Camille Pissarro isn’t worried if he looks past it with his big white beard. He doesn’t care if he appears weak. He looks straight back at you from his self-portrait at the start of this exhibition, over the top of his spectacles, aged and maybe myopic. He is staring in the mirror, seeing himself honestly, with a grey Paris street on view through the window behind him.
Pissarro’s belief in art as a fundamentally honest enterprise shines through in this intimate exhibition that digs into avant-garde lives. His warmth is disarming. There are portraits of his wife, Julie, who was a cook’s assistant in his parents’ house when he fell in love with her, and some of their eight children, especially Lucien, who was evidently the apple of his father’s eye and grew up to become an artist. A drawing of a family picnic by his second son, Georges remembers a childhood among geniuses: while Julie cooks on a campfire, white-bearded dad talks to friends including Gauguin. Another friend, Cézanne, ignores them to paint the landscape.
The Ashmolean Museum has called its show Father of Impressionism and this reflects Pissarro’s status among his friends: they nicknamed him “father Pissarro”, for he was already well into his 40s when the first impressionist exhibition was held in Paris in 1874. Perhaps it should have been called Modernist Dad. For Pissarro was always pushing art forward. He had no religious faith in a single style. He was Jewish but his wife wasn’t, and it is clear that politics meant more to him than religion. A drawing from 1889 depicts black-suited brokers on the Paris Bourse, the French stock exchange: it was intended for an unfinished book satirising the bourgeoisie with words by an anarchist friend.
Pissarro does not fit anyone’s cliche of impressionism – which may be why he is less famous than Monet, Renoir or Degas. You think the impressionists’ delight in immediate sensations was all about celebrating middle-class pleasure? Pissarro is more interested in the workers. He makes a point of showing women at work, trudging through a field with firewood, driving stakes into the ground to grow peas, lighting a bonfire on a breezy morning. His 1886-88 canvas View from My Window is a widescreen epic of a landscape, every detail equally observed with a pointillist precision inspired by his young friends Paul Signac and the anarchist critic Félix Fénéon. But in the equal, underemphasised field of bright pixellated colour, your eyes come to rest on a farm worker doing her chores while hens cluck around her.
Pissarro always makes you think, not feel. He is obsessed with the nature of vision – but does not trust it. Those rheumy old eyes in his self-portrait are acutely aware of what gets in the way of seeing. In his great 1877 painting The Côte des Boeufs at L’Hermitage, he gives us broken glimpses of village houses through the thick barred window of a winter woodland: the trees are in the way, but are they the real subject?
Pissarro points the way to the next generation of modern painters in these subtle meditations on what we select to see from the constant variety of our visual perceptions. Spring: Plum Trees in Bloom makes you choose between two foci, a group of houses on a hillside and the snowstorm of white plum blossoms that gets in the way. In The Pork Butcher, a market crowd is seen as a deliberately confused and broken visual field: who are we meant to look at, what is the story here? Of course we need to look at everyone and there is no single, simple story.
Pissarro didn’t just point the way to radical new visions. He warmly supported young friends whose difficult characters went with revolutionary perceptions. Gauguin and Cézanne worked side by side with kind father Pissarro in Pontoise, just outside Paris. Cézanne’s own painting of the Pontoise countryside hangs next to Pissarro’s woods hiding houses – he uses the same trick, showing houses in a valley through a thick screen of leafy trees. You can see how Pissarro helped him to look at the stuff we are schooled to ignore.
But what gratitude did Pissarro get? After the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason in 1894 the resulting fight for his pardon brought out frightening antisemitism, not just in French society but the impressionist movement itself. Pissarro and Monet supported Dreyfus. Cézanne, however, sided with the right. Even worse was Pissarro’s old pal Degas, whose early prints, donealongside Pissarro, are here. Degas crossed the street to avoid Pissarro.
Given how rawly he was betrayed, I would rather have seen less of the other artists in this show, and instead a more passionate championing of Pisarro’s own genius. The power of Cézanne and Gauguin transcends their terrible characters and threatens to steal the show: there’s even a stupendous Cézanne still life loaned by MoMA in New York. Nice guys finish last in art history, it seems.