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Exhibition radically challenges most people’s ideas of the birth of Impressionism
Camille Pissarro, People discussing in the roadside, 1856, Stern Pissarro Gallery, London.

CHARLOTTENLUND.- Is there a link between Danish Golden Age painting and French Impressionism? On the occasion of the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies, Ordrupgaard is highlighting the encounter between the Danish Golden Age painter Fritz Melbye and the later ‘father’ of French Impressionism, Camille Pissarro, on the island of St. Thomas. The exhibition Pissarro. A Meeting on St. Thomas presents new historical material that radically challenges most people’s ideas of the birth of Impressionism.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) is known as one of the most important figures in French Impressionism, but few people know that a Danish Golden Age painter played an important role in the origins of the Impressionist movement. Through the exhibition Pissarro. A meeting on St. Thomas, Ordrupgaard tells the story of Pissarro’s early years, and of how the Danish Golden Age painter Fritz Melbye (1826-1869) came to play a crucial role in Pissarro’s life and art.

A Dane in the West Indies
Camille Pissarro grew up as a Danish citizen on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies. He came from a wealthy Jewish family, and although he showed early talent and an interest in the art of drawing, it was his father’s wish that he should continue the family business. Around the year 1850, Fritz Melbye arrived in St. Thomas. Melbye was a marine and landscape painter, and was visiting the New World to seek inspiration. The two young artists became friends, and soon began working together. Pissarro did not share his father’s ambitions for his future, and at Melbye’s suggestion, the two left the Danish West Indies together in 1853 and travelled to Caracas in Venezuela, where they established a joint studio.

An equal partnership
In Caracas the two artists worked closely together, and the four-year older Melbye exerted a great influence on Pissarro, who was then just 22. It is clear from the many sketches and drawings from Caracas that at the time, Pissarro was far from being the stronger of the two artists. It was rather the opposite – but Pissarro was a willing pupil. On the basis of Danish Golden Age art and the doctrines of the Eckersberg school, they developed their art together. Their collaboration provided a counterpoint to the more traditional ‘teacher-pupil’ relationships of the day, as Melbye was more of a mentor than a master to Pissarro.

Success in the New World
The partnership between Pissarro and Melbye in the Danish West Indies and Venezuela lasted for two years. During this time, they managed to achieve sufficient success to persuade Pissarro’s strict father to allow his son to travel to Paris to obtain a proper education as an artist. While Pissarro set off for Europe, the adventurous Melbye remained in the New World, and although they subsequently lost contact, Pissarro brought the experiences gained from his ‘Danish’ apprenticeship with him to Europe.

The father of Impressionism
In Paris, Camille Pissarro became a key figure in one of art history’s most ground-breaking innovations – Impressionism. Pissarro is often called the ‘father of Impressionism’, and in the course of his remarkable painting career he co-operated closely with artists such as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. The special form of artistic collaboration that, through Melbye, he had inherited from Danish Golden Age art was continued in his work with these younger colleagues. His friendship and equal partnership with Melbye thus came to play a vital role in Pissarro’s artistic development.

Into Impressionism
Pissarro. A meeting on St. Thomas presents an extensive number of early works by Pissarro and Melbye, painted during their years together in the Danish West Indies and Venezuela. With paintings, sketches and drawings loaned from museums and collections around the world, the exhibition shows how Pissarro built upon his early years of learning with Melbye as his mentor, and how he applied these lessons in Impressionism.

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March 12, 2017

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