Few artists can claim as ‘mixed up’ an identity as Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Born to Jewish parents as a Danish citizen on a Caribbean island, he studied in France, painted in Venezuela, was a refugee in England, and became popular in the USA. His work spans various artistic movements; he was inspired by the realism of Courbet and Corot, he helped organise new exhibitions alongside impressionists such as Degas, Morisot, and Monet, and he was a father figure to post-impressionists Cezanne and Gauguin. His work was revolutionary, experimental, political, and controversial. And much of it was tragically destroyed before he had the chance to share it with the world.
The Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 as French Emperor Napoleon III sought to quell Prussia’s rapid ascension as a European power. The war quickly turned disastrous for the French, culminating in the sacking of Paris, the ceding of territory to Prussia, the removal of the Emperor, and a civil war to determine his successor. Pissarro (still a struggling artist) and his family were living in Paris at the time, but they were suddenly forced to flee to England to escape the rapidly-approaching Prussian soldiers. Without any alternatives, the new refugees left 1,500 original paintings in their home, hoping the art would go unnoticed in the abandoned house. Pissarro struggled to make a living painting the landscapes of London without much success. ‘I count on returning to France as soon as possible’, he wrote to his friend Theodore Duret. ‘Here there is no art; everything is a question of business… My painting doesn’t catch on, not at all’ (quoted in The Impressionists in London exhibition, Hayward Gallery, 1973). When word finally came from France that peace had been reestablished, he quickly returned home.
The scene he discovered was horrific. The Pissarro home had been occupied by Prussian soldiers in the family’s absence. In less than a year, it had been transformed from a happy artistic haven into a literal slaughterhouse. The house was ransacked to make way for the butchering of animals, and the 1,500 canvases Pissarro had been unable to take with him had been used to mop up the bloody floor or repurposed as butchers’ aprons, while their frames were burned as firewood. Years of work was lost.
In some ways, Pissarro was lucky. He and his family had survived the conflict, unlike his fellow impressionist Frederic Bazille. While a refugee in England, Pissarro was fortunate enough to meet art collector Paul Durand-Ruel, who became Pissarro’s art dealer and (along with American artist Mary Cassatt) enabled his work to reach America, where it first became popular. And a few abandoned paintings managed to survive the carnage. A neighbor managed to rescue 40 paintings from the house before they were destroyed (see The Private Lives of the Impressionists, by Susan Roe  pg. 86-87). One of Pissarro’s few surviving paintings from before the war, View from Louveciennes depicts the view from the Pissarro home in better times. But the loss of over 1,400 paintings, to say nothing of the family’s other possessions or physical and emotional well-being, cannot be overstated.
Camille Pissarro was many things. Among them, he was a refugee, and the lives of refugees can be uniquely ‘mixed up’. How a person thinks about home, about language, about space, about safety, about belonging, about family, about nationality, and about community all become vastly more complex—more ‘mixed up’—when one is forced to relocate. This ‘mixed up-ness’ becomes evident in refugees’ visual cultures. Refugees like Pissarro, or Dalí, or Freud, are often the creators of art. They can be its subjects, its caretakers, and its consumers. Given all these contributions, what do artists, museums, galleries, and cultural institutions owe to refugees? How can institutions better partner with those whose identities have so suddenly and severely become ‘mixed up’? And how can these groups benefit each other? Over the next three weeks, this blog will be devoted to exploring these questions, to dissecting the past, present, and future roles of refugees and other vulnerable migrant groups in artistic and cultural institutions.
We define ‘refugee’ as the 1951 Refugee Convention did:
Any person who… owing to well-founded fear of persecution... is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Migrants are often in a similar situation and experience much of the same ‘mixed up-ness’. As explained by the UNHCR, migrants include:
Any person who moves, usually across an international border, to join family members already abroad, to search for a livelihood, to escape a natural disaster, or for a range of other purposes… refugees and migrants often employ the same routes, modes of transport, and networks.
Like Pissarro, each of these individuals leave behind a ‘View from Louveciennes’. Many will someday return. Others will not. That reality, and the complex emotions and outcomes associated with it, are inherently ‘mixed up’. We claim that each refugee deserves a chance to tell his or her ‘mixed up’ story and to be welcomed into our cultural institutions as creators, allies, and consumers. As artists, curators, and cultural institutions, we have platforms and privileges that can give them that chance. As you continue reading the IAVC blog, we invite you to explore with us how we can and must use those platforms.
By Riley Lewis