A POSTHUMOUSLY published collection of letters written with no eye to publication can be a tasteless, scandalmongering indiscretion; a disappointing compendium of scraps, boring trivia, and tedious omission; or a revelation of important lives and times and techniques of working and living. These very personal letters written during the last twenty years of his life (from 1883 to 1903) by West Indian born Camille Pissarro, distinguished and underestimated French Impressionist leader, belong to the revelation category, and revelation in this sense does not imply sensationalism. These letters record twenty years of poverty, suffering, and patience, twenty years of “seeking the rare bird whose plumage is resplendent with all the colors of the rainbow, whose song is musical and pure; perfection. . . .”
There are three very great published collections of notes, letters, or journals by painters: da Vinci’s notebooks; Delacroix’s journal: van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. Now there is this Pissarro collection. Pissarro’s letters bear the same relation to van Gogh’s — a junior contemporary— as do their paintings. Pissarro’s canvases are experimental, honest, carefully drawn, and almost always beautifully colored. Van Gogh’s paintings are violent, blistering with color, soul-scorching, intensely original, and so are his letters. Both collections are important for an understanding of modern painting and of French culture during the 1880’s and 1890’s.
As a living chronicle of the times and its cultural movements, Pissarro’s letters are more astute. He was a shrewd observer of the world around him, a critic and social commentator of ability. He is a delight to read on Zola, Whistler, paintings as an investment, Clemenceau, white frames for pictures, Seurat, Berlioz, “the unconsciousness of intellectuals,” the bourgeoisie, Verlaine, Baudelaire, John Stuart Mill, eccentricity confused with aestheticism, Cezanne and Gauguin (erstwhile followers). And there are invaluable glimpses of Degas, van Gogh, Renoir, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, and Pittsburgh’s Miss Cassatt. This is a book not only for artists and those interested in art, but for all those interested in people and in how they work. It is a beautifully made and edited book, illustrated with ninety unique photographs. Pantheon Books, $6.50.