Finding Your Pastoral Mentor on Canvas

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Camille Pissarro, “Peasant Woman and Child Harvesting the Fields, Pontoise,” oil on canvas, 1882.

“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”[1]

Those words of impressionistic artist, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) have provided an aspiration, and inspiration, for my own pastoral work in serving Christ and His Church. Having mentors in ministry is important. Finding mentors in fields other than the ecclesiastical world has been, for me, an adventure in reading and learning and seeking to apply insights gleaned from otherwise overlooked places. One of those is in the world of art and art history.

Before there was the impressionism and Cézanne and Van Gogh and Degas in full bloom,[2] there was Camille Pissarro[3], the “father of Impressionism ” Born in the Danish West Indies, to a Danish Jewish father and a mother from the Dominican Republic, this incredibly gifted artist trained (first, under his father), and, as aspiring artists often do, especially in the 19th century, moved from place to place to find instruction, inspiration, and solace to paint amidst the brutal reality of war and the inevitability of poverty.[4] Yet, whether in Paris or in the rural areas of France or in London, where there is a marker at the house where he lived and worked (77a Westow Hill near Norwood), he produced paintings of remarkable beauty and simplicity, moving quickly across the canvas, paying no more attention to the river stream or the branch or the sun or the cloud as he worked, but taking them all in equally and almost simultaneously as it were on his linen world. His own life is not to be followed. He was, by all accounts, an anarchist, and, I would surmise, a naïve man whose compassion for the poor did not equal his study of the history of political theory.[5] Anarchy is a bit of a sport in French history and he was, no doubt, a man of his times, of his place, and a captive to a heart without a studious mind. We are better off with Dickens dealing with the industrial revolution inequities in society in books than Pissarro in letters to his brother.[6] Yet this is also getting a the heart of thinking through non ministerial models for inspiration in ministry: Spirit-guided discrimination. I have found inspiration from Pissarro for seeking the beauty of Christ in the humble things of parish ministry. I do not go to Pissarro for economic or political theory. He is of no use to me there (and my life will be of little use to others to in some areas, but maybe my son or others will find something of value to emulate in other areas). For me, Pissarro is forever connected to painting peasants. [7]When he paints a peasant he seems to be elevating her (they were mostly women and that fact is all the more interesting to me for she, of all the peasants, was most to be pitied and for Pissarro, therefore, most to be admired).

Being the adopted son of a peasant woman, I look upon his paintings and especially his drawings (less defined in technique, thus more defined in pathos) with a deep sense of appreciation. I find that wonderful quality in Pissarro that GK Chesterton saw in Dickens, he did not look upon them with condescension but with a view that acknowledged their humanity as valid. Yes, they were poor, but they laughed. Yes, they were downtrodden, but did they not know joy with their children? Do the poor miss the warmth of the sun or the beauty of the tulip in spring? Yes, they worked the fields by the sweat of their brow, often left to do so as widows with no strong husband to help them, but is this not a greater picture of nobility than the princess in her chamber, with every luxury available to her without the slightest effort to secure it? No. There is no nobility, no holiness in poverty in and of itself. “It is what it is.” But there is nobility in the human spirit that lives within that world. They lived poorly but beautifully on the “snowy linen land” of Pissarro.

It is our work as pastors to seek out the beautiful things in humble places where others see nothing.

It is our work as pastors to seek out the beautiful things in humble places where others see nothing.

We are there with them, pastoral artists in the ghettos of the family vigil as an aged loved one is passing. We are there in the emergency room at two in the morning when the overdosed student’s life is limp in the speeding gurney, and the hidden heartache of a prominent family, known only to you in pastoral counseling, is laid bare. They are peasants all. And we are not only to record the events on the canvas of sermons (as with Pissarro they are always anonymous in our work), but to capture the impression of the moment with prayerful attention to each part of the scene; working pastors in the sobbing of the broken mother, the collapsed dreams of a hopeful father, the tired and worn face of a nineteen year old student, and the heroic efforts of a medical team, balancing gallant effort, education and training, and the crisis before them, with their own shattered lives lingering in the back of their minds. It is after this that you step into the pulpit. And you can never be the same, if you have truly painted this scene in prayer on the snowy linen land of your own canvas of prayer.

I have found that Pissarro’s rendering of beauty in poverty to be a powerful part of my pastoral ministry. He is one part. There are others. And this is the joy of reading and searching out the lives of those who have gone before. The pastor, of all people, has the joy of claiming all vocations as models for ministry, for he will minister to them all. He is subject to them all. He serves God as he serves the peasant and the prince alike. He finds nobility and, yes, he discovers sin, in all. Yet sometimes he is drawn to one or another and says, “That is an idea, a view on life, an attitude for adapting to my ministry, that will serve the cause of Christ and the Church.”

“He shall be favourable to the simple and needy, and shall preserve the souls of the poor” (Psalm 72:13, Deus, judicium, The Psalter of the Book of Common Prayer, 1928).

[1] Chamberlain, Trevor, and Angela Gair. Trevor Chamberlain: A Personal View: Light and Atmosphere in Watercolour. David & Charles Publishers, 1999, 6.
[2] Pissarro, Joachim, and Camille Pissarro. Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne & Pissarro 1865-1885. Museum of Modern Art, 2005.
[3] Lloyd, Christopher. Studies on Camille Pissarro. Christopher Lloyd. Routledge, 1986.
[4] Pissarro, Camille, John Rewald, and Christine Tissot-Delbos. Camille Pissarro. HN Abrams, 1993.
[5] Springer, Annemarie. “Terrorism and Anarchy: Late 19th-Century Images of a Political Phenomenon in France.” Art Journal 38.4 (1979): 261-266.
[6] Chesterton, GK, and Charles Dickens. “The Last of the Great Men.” American Book-Stratford Press, NY (1942).
[7] “Collection Online | Camille Pissarro.” 2012. 13 Jan. 2013