Lucien Pissarro

Le Curé


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Lucien Pissarro 1863–1944
Wood engraving on paper
Image: 86 × 79 mm
Transferred from the Library 1982

Catalogue entry

PISSARRO, Lucien 1863-1944
Le Curé circa 1884, reprinted 1981
Wood-engraving 86 x 79 (3 7/16 x 3 1/8 on handmade Hosho wove paper approximately 153 x 129 (6 x 5 1/16); reprinted from the original wood block by Iain Bain and David Chambers, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1981 as part of a portfolio of 29 prints in an edition of 175
Transferred from Tate Library 1982
Purchased from the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, July 1981
La Vie moderne, 1 October 1887, p.633

Lucien Pissarro, ‘Catalogue de gravures sur bois’, manuscript studiobook, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1905-29, I, no.8
Alan Fern, ‘The Wood Engravings of Lucien Pissarro with Catalogue Raisonée’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Chicago 1960, no.7
David Chambers, Lucien Pissarro: Notes on a Selection of Wood Blocks Held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1980, p.17 reproduced
Janine Bailly-Herzberg, Dictionnaire de l’estampe en France 1830-1950, Paris 1985, p.261
Anne Thorold (ed.), The Letters of Lucien to Camille Pissarro 1883-1903, Oxford 1993, pp.46, 102 note 4, reproduced pl.4b
Lora Urbanelli, The Wood Engravings of Lucien Pissarro & a Bibliographical List of Eragny Books, Cambridge and Oxford 1994, p.14, reproduced fig.1
Lora Urbanelli, The Book Art of Lucien Pissarro with a Bibliographical List of the Books of the Eragny Press 1894-1914, Rhode Island and London 1997, p.13, reproduced fig.iii

Le Curé [The Parish Priest] was one of the first wood-engraved prints made by Pissarro, and had been designed by him as one of thirteen finished drawings to illustrate the traditional French nursery rhyme Il Etait une bergère [Once Upon a Time There was a Shepherdess]. This rather grim tale tells of a young shepherdess who kills her cat after the pet overturns a jug of milk. Full of remorse, she then goes to confess to Père Grognon, the local curé, who is the subject of this print. Although the finished designs were exhibited together in 1886 at the eighth (and last) Impressionist exhibition,[1] the book was never accepted for publication in France and was therefore never printed. Le Curé, however, was engraved published as a single print in the magazine, La Vie moderne in October 1887. Tate’s version of the design was printed in 1981 for the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from the original wood block carved by Lucien Pissarro in about 1884 (for a general discussion see the ‘Introduction’). This wood block still exists in the Ashmolean.

Pissarro’s ambition was always to be successful as a painter but his decision to work in a printed media arose from the need to procure a steady income. His commitment to wood-engraving was based upon an an early interest in the illustration of children’s literature. Due to the exigencies of the printing process, coloured wood-engravings had to be kept simple and therefore suited strong colours and uncomplicated designs.[2] This made the technique unpopular as a medium for original art work, but during the second half of the nineteenth century wood-engraving, particularly colour wood-engraving (also known as chromoxylography) became commercially viable in the form of illustrations for children’s books.

In 1883, when he was approaching his twentieth birthday, the young Lucien was sent to live with Camille Pissarro’s brother-in-law, Phineas Isaacson, in Holloway, London, ostensibly to learn English which would help him obtain a commercial position in Paris. The large Pissarro family (Julie and Camille had seven children in all), was nearly always in financial difficulties, and Julie was keen for her eldest son to gain some employment with a steady income. Lucien however, generally encouraged by his father, wanted to develop his own artistic abilities. During his year long stay in London he frequently visited the galleries and museums, and it was during this time that he familiarised himself with the work of the English children’s illustrators Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) and Walter Crane (1845-1915).
After Lucien returned to France, the Pissarro family moved to Eragny-sur-Epte, a small country village near Gisors, seven miles west of Paris. Still undecided about his future career, he often spent hours sitting in cafés making drawings of the character ‘types’ he observed going about their daily business. In December 1885, Camille wrote to Esther Isaacson (Lucien’s cousin), “Lucien travaille toujours, il cherche en ce moment des types locaux” [Lucien is working all the time, at the moment he is looking at local types].[3] Some of the subsequent images were published in Le Chat noir in February 1886, including familiar village characters like the farmer, the cow-herd and the wood-cutter.[4] The figure of the parish priest would have played a central role in French village life at this time and this print is possibly based upon the curé at Eragny-sur-Epte.

Out of these drawings grew the thirteen finished drawings and watercolours for Il Etait une bergère, and around thirty other studies and related sketches (all Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Le Curé was engraved in wood by Pissarro from one of the figure studies that did not appear as part of a fully developed illustration.[5] According to Anne Thorold it was created as a New Year present for his aunt, Mme Alfred Pissarro.[6] The simplified style, which carefully reproduces Pissarro’s original pen and ink preparatory sketch, gives the finished result the look of a woodcut, rather than a wood-engraving (a woodcut involves the removal of wood to create a printed black line, whereas wood-engraving creates a white line by incision into the wood). Later, as Pissarro became technically more proficient and aesthetically more adventurous, the style of his prints changed and he began to exploit the unique qualities of wood-engraving, instead of using it to try to reproduce the appearance of drawing. The only other design connected with the series to be transformed into a print was La Bergère [The Shepherdess], the lower half of which was engraved onto the same block as the design for Le Patissier [The Pastry Cook] (see Tate, P08183).[7]

Le Curé was published in 1887 in La Vie moderne, which together with Le Chat noir, were the two journals where Pissarro most often sent his first printed work. The proof included in the artist’s own ‘Catalogue de gravures sur bois’ is handcoloured in watercolour by Pissarro, which possibly indicates that he planned to complete a version as a coloured wood-engraving.[8]

Nicola Moorby
October 2002

[1] VIII Exposition de Peinture, 15 May-15 June, Maison Dorée, 1 rue Laffitte.

[2] Bamber Gascoigne, How to Identify Prints, London 1986, p.23.

[3] Anne Thorold (ed.), The Letters of Lucien Pissarro to Camille Pissarro 1883-1903, Cambridge 1993, p.55.
[4] Reproduced Thorold (ed.) 1993, p.63.

[5] Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, reproduced in David Chambers, Notes on a Selection of Wood-blocks Held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Oxford 1980, p.16.
[6] Anne Thorold (ed.), The Letters of Lucien to Camille Pissarro 1883-1903, Oxford 1993, p.55.
[7] Reproduced in Chambers 1980, p.19.

[8] Lucien Pissarro, ‘Catalogue de gravures dur bois’, manuscript studiobook, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1905-29, no.8.


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