Camille Pissarro (10 July 1830 – 13 November 1903) was a Danish-French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter born on the island of St Thomas (now in the US Virgin Islands, but then in the Danish West Indies). His importance resides in his contributions to both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Pissarro studied from great forerunners, including Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. He later studied and worked alongside Georges Seurat and Paul Signac when he took on the Neo-Impressionist style at the age of 54.
In 1873 he helped establish a collective society of fifteen aspiring artists, becoming the “pivotal” figure in holding the group together and encouraging the other members. Art historian John Rewald called Pissarro the “dean of the Impressionist painters“, not only because he was the oldest of the group, but also “by virtue of his wisdom and his balanced, kind, and warmhearted personality”. Cézanne said “he was a father for me. A man to consult and a little like the good Lord,” and he was also one of Gauguin’s masters. Renoir referred to his work as “revolutionary”, through his artistic portrayals of the “common man”, as Pissarro insisted on painting individuals in natural settings without “artifice or grandeur”.
Pissarro is the only artist to have shown his work at all eight Paris Impressionist exhibitions, from 1874 to 1886. He “acted as a father figure not only to the Impressionists” but to all four of the major Post-Impressionists, including Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.
Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born on 10 July 1830 on the island of St. Thomas to Frederick and Rachel Pissarro. His father, who was of Portuguese Jewish descent, held French nationality and his mother was native Creole. His father was a merchant who came to the island from France to deal with the business affairs of a deceased uncle, and married his widow. The marriage, however, caused a stir within St. Thomas’ small Jewish community, either because Rachel was outside the faith or because she was previously married to Frederick’s uncle, and in subsequent years his four children were forced to attend the all-black primary school. Upon his death, his will specified that his estate be split equally between the synagogue and St. Thomas’ Protestant church.
When Camille was twelve his father sent him to boarding school in France. He studied at the Savary Academy in Passy near Paris. While a young student, he developed an early appreciation of the French art masters. Monsieur Savary himself gave him a strong grounding in drawing and painting and suggested he draw from nature when he returned to St. Thomas, which he did when he was seventeen. However, his father preferred he work in his business, giving him a job working as a cargo clerk. He took every opportunity during those next five years at the job to practice drawing during breaks and after work.
When he turned twenty-one, Danish artist Fritz Melbye, then living on St. Thomas, inspired Pissarro to take on painting as a full-time profession, becoming his teacher and friend. Pissarro then chose to leave his family and job and live in Venezuela, where he and Melbye spent the next two years working as artists in Caracas. He drew everything he could, including landscapes, village scenes, and numerous sketches, enough to fill up multiple sketchbooks. In 1855 he moved back to Paris where he began working as assistant to Anton Melbye, Fritz Melbye’s brother.
In Paris he worked as assistant to Danish painter Anton Melbye. He also studied paintings by other artists whose style impressed him: Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny, Jean-François Millet, and Corot. He also enrolled in various classes taught by masters, at schools such as École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Suisse. But Pissarro eventually found their teaching methods “stifling,” states art historian John Rewald. This prompted him to search for alternative instruction, which he requested and received from Corot.
His initial paintings were in accord with the standards at the time to be displayed at the Paris Salon, the official body whose academic traditions dictated the kind of art that was acceptable. The Salon’s annual exhibition was essentially the only marketplace for young artists to gain exposure. As a result, Pissarro worked in the traditional and prescribed manner to satisfy the tastes of its official committee.
In 1859 his first painting was accepted and exhibited. His other paintings during that period were influenced by Camille Corot, who tutored him. He and Corot both shared a love of rural scenes painted from nature. It was from Corot that Pissarro was inspired to paint outdoors, also called “plein air” painting. Pissarro found Corot, along with the work of Gustave Courbet, to be “statements of pictorial truth,” writes Rewald. He discussed their work often. Jean-François Millet was another whose work he admired, especially his “sentimental renditions of rural life“.
