Having just seen the Legion of Honor’s exhibit Pissarro’s People one might assume my title of this post refers to a painting of one Camille Pissarro’s small children. Well close, the title refers to a small painting of one of his children. The show is a well curated, thorough retrospective focusing on Pissarro’s world through works depicting family, friends, colleagues and servants. But, the Little Pissarro I am referring to is the portrait of his son Rodo. His son was a young man of about 21 when this portrait was completed. The “little” refers to the rather small size of the painting, about 4” x 6”.
The show at the Legion of Honor is large, filling most of the special exhibit space with nearly 100 works of art. And the painting I lingered on the most, by far, was this little one titled Portrait of Rodo Pissarro Reading. At the end of the show I even avoided the exit through the gift shop in order to go get one more look.
I often find myself drawn to smaller works, particular of better-known artists. The Legion has quite a few little gems; there is van Gogh’s little Shelter on Montmarte and Daumier’s Un Wagon de Troisieme Classe both of which they keep on display upstairs. One of my favorite pieces in the entire building is a tiny Rembrandt etching titled Sleeping Puppy. It’s barely 1.5” x 3.5”.
As an artist there is something quite liberating about working small. Depending on one’s medium and style, particularly for painters, small pieces often can often indicate work that is completed relatively quickly. And for some artists, small works requiring less time are also a sign of a smaller commitment. That lack of artistic commitment can be quite liberating. A “quick” work on paper, board or small canvas has none of the weight that comes with a large-scale painting. Small allows an artist to be far more experimental. When an artistic experiment is small and requires a lesser investment of time, it can produce some impressive results. And when the experiments fail, as they sometimes do, the “wasted” effort is relatively small.
These rules for working small can apply to any artist. But, when you have the opportunity to see the small works of giants like Pissarro, it can be more informative than just seeing the larger works that appear in art books and on museum walls. When museums and exhibits include studies and smaller works as the Legion of Honor has done with Pissarro’s People they present an exhibit for the art lover and the artist.