Sunday, December 15, 2002

Scene in Pissarro still exists

Ellen Lee, chief curator for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was attending a gallery opening when she ran into the son of a Parisian dealer with whom she often worked.

"I reminded him I was seeking a neo-impressionist painting - but a great one," Ms. Lee says. "A couple of months later he phoned me from Paris and said `I think I have the painting you want.' "

Ms. Lee was skeptical. Although she had worked with Galleries Malingue before, she knew important neo-impressionist paintings were rare. When the dealer told her it was a Pissarro, the artist she most wanted to add to the collection, she told him she would look it up in a book of the artist's work.

The dealer was horrified her introduction to the piece might be a black and white photo. He insisted on coming to Indianapolis to show her a color photograph.

"I was trying not to get my hopes up," says Ms. Lee. "Other people have called me in the past and told me `I have what you want,' and they haven't. I really gasped when the photograph slipped out. I knew this was a great thing."

"The House of the Deaf Woman and the Belfry at Eragny" was indeed rare. It is one of the most celebrated works of the neo-impressionist movement and the first Pissarro painted (in 1886) after embracing the movement.

It was equally noteworthy for its lack of exhibition.

"For most of the time the painting was owned by Pissarro's dealer in Paris, Durand-Ruel," says Ms. Lee. "In 1918 it was bought by a small Parisian dealer then sold in the early 1920s to the European family we acquired it from."

The painting fell from sight. Scholars knew it existed, but it had never even been reproduced in color. In 1918, it was shown for only a month in Geneva, Switzerland, and never shown again, until it made its way to the Indianapolis museum.

Ms. Lee traveled to Normandy to research the landscape featured in "The House of the Deaf Woman."

"What was so exciting to me was the house was still there and the church is still there," she says

However the site, Pissarro's family home, wasn't quite the same. The little orchard is now a stinging nettle field and Ms. Lee, who was wearing only sandals had to wade through the field to do her work.

"The town only has one street so it wasn't like I could go out and buy socks," she says. "The next morning my feet were still stinging."

But the torment was worth it. "We brought a painting out of the private sector and into the public domain," she says. "Now everyone can see it."

- Marilyn Bauer

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