Recently I had the great pleasure of seeing an exhibition of paintings by the French artist Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903), who was part of the Impressionist movement. The exhibition was part of our day at the Museo del Prado, in Madrid, Spain. What a wonder-filled experience it was.
As is so often the case when we encounter great art, drama or music, it was emotionally exhausting and uplifting at that same time.
I found Pissarro’s work to be really encouraging, for me as a human person, in a way that (frankly speaking!) Monet’s work is not. This is because Pissarro’s paintings so often present images of ordinary people, at work in their daily labours, whether in the fields, or gardening, or putting out the washing, and so forth. He also presents people resting from their work.
Some would say that he presents an idealized, perhaps romantic, view of nature and people. What would be so wrong about that?
Pissarro sees humans at work with nature, working with the soil and the seasons, to produce crops and flowers and so forth. But there is a contrast with some of his later works, when he moved into the town and painted street scenes. Here we see humans walking along the streets, often scurrying out of the way of horse carriages and ‘traffic’. There is the same sense of the dignity of ordinary life and work, but now there is some question over it too. Have we lost touch with the earth and with life itself, to the extent that we are boxed in by our street-scapes and busy traffic? And all this more than a hundred years ago. What would he suggest about our life in the city today?
In quite a number of Pissarro’s paintings there is a path, often a dirt track or a stony road of some kind. Frequently the eye is drawn across the image, to follow this path and we wonder where it leads. This clever device asks us to consider where we are and where we belong. Pissarro presents us with a clear sense that we belong on this earth, working with it, and enjoying its fruits and the fruits of our own labour. This is the dignity of human life: not, as it were, inherently, but in another sense inherent in our life in and with the world.
I think this is a great insight. Human life is not inherently worth more than other life in the world. We need to see that without the earth, the rivers, the soil, and without our own effort to live with and work with the earth, we really have very little life and won’t actually last very long. But together there is a rich and (despite the back-breaking work Pissarro depicts so well) rewarding, enjoyable, dignified life here, our life within God’s creation.
I am so grateful for this life and for the works of Camille Pissarro, Impressionist and very practical philosopher-theologian!