Camille Pissarro's great-great-granddaughter will teach you nude figure drawing now

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Camille Pissarro's great-great-granddaughter will teach you nude figure drawing now
Lyora Pissarro at the Tuleste Factory in Chelsea bourough of New York on April 13, 2023. A night of art and pizza with Lyora Pissarro, descendant of the “father of Impressionism.” (Desiree Rios / The New York Times)

by Alyson Krueger

NEW YORK, NY.- On a warm spring night in mid-April, Lyora Pissarro had 40 adults sitting in a circle at the Tuleste Factory, a quirky art space hidden in a mixed-use building in Chelsea.

They were there for a figure-drawing class, and there were two nude models already striking poses. But Pissarro, who is 31 and lives in Brooklyn, opened the class by having everyone close their eyes and draw for 45 seconds.

“Draw without the judgment of eyes,” she said. “Feel the connection between your hand that creates and your mind that imagines.”

“No one expects anything in this room,” she said, repeatedly. “This is a place where you can be free and use your imagination.”

If anyone knows just how weighty expectations can be, it’s Pissarro.

Her maternal great-great-grandfather is Camille Pissarro, a Danish-French painter known as the “father of impressionism.” (He was widely considered a paternal figure to many artists including Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne and the only impressionist to show his work in all eight Paris impressionist exhibitions.)

Her great-grandfather, Paul-Émile Pissarro; grandfather, Hugues Claude Pissarro; and mother, Lélia Pissarro, were all accomplished painters. It was Lélia who had taught her to paint. “I would run home from school and paint with her,” Pissarro said. “She taught me with a system that had been passed down five generations. We look at a landscape and then we re-create an impression of reality, the feeling and light and mood.”

At age 5, Pissarro sold her first work at a gallery owned by her father, David Stern, and mother in London. “I wrote ‘four pounds’ on a drawing and waited at the door until someone bought it,” she said. (Her uncle, Joachim Pissarro, a former curator for the Museum of Modern Art, has also been a longtime cheerleader.)

Her work is displayed in galleries across the United States and in London. In her newest exhibition, she makes circular landscapes that use 3D projection mapping to make it look like the clouds and scenery are serenely floating by. “I had to find my take on impressionism,” she said. “I couldn’t just do what Camille Pissarro did 150 years ago.”

But being a great-great-granddaughter sometimes messes with her head. “It is difficult to accept success versus nepotism,” she said. At a girls high school in West London, she was awarded an arts scholarship for her final two years. “I had girls saying I got it because of my name.”

“I had this other teacher who in my art history class would say, ‘We have Lyora Pissarro here, and she will explain everything about impressionism,’ and I didn’t know anything.” (She got a D in the class.)

“I felt a lot of pressure from people who are like, ‘She is going to be the fifth generation, and she is going to continue the legacy,’” she said. “I would look at my paintings and be like, I don’t know if I could do that.”

For Pissarro, teaching art classes keeps her grounded. It returns her, she said, to the essence of making art: to use her imagination and have fun. “I love what is possible when crazy adults make things,” she said, noting that is why she loves going to Burning Man, an annual festival in Nevada.

Teaching is also a family tradition. “Pissarro was a teacher,” she said of her great-great-grandfather. “All the impressionists even had classes with each other.”

Lyora Pissarro grew up in London with two siblings. She received two undergraduate degrees in fine art: one from Hunter College and one from Manchester University in England; it was at the latter that she would host figure-drawing classes in her off-campus housing. “I would Google ‘nude models,’ and they would come,” she said. At the time, she lived with a group of guys, so she would often make sure they behaved themselves and knew it was about art.

Pissarro also teaches classes in her Long Island City studio, at the Crosby Street Hotel, and now, at the Tuleste Factory, a gallery owned by Satu and Celeste Greenberg, who are sisters, that also displays her art. The Greenbergs are known for hosting late-night informal gatherings.

One of the women who attended the drawing class bought one of Pissarro’s pieces of art at 11:30 p.m. a few weeks prior. “So many people get drunk and say, ‘I’ll buy it,’ and then you never hear from them,” Celeste said. “But she actually bought it.”

So, it was no surprise that this drawing class felt more like a party with a one-hour wine reception before the class, a 20-minute intermission (with more drinking) and an after-party with pizza. Tickets cost $35.

Rachel Gavertz, 34, came to the class after hearing about it from a friend’s boyfriend at a Passover Seder. “I’ve been to an art class before in Brooklyn, but it was like, Come drink PBRs and eat Cheetos and draw,” she said. “I wanted something a bit more upscale.”

Gavertz, who lives in Morningside Heights and works in compliance, was intrigued by the idea of being taught by an impressionist. “I feel like it’s amazing that all these art traditions have been passed down through generations,” she said.

Pissarro did not mention her family history during the class, but she did go through an array of exercises. At one stage, participants meditated to get in touch with their imagination. At another, they drew with their left hand to try to get more familiar with the hand motions of drawing. “We don’t even write anymore, so this movement is foreign to us. We need to practice,” Pissarro said. She equated being good at art to having a six-pack: In other words, you (usually) have to do the situps.

Throughout the class, two nude models, each paid $200, struck poses for lengths of time varying from 45 seconds to 16 minutes.

One of them, Diana Papanova, 36, a construction project manager who lives in Sutton Place, had come out of “retirement” for this specific class. “I used to be a model in my 20s to make money. I would smoke a joint and take a nap standing up,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t want to do it again until I saw Lyora’s class on Instagram.”

Pissarro, who finds her models on Instagram, said she has been overwhelmed with requests from people who want to try it. “They are all like, ‘I want this experience of being nude in front of all these people. I want to know what it feels like,’” she said. “It kind of makes me want to do it one day, except I don’t know how I would do it while teaching the class.”

Perhaps because she was taught by her own mother (who was taught by her grandfather, who was taught by his father), by the end of the class, when everyone was a little tipsy, Pissarro went into parental mode, making everyone hold up their drawings for the class to see.

“Please take your drawings with you when you go home,” she pleaded. “If you don’t, I’m going to have a hard time throwing them away, and I will probably keep them forever.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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