We consider Camille Pissarro the embodiment of French Impressionism, yet he was actually a Sephardic Jew from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. This exhibition (up through November 16) originated there as part of the bicentennial celebration for the Hebrew Congregation to which his family belonged. Born in 1830, Pissarro was sent to school in France with the expectation that he would join the family's successful mercantile business, but instead, after coming back to the island, he chose to be an artist. For the next five years-before returning to France permanently-Pissarro honed his abilities, sketching in pencil, ink, oil, and watercolor the people and natural beauty of what is now the U S. Virgin Islands.
Fifty of these charming works are on view at the Jewish Museum, having been recently discovered at Olana, the home of painter Frederic Church. Originally they were thought to be the work of Fritz Melbye, Pissarro's teacher and traveling companion in the Islands. It was only in the 1980s that careful examination revealed a number of Pissarro signatures and pieces that can now be attributed to him.
The sketches are modest, appealing in their lack of pretension. It is almost as if we are looking over the shoulder of the young artist as he practices his skills, experimenting with different ways to render diving pelicans, the tops of palm trees, or the island's lush tropical vegetation. Trying for a precision of line that he would later eschew, the artist swings from labored to relaxed. What is consistent is his subject matter, the portrayal of ordinary people engaged in their daily activities, that later became his hallmark. As well as offering new insights into Pissarro’s artistic development, the images provide a singular depiction of colonial island life.