Don’t art experts read art history anymore?

The Ashmolean Museum, belonging to the University of Oxford since 1683, has mounted an exhibit titled “Pissarro: Father of Impressionism” even though Monet has dibs on that claim.

Impressionism even got its name from a Monet painting - a nearly formless image created in rebellion against Neo-Classicism – that he called Impression, Rising Sun.

Birth of an ism

When Lewis Leroy, art critic for the French newspaper Charivari, saw Monet’s “Impression” on exhibit along with similar rebellions by other painters, he derided it all as an “Exhibition of the Impressionists.”

The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones said in his review of the Ashmolean show that the exhibit title “reflects Pissarro’s status among his friends.”


Do you mean like his fellow Impressionists Degas and Renoir who refused to greet him when they met him on a street because he was Jewish?

Degas’ hatred of Pissarro was well-annotated in the 2016 Book “Camille Pissarro’s Jewish Identity” by Stephanie Rachum. Just how much of an anti-Semite was Degas? His own words tell you.

Rachum noted that after Pissarro died, Degas wrote a friend: “What went on inside that old Israelite head of his? Did he think only of going back to the old times when we were pretty nearly unaware of his terrible race?”

Jones also appeared to question the Ashmolean crowning Pissarro father of Impressionism, saying, “Perhaps he should have been called Modernist Dad.”

Jones explained that Pissarro’s friends nicknamed him “father Pissarro” because he was deep in his 40s - way past the ages of his fellow Impressionists.

Alternative impression

As I see it, not only was Pissarro far from the father of Impressionism, but I’m also not sure he’d even want to be typed as an Impressionist.

John Rewald’s 1980 biography “Camille Pissarro: 1830-1903” spoke of the painter’s self-doubts about what he was doing in his Impressionist paintings in letters to his son Lucien:

“I am much disturbed by my unpolished and rough execution; I should like to develop a smoother technique which, while retaining the old fierceness, would be rid of these jarring notes which make it difficult to see my canvases clearly...”

Jones acknowledged the painter’s self-doubts saying, “Pissarro does not fit anyone’s cliche of impressionism – which may be why he is less famous than Monet, Renoir, or Degas.

The question that remains is why the Ashmolean Museum decide Pissarro was the movement’s big daddy. The sources I used to dispute that, such as Phoebe Pool’s 1967 history of Impressionism, are not obscure.

Art and money

But here’s the kicker. The Ashmolean Museum went further than enthroning a painter as king of a movement made famous by Monet.

On its website, it said of Pissarro, “without him there would have been no Impressionism.”

Anything to sell tickets, I suppose. But while museums need to rachet up their gate receipts, the Ashmolean goes too far when it just makes stuff up.