Joachim Pissarro, art historian and the artist's great-grandson. "In `The House of the Deaf Woman,' he manages to blend his abiding respect for the new technical rules with a sense of freedom and spontaneity. The pulverizing chromatic effect of this new technique is extraordinary light, dazzling colors . . . a brilliant energy that seems to radiate from the canvas."

"This is a guy who is 56 years old," added Ms. Lee. "He followed Seurat who was half his age. That was a very brave thing to do. It says a lot about Pissarro. He had such intellectual integrity if he saw a way to improve his art he would - even if it meant risking his reputation or income."

Short-lived `embrace'

But by 1889, Pissarro was exhausted from the painstaking application of paint that pointillism required. He renounced neo-impressionism and returned to his former, looser style.

"Pissarro's embrace of neo-impressionism was as sudden, passionate and reawakening as it was short-lived," said Joachim Pissarro, who lives in New York.

The new painting will join three other works by the artist representing his pre- and post-impressionist periods, as well as his impressionist work.

"The IMA has the most important neo-impressionist collection in North America and one of the three best in the world," said Ms. Lee. "In 1979, we received a bequest from W. J. Holiday of 96 paintings, which was significant in that it included works by most of Seurat's followers not just in France but in Belgium and Holland."

A neo-impressionist canvas by Pissarro's son Lucien is also in the museum's collection.

E-mail mbauer@enquirer.com

Scene in Pissarro still exists



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