Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarrots (10 July 1830, St. Thomas – 13 November 1903, Paris) was a French and (nominally) Danish artist of Jewish origin, Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist, one of the first and most consistent representatives of both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. The only participant in all eight Impressionist group exhibitions from 1874 to 1886.
The beginning of the journey
Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830 on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies to a well-to-do Jewish family. His father, Frédéric Pissarro, was a Sephardic Jew with Portuguese ancestors and French citizenship. His mother, Rachel Manzano, came from a French-Jewish family settled on the Danish island of St. Thomas.
Her future husband, the artist”s father, came to the island from France to inherit the hardware store of his late uncle, Isaac Petit, fell in love with his young widow, Rachel, and married her. This marriage caused a stir in the island”s small Jewish community, as it was in direct violation of religious rules. When Pissarro Senior died, his estate was divided between the local synagogue and the Protestant church of St. Thomas (Thomas the Apostle), according to his will.
When Camille was twelve years old, his father sent him to a private school in France. He studied at the Savary Academy in Passy near Paris. Even as a schoolboy, Pissarro became interested in art. Monsieur Savary himself, the headmaster and owner of the private school, gave him lessons in drawing and painting, and offered to continue drawing from life when he returned back to St. Thomas.
After completing his education at a private school, Pissarro returned back to the West Indies, where his father attempted to employ his son in his own business, burdening him with a clerk”s job. For the next five years Pissarro took every opportunity to practice drawing during his breaks and in the evenings afterwards.
Pissarro”s life changed abruptly when, at the age of 21, he met a young Danish painter, Fritz Melby, who had arrived on St. Thomas. Fritz”s two older brothers were by then very famous painters, of whom Anton Melby was a pupil of Camille Corot. It was Fritz Melby who truly discerned Pissarro”s talent as an artist and convinced him to paint permanently, becoming his teacher and close friend. Pissarro left his family and his job as a clerk and went with Fritz Melby to Venezuela, where they lived for two years, renting shared studios, in the capital, Caracas, and the port city of La Guaira.
In 1855, Pissarro decided to go to Paris. Fritz Melby preferred to remain in Venezuela, but supplied his friend with letters of introduction to his brother, Anton, who welcomed Pissarro to Paris, arranged for him to be an assistant in his own studio and introduced him to Camille Corot.
Introduction to the Impressionists
Nevertheless, Pissarro”s training with Corot, who is sometimes erroneously referred to in Russian-language publications as his first teacher, did not begin immediately. Pissarro worked in Anton Melby”s studio, studied the works of other artists, of whom Courbet, Daubigny and Millais made a considerable impression on him, and attended classes that various famous masters held in those days at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and at the Académie Suisse. In the end, however, Pissarro, according to art historian John Revald, found their teaching methods “stifling,” and only then began to study with Corot.
During this period Pissarro began to understand and appreciate the importance of expressing the beauty of nature on canvas without “retouching” or convention. After a year spent in Paris, he began to leave the city and paint rural scenes directly in situ, in plein air, in order to capture the everyday realities of rural life. Unlike artists who sought inspiration in seascapes, depictions of rocks or ruins, Pissarro considered the ordinary French countryside picturesque enough and worthy of being depicted. At that time, the rural population was still actively engaged in traditional agricultural labor, but their level of well-being was increasing, so that some historians even call that era the “Golden Age of the peasantry. Whereas Corot completed his paintings in his studio, often changing the landscape to suit his preconceptions, Pissarro preferred to both begin and end his paintings outdoors, often in a single technique, which gave his works more realism. As a result, some contemporaries criticized Pissarro”s art as “vulgar” because he painted what he saw: “a hodgepodge of bushes, hills, and trees.” According to one of today”s authors, this interpretation of the artist”s landscape was perceived by his contemporaries in the same way that we would perceive paintings of realistic depictions of urban dumps today. This difference in style caused a disagreement between Pissarro and Corot.
In 1859, while attending the free art academy of Suisse, Pissarro befriended a number of young artists who, like him, preferred to paint in a more realistic style. Among them were Claude Monet, Armand Guillaumin, and Paul Cézanne. What they had in common was their dissatisfaction with the diktat of the Salon de Paris, which was responsible for holding the most important annual “report” art exhibitions, not only in Paris, but throughout Europe. Cézanne”s work at the time was ridiculed by other artists, and, as Revald writes, Cézanne “never forgot the sympathy and understanding with which Pissarro regarded him for the rest of his life.
Pissarro agreed with his new friends” idea of the importance of depicting people in natural settings, and expressed a distaste for any form of artificiality or exaggeration in painting, as the Salon demanded for its exhibits. In 1863 almost all of the group”s paintings were rejected by the Salon, whereupon the French Emperor Napoleon III decided instead to allow them to hold a separate exhibition, which was called the Salon des Outcasts. This exhibition featured works by Pissarro and Cézanne, among others. A large number of people visited the exhibition, but it provoked a generally hostile reaction from both the Salon representatives and the public.
