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David Stern and Lélia Pissarro: A Family Art

Published on , by Carine Claude

Within their family, the dealers David Stern and Lélia Pissarro cultivate a heritage that involves both their relatives and art history: those of Camille Pissarro and his legacy.

David Stern et Lélia PissarroCOURTESY STERN PISSARRO. David Stern and Lélia Pissarro: A Family Art

David Stern et Lélia Pissarro

This is the story of a family epic. Camille Pissarro's great-grand-daughter Lélia Pissarro and her husband David Stern run the gallery that bears their names, founded in 1964 in London's Mayfair district. Together, they are committed to perpetuating the recognition of the master, who was friends with Cézanne and the great Impressionists. But their work does not stop at the artist's legacy: five generations of artists make up his lineage. With the world's largest collection of Camille Pissarro's works, the gallery loans paintings to museums all over the world, and has become a research center for the works of his descendants.

Tell us about the history of your gallery.
David Stern
: It all began with my father. During the 1980s, we developed our interest in Impressionism, the Paris School, British art and so on. But the real change came when I met Lélia. We were married in 1988. We had a shared interest in Impressionism, and together we began to study the artists in her family – our goal being to bring the five generations of artists together under one roof.

Five generations of artists in one family is pretty rare…
Lélia Pissarro
: Yes: apart from the Bruegels and the Bachs, it's very unusual! There are around twenty artists in our ranks, as well as art dealers, historians and experts. When you grow up in the milieu like that, you absorb a love of art very young. You are constantly encouraged by all the others. In fact, it's more of a way of life.

View of the Stern Pissarro gallery, LondonCOURTESY STERN PISSARRO

View of the Stern Pissarro Gallery, London

How much did Camille Pissarro influence the style of other artists in the family?
: First of all, there were Camille's five sons, who were all painters. Their starting point was Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. When their father died in 1903, some of them moved away from his influence and developed a totally different style.

What was Pissarro's position in the history of Impressionism?
: His writings, his thinking and his interactions with all the Impressionists made him an intellectual cornerstone of the movement. He was the only one who showed works in all eight of the group's exhibitions. He inspired Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and the generation of Post-Impressionists, including Matisse. He wasn't a teacher, but a purveyor of ideas. He worked a great deal with Cézanne, encouraging him to use brushes, and simplify colour and light. Cézanne said: "All I know I owe to Pissarro." While Cézanne is often considered the father of modern art, we can say that Pissarro was its grandfather.

How do you work with museums?
: It seems normal to encourage any museum or institution that shows an interest in the art of Camille and his descendants. My brothers and I all share this desire. At the moment, we are working on a traveling exhibition entitled "Impressionist Decorative Art" scheduled for next year at the Musée d’Orsay, then the National Gallery in London, the Basel Kunstmuseum and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which which will present a major retrospective of Camille's work. In 2005, my brother [Joachim, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – Ed.] was the curator for a major exhibition, "Cézanne-Pissarro", at the MoMA and then the Musée d'Orsay.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Road and House under Snow, Éragny (1885).COURTESY OF STERN PISSARRO

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Road and House under Snow, Éragny (1885).

From the perspective of the art market, can we talk about late recognition?
: It's quite complicated. Pissarro was very avant-gardist. While he was alive, he painted what he felt, not what the public expected. While urban subjects and views of Paris were much in demand, he preferred country scenes. This followed him after his death. Today, when a great Pissarro comes on the market, it naturally garners a good price – the record for the moment is around $30 million – but far from the records of a major Monet.

What kind of profile do your collectors have?
: The first collectors of Camille were his artist friends and avant-garde dealers. After that came the prominent wealthy Americans of the early 20th century. Only collectors who are sensitive to the emotional aspect of Pissarro's painting develop strong links with his works. Other buyers are fascinated by the family as a whole. But it's true to say that any wide-ranging collector of Impressionism has at least one Pissarro. The same goes for museums.

What do you own in your private collection?
: We are often asked "After five generations, how have you managed to keep any paintings by Pissarro without selling them?" I think that it's precisely because the Pissarros are a family of artists that its members have been more interested in the art than the money. It was more natural to lend paintings to exhibitions or leave them to descendants than to sell them. With the Renoirs, for instance, there haven't been any paintings in the family for a long time. However, we don't only collect works by Camille; we are also interested in modern and contemporary art.  

What projects do you have lined up?
: The most important projects are in the academic sphere. Lélia is in charge of the catalogue raisonné for Paul-Émile Pissarro. She is also writing a book on the work of her father, Claude. And we are going to publish a digital catalog of the work of three of Camille's other sons.

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