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26 June, 2013
Pissarro's Birthplace
It's funny how we sometimes get the wrong impression about Impressionism. All along I've always thought Impressionism was born on the banks of the Seine at the hands of Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. Turns out it actually started on the Virgin Island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. At least that what the natives claimed as they made ready to open an exhibition of Impressionist works in Charlotte Amalie, the capital city of the island group. Despite what our art history books may tell us, it turns out the islands do have some claim to fame along this line in that St. Thomas was the birthplace of one of the renowned progenitors of Impressionism, Camille Pissarro. And, since Pissarro was born, grew up, lived, and painted on the tiny tropical island until the age of 23, by implication, they insist on bragging rights as having also been the birthplace of Pissarro's Impressionism. It's a stretch, but why not, Paris has more than its share of Impressionists anyway, they can easily spare one; although they might argue with Pissarro's having been an Impressionist at such an early juncture in his career.

In 1853, Pissarro was sketching on the pier in the port of Charlotte Amalie while waiting for a shipment destined for his Jewish father's dry goods store. His work attracted the attention of Danish artist, Fritz Melbye, (the Virgin Islands were owned by Denmark at the time). They became friends as Melbye convinced Pissarro that he should become a full-time artists, and moreover, should pack his bags, take to the sea, to escape the bourgeois constraints placed upon him and his work by his family and the remote geography he'd known all his life. Together, they hopped a boat to Venezuela where they spent two years painting together before finally deciding the primitive South American country was really no better than St. Thomas. When Pissarro returned, he convinced his parents he was serious about becoming an artist. Melbye went on to New York while Pissarro departed for Paris. They never saw one another again.

In New York, Fritz Melbye hooked up with the pre-eminent American landscape painter of the time, Frederick Church. Together they travelled the Caribbean and South America. Melbye eventually went to China, leaving all his sketches and paintings with Church. It was there that he died in 1896. When Church died, four years later, all of Melbye's papers and art were taken over by the Church Foundation. In 1970, Danish scholars studying Melbye's work, journeyed to Church's home, Olana, overlooking the Hudson River in New York, where they discovered, to their surprise, the name "Pissarro" on many drawings and watercolours amongst Melbye's papers. These newly discovered Pissarros, from the Venezuela days as well as scenes of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John; along with four Pissarro oil paintings borrowed from elsewhere on the islands, formed the bulk of the forty works in the show entitled, "Camille Pissarro and the Caribbean: 1850-1855: Drawings from the Collection at Olana."

The show was held in December of 2000 in Lilienfield House, just across the street from the synagogue where Pissarro was schooled in the Jewish faith, and just down the same street from where he was born. It may not be the Louvre, but to Virgin Islanders, their most famous son has returned home.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
13 July 2000

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