During this period Pissarro began to understand and appreciate the importance of expressing on canvas the beauties of nature without adulteration. After a year in Paris, he therefore began to leave the city and paint scenes in the countryside to capture the daily reality of village life. He found the French countryside to be “picturesque,” and worthy of being painted. It was still mostly agricultural and sometimes called the “golden age of the peasantry“. Pissarro later explained the technique of painting outdoors to a student:
“Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on and equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.”
Corot, however, would complete his own scenic paintings back in his studio where they would often be revised to his preconceptions. Pissarro, on the other hand, preferred to finish his paintings outdoors, often at one sitting, which gave his work a more realistic feel. As a result, his art was sometimes criticised as being “vulgar,” because he painted what he saw: “rutted and edged hodgepodge of bushes, mounds of earth, and trees in various stages of development.” According to one source, details such as those were equivalent to today’s art showing garbage cans or beer bottles on the side of a street scene. This difference in style created disagreements between Pissarro and Corot.
In 1859, while attending the free school, the Académie Suisse, Pissarro became friends with a number of younger artists who likewise chose to paint in the more realistic style. Among them were Claude Monet, Armand Guillaumin and Paul Cézanne. What they shared in common was their dissatisfaction with the dictates of the Salon. Cézanne’s work had been mocked at the time by the others in the school, and, writes Rewald, in his later years Cézanne “never forgot the sympathy and understanding with which Pissarro encouraged him.” As a part of the group, Pissarro was comforted from knowing he was not alone, and that others similarly struggled with their art.
Pissarro agreed with the group about the importance of portraying individuals in natural settings, and expressed his dislike of any artifice or grandeur in his works, despite what the Salon demanded for its exhibits. In 1863 almost all of the group’s paintings were rejected by the Salon, and French Emperor Napoleon III instead decided to place their paintings in a separate exhibit hall, the Salon des Refusés. However, only works of Pissarro and Cézanne were included, and the separate exhibit brought a hostile response from both the officials of the Salon and the public.
In subsequent Salon exhibits of 1865 and 1866, Pissarro acknowledged his influences from Melbye and Corot, whom he listed as his masters in the catalogue. But in the exhibition of 1868 he no longer credited other artists as an influence, in effect declaring his independence as a painter. This was noted at the time by art critic and author Émile Zola, who offered his opinion:
“Camille Pissarro is one of the three or four true painters of this day … I have rarely encountered a technique that is so sure.”
Another writer tries to describe elements of Pissarro’s style:
“The brightness of his palette envelops objects in atmosphere … He paints the smell of the earth.”
And though, on orders from the hanging Committee and the Marquis de Chennevières, Pissarro’s paintings of Pontoise for example had been skyed, hung near the ceiling, this did not prevent Jules-Antoine Castagnary from noting that the qualities of his paintings had been observed by art lovers. At the age of thirty-eight, Pissarro had begun to win himself a reputation as a landscapist to rival Corot and Daubigny.
In the late 1860s or early 1870s, Pissarro became fascinated with Japanese prints, which influenced his desire to experiment in new compositions. He described the art to his son Lucien:
“It is marvelous. This is what I see in the art of this astonishing people … nothing that leaps to the eye, a calm, a grandeur, an extraordinary unity, a rather subdued radiance …”
In 1871 he married his mother’s maid, Julie Vellay, a vineyard grower’s daughter, with whom he would later have seven children. They lived outside of Paris in Pontoise and later in Louveciennes, both of which places inspired many of his paintings including scenes of village life, along with rivers, woods, and people at work. He also kept in touch with the other artists of his earlier group, especially Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Frédéric Bazille.
After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, having only Danish nationality and being unable to join the army, he moved his family to Norwood, then a village on the edge of London. However, his style of painting, which was a forerunner of what was later called “Impressionism“, did not do well. He writes to his friend, Theodore Duret, that “my painting doesn’t catch on, not at all …”
Continue to the next page!