At subsequent Salon exhibitions in 1865 and 1866, Pissarro acknowledged the influence on his art of Melbi and Corot, whom he named as his teachers in the Salon catalog. At the 1868 exhibition, however, he refused to acknowledge the influence of other artists on his art, claiming his artistic independence. This was noticed by the writer Emile Zola, who wrote on the subject:
Camille Pissarro is one of the three or four true artists of our time … I have rarely seen an artistic technique so perfect.
Around this time, at the age of about thirty-eight, Pissarro began to gain a reputation as a landscape painter, rivaling that of Corot and Daubigny.
In the late 1860s or early 1870s, Pissarro, like other Impressionists, became fascinated by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, prompting him to experiment further.
In 1871 he married his mother”s maid, with whom he later had seven children. They lived outside Paris, in Pontoise and then in Louvain. In both places Pissarro painted many paintings. He also kept in touch with artist friends who remained in Paris: Monet, Renoir, Cézanne and Frédéric Basile.
The Franco-Prussian War and the move to England
After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, having only Danish citizenship and unable to join the French army, Pissarro moved with his family to Norwood, then a small town on the outskirts of London. He soon found, however, that his pictorial style was not understood in England. Soon, however, Pissarro met the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in London, who began to help him with the sale of paintings and subsequently did so most of his life.
In London, Pissarro and Monet, who was also there, had the opportunity to meet the original works of the eminent British artist William Turner, which confirmed their belief that working in the open air gave the most accurate depiction of light and atmosphere, an effect that could not be achieved in the studio.
In paintings made by Pissarro at this time, he depicted the suburbs of London, especially Norwood, where he lived. Some of these paintings can be seen today in London museums.
Returning to France
Returning to France, Pissarro lived in Pontoise from 1872 to 1884. In 1890 he visited England again and painted about ten paintings with scenes of the City of London. Pissarro later visited England again in 1892 and 1897, and again painted.
However, this would be later, and first the artist, who returned to France, was severely disappointed. Of the nearly 1,500 paintings he created over 20 years and left in his studio, only 40 actually survived. The rest were damaged or destroyed by the German soldiers who lived in his house and used them as shoe mats. Because Pissarro”s legacy of the pre-war period has been largely lost, the extent of his direct contribution to the formation of Impressionism as a style is not fully clarified.
Continued collaboration with the Impressionists
Soon after his return, Pissarro re-established friendships with other impressionist painters, including Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas. Pissarro now expressed to the group that they needed a full-fledged alternative to the Salon in order to be able to display their work without any restrictions. The result was the creation of the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs, an art group comprising fifteen artists. Pissarro wrote the group”s first charter and became the “pivotal” figure in its creation. One commentator noted that Pissarro, 43, with his prematurely graying thick beard, was considered “a wise elder and father.” Nevertheless, he could work on an equal footing with other artists because of his youthful temperament.
The following year, in 1874, the group held its first “Impressionist” exhibition, which shocked and horrified critics. The subjects seemed to the critics vulgar and banal, the manner of painting was too schematic and as if unfinished, and the speed of the Impressionists, who often created paintings in one go, was perceived as almost an insult to the traditions of the craft of other artists.
Pissarro exhibited five of his paintings, all landscapes, and again Emile Zola praised his art and that of other artists. Others, however, were not so favorable. During the 1876 Impressionist exhibition, the critic Albert Wolf complained in his review, “Try to make Monsieur Pissarro understand that the trees are not purple…” On the other hand, Pissarro”s authority among his Impressionist friends remained invariably high. The American painter Mary Cassat, who joined the Impressionists early, wrote of him: “The gentle Camille Pissarro could teach you to paint even stones.
Transition to Pointillism
By the 1880s it seemed to some Impressionists that their movement had exhausted itself. During this period Pissarro began to explore new themes and methods of painting in order to break free from what he believed was already becoming an artistic “quagmire. As a result, Pissarro returned to his former themes, depicting life in the countryside, just as he had done in his youth in Venezuela. Pissarro intended to “educate the public” by depicting people at work or at home in realistic settings without idealizing their lives. Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1882 called Pissarro”s work of the period “revolutionary” in its attempt to portray “the common man. His palette at the time was reduced to four primary colors.
Toward the middle of the 1880s Pissarro became acquainted with the young painters Seurat and Signac, who created a new painting technique, which consisted in applying images in small spots of pure color and was called pointillism. Pissarro worked in this technique from 1885 to 1888. The resulting paintings differed markedly from the “traditional” works of the Impressionists, and were therefore presented in a separate section at the Impressionist exhibition of 1886, together with works by Sera, Signac and the artist”s son Lucien Pissarro.
The artist”s work was considered an “exception” to the eighth exhibition. Joachim Pissarro noted that virtually every reviewer who commented on Pissarro”s work drew attention to his “extraordinary ability to change his art, to reconsider his position and accept new challenges. One critic wrote: “It is difficult to speak of Camille Pissarro… Before us is a fighter from the distant past, a master who is constantly growing and courageously adapting to new artistic theories.
