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Map of Downtown Charlotte Amalie showing Pissarro's birthplace, and location of Lilienfeld House.

At Long Last, Camille Pissarro
is Coming Home to St. Thomas

by Jean Etsinger
(from The Island Trader
Wednesday, October 2, 1996
published on St. Thomas,
U.S. Virgin Islands)

JULIAN JACKSON has won more trophies, and Tim Duncan has surely been cheered by more fans. Edward Wilmot Blyden may well have influenced more lives. Still, it is probably safe to say that Camille Pissarro is the Virgin Islands' most famous son.

We're talking 19th Century here, but, even so, a father of French Impressionism whose paintings hang today in the world's finest art museums has got to be held in awe.

In his own land? Well, perhaps soon.

Chances are, your average Virgin Islander -- born here or otherwise -- doesn't know Pissarro was a native of St. Thomas, or why they should care. In the next few months, that should change.

Plans have been in the works for several years to make Pissarro a household word in the place where he was born and spent his childhood and formative years. Conceived as a part of the bicentennial celebrations of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, the project was delayed by Hurricane Marilyn.

But on December 16, it will happen. That's when more than 40 of Pissarro's drawings and watercolor and oil sketches never before shown publicly go on exhibit on St. Thomas. Included will be many works depicting the Virgin Islands -- then Danish West Indies -- and other Caribbean locales.

The show, which is attracting world-wide attention in art circles, will hang through March 14 at Lilienfeld House, the parish hall across Crystal Gade from the synagogue. According to Mina Orenstein, who chairs the exhibit committee, it will be open to the public Mondays through Fridays 10 am to 4 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 12:30 pm to 4 pm.

The works include four oil sketches by Pissarro and 42 drawings or watercolor sketches, primarily by Pissarro, but a few by Fritz Melbye, a Danish artist who was Pissarro's first painting pal as well as traveling companion.

Melbye is the key to how this show has come about. He was traveling in the islands when he met Pissarro. He exposed the young St. Thomian "to the idea of being a painter as a full-time vocation," Orenstein says, "as opposed to working at it on weekends."

When Pissarro was 22, they island hopped their way down to Caracas, where they stayed for two years. Then Pissarro came back to St. Thomas, while Melbye went to New York, where he set up a studio.

Another of Melbye's Caribbean traveling companions was the famed American landscape painter Frederick Church, who also had a studio in Manhattan. Later, embarking on a journey to China, Melbye left his own studio possessions in Church's care. He died in China.

Church eventually moved his Manhattan studio -- including Melbye's possessions -- to his home in upstate Olana. "He or an assistant wrote Melbye's name on the bottom of all the drawings and sketches from his friend's studio," Orenstein explains. "For years, they were believed to be Melbye's works."

After Church's death, the Olana Institute was formed to preserve the artist's Hudson River Valley home as a museum to display his works. The Pissarro works coming to St. Thomas are on loan from the institute, in cooperation with the New York State Bureau of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which owns the rights to the works.

Hence the official name of the exhibit -- "Camille Pissarro and the Caribbean: 1850-1855: Drawings from the Collection at Olana."

In the 1970s, Orenstein says, "researchers went in to Olana to examine Melbye's work and found Pissarro's signature on the bottom of many of the drawings."

The works have been examined by art historians, she adds. Many depict St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John scenes.

Augmenting the Olana works for the exhibit will be an etching Pissarro did of his mother, Rachel Petit. It's owned by Philip Sturm, whose house was once her home. Governor Roy L. Schneider is lending the two Pissarro oils that hang in Government House. And the original work depicted in one of Michael Paiewonsky's new series of Pissarro prints will be displayed.

To accommodate the exhibit, Lilienfeld House is being upgraded to gallery standards. Inside there will be only the low-level artificial lighting necessary to preserve works on paper, with temperature and humidity controls and constant monitoring. "The works are being framed with silicon gel panels behind the matte board and frame that control the humidity," Orenstein explains. "The synagogue has generators in case of power outages, and there will be professional security, electronic and human, 24 hours a day."

The cost of mounting the exhibit is being underwritten by Chase Manhattan Bank. The show is being produced with the cooperation of the Jewish Museum in New York and the New York State parks bureau.

A catalog of the show is being written by Dr. Richard Brettell, who is curating the exhibit. Brettell, formerly director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and curator of European paintings at the Chicago Art Institute, has written several books on Pissarro and curated three major shows of the artist's work.

Brettell visited St. Thomas a couple of years ago at the invitation of Germaine Griffith, then on the staff of WTJX-TV, who was researching material for a television series she was producing on Pissarro's life. (The local PBS affiliate has never televised the series, but will air a condensed version in conjunction with the opening of the exhibit.)

The catalog will have an introduction by Joachim Pissarro, the artist's great-grandson, who also came to St. Thomas to participate in Griffith's project and has been a consultant to the exhibit organizers.

Admission to the exhibit will $3 for visitors and $2 for residents, Orenstein says, but $1 for children through age 13 and free on Sundays to residents with I.D. Tours will be arranged for students and other groups. There will be a gift shop with notecard reproductions of Pissarro's works, books, prints and other memorabilia.

First Lady Barbara Schneider is honorary chair of the exhibit. The November issue of Caribbean Travel & Life will have an article on it, and The New York Times is planning a review.

The opening reception will be by invitation, but lots of other show-related events are planned, from an orientation for taxi drivers and hospitality industry personnel to a lecture series on the life and work of Pissarro.

This unprecedented show is going to attract off-island visitors, and it should attract virtually everyone who lives here. And that's where the community comes in.

Volunteers are needed to serve as docents -- informed and informative hosts to show visitors around and answer questions. Don't say no already -- the expertise will be supplied in training by the curator himself.

"People have to be interested in doing it, and in interacting with the public," Orenstein says. "We need 25 to 50 people who can commit to half a day a week for a three-month period."

If you can take, or make, the time, leave word for Orenstein at the synagogue office, 774-4312.

Design: Cobex / smp