Camille Pissarro, born 183 years ago today on the island of St. Thomas, was not much for city life. Although he spent some time in Paris developing his craft and seeing his work accepted into the Paris Salon, Pissarro had a penchant for the pastoral-–not unlike those artists whose work he admired and studied like Camille Corot (who was also Pissarro’s teacher) and Gustave Courbet.
The timeless, crowd-pleasing, (and my favorite) works by Pissarro that include French boulevards peppered with voyeurs, dandies, and stagecoaches, number few in comparison to the volume of his work focused on a simpler and quieter way of life. Much like that of his own with wife and children in the French countryside of Pontoise and later Louveciennes, village life remained a constant in his work.
Last December, we had the honor of listening to one of America’s greatest living poets, Dana Gioia, weave his baritone voice and wonderful words here at the museum. His poem Places to Return from the collection of poems The Gods of Winter (1991) makes me think of many artists and paintings in The Phillips Collection. I find that the beauty rendered in his poem evokes the perceptive quality of a painter’s visual interpretation of landscape and memory.
Places to Return
There are landscapes one can own,
bright rooms which look out to the sea,
tall houses where beyond the window
day after day the same dark river
turns slowly through the hills, and there
are homesteads perched on mountaintops
whose cool white caps outlast the spring.
And there are other places which,
although we did not stay for long,
stick in the mind and call us back –
a valley visited one spring
where walking through an apple orchard
we breathed its blossoms with the air.
Return seems like a sacrament.
Then there are landscapes one has lost –
the brown hills circling a wide bay
I watched each afternoon one summer
talking to friends who are now dead.
I like to think I could go back again
and stand out on the balcony,
dizzy with a sense of déjà vu.
But coming up these steps to you
at just the moment when the moon,
magnificently full and bright
behind the lattice-work of clouds,
seems almost set upon the rooftops
it illuminates, how shall I
ever summon it again?