Pissarro himself at the time described Pointillism as “a new stage in the logical development of Impressionism. However, he was the only one among the “old” Impressionists who regarded Pointillism in this way. Joachim Pissarro claims that in this way Pissarro was “the only artist who moved from Impressionism to Neo-Impressionism.
In 1884, art dealer Theo Van Gogh asked Pissarro if he would accept his older brother Vincent as a lodger in his house. Lucien Pissarro wrote that his father was impressed with Van Gogh”s work and “foresaw the fame of this artist,” who was 23 years younger than him. Pissarro, according to his son Lucien, explained to Van Gogh the different ways of finding and expressing light and color, ideas that he later used in his paintings.
A Return to Impressionism
Eventually Pissarro turned his back on Neo-Impressionism. However, after his return to his former style, his work became, according to Revald, “more refined, his color scheme more refined, his drawing more solid…
But this change also exacerbated Pissarro”s persistent financial difficulties. Although he was not so poor that he had no means of subsistence at all, contemporaries reasonably surmised that even a slight concession to the public”s tastes might have enriched the artist financially, had Pissarro himself wished it. The artist, however, was not willing. His “stubborn courage and tenacity,” writes Joachim Pissarro, were due to his “lack of fear of immediate consequences” of his stylistic decisions. Moreover, his work was a passion strong enough to “sustain his morale and prolong his life,” he writes. His Impressionist contemporaries viewed his independence as “a sign of inner integrity” and looked to him for advice, calling him “Père Pissarro” (Pissarro”s daddy).
At an older age, Pissarro suffered from an eye infection that made it impossible for him to work outdoors except in warm weather. Because of this, he began to paint street scenes while sitting at the window of hotel rooms. He often chose hotel rooms on the upper floors to get a wider view. He traveled throughout northern France and painted in hotels in Rouen, Paris, Le Havre and Dieppe. On his visits to London he did the same.
Pissarro died in Paris on November 13, 1903, and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery.
Legacy and Influence
During the period in which Pissarro exhibited his work, art historian Armand Sylvestre called Pissarro “the most genuine of the Impressionists. His work has also been described by art historian Diane Kelder as expressing “the same quiet dignity, sincerity and resilience that characterized his personality. She adds that “no member of the group did more to settle the internecine disputes that at times threatened to tear relations between artists, and no one was a more studious supporter of the new painting than he was.”
According to Pissarro”s son Lucien, his father painted regularly with Cézanne from 1872 onward. Cézanne, although only nine years younger than Pissarro, said of him: “He was like a father to me. He was a man to be consulted.
Lucien Pissarro was taught drawing by his father, and he described him as “a magnificent teacher who never let his personality dominate his pupil. Gauguin, who also studied under him, called Pissarro “a force to be reckoned with by future artists. Art historian Diane Kelder notes that it was Pissarro who introduced Gauguin, then a young stockbroker studying to be an artist, to Degas and Cézanne.
During his lifetime, Camille Pissarro did not sell many of his paintings. By the 21st century, however, his paintings were selling for millions. The artist”s auction record was set on November 6, 2007 at Christie”s in New York, where a group of four paintings sold for $14,600,000. In February 2014, Pissarro”s 1897 painting Boulevard Montmartre, originally owned by German industrialist and Holocaust victim Max Silberberg, was sold at auction at Sotheby”s in London for 19.9 million pounds sterling, breaking the previous record.
Pissarro was a staunch anarchist by his political views and provided regular financial assistance to anarchist publications and to anarchists themselves in France and Belgium. However, Pissarro”s work was not influenced by anarchism.
Under the influence of Corot, already in his relatively early works the artist paid particular attention to the depiction of illuminated objects in an airy environment. Light and air have since become a leading theme in Pissarro”s work.
Gradually, Pissarro began to free himself from the influence of Corot, and his own style matured. From 1866, the artist”s palette becomes lighter, the dominant subject becomes a space saturated with sunlight and light air, and the neutral tones peculiar to Corot disappear.
The works that made Pissarro famous are a combination of traditional landscape subjects and an unusual technique in drawing light and illuminated objects. The paintings of the mature Pissarro are painted with dense strokes and filled with that physical sense of light that he sought to express.
After meeting Georges-Pierre Seurat in 1890, Pizarro became interested in the technique of pointillism (separate strokes). But these works sold very poorly. In addition, what Pissarro wanted to convey through this technique, gradually exhausted itself and ceased to bring him artistic satisfaction. Pissarro returned to his usual manner.
In the last years of his life, Camille Pissarro”s eyesight deteriorated noticeably. In spite of this, he continued his work and created a series of views of Paris filled with magnificent artistic emotion. The unusual angle of these canvases is due to the fact that the artist painted them not in the street, but from hotel rooms. This series has become one of the highest achievements of Impressionism in conveying light and atmospheric effects and in many ways a well-known symbol of it.
Pissarro also painted watercolors and created many etchings and lithographs. He even bought a special machine for lithographs and had it installed in his house.
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