The Danish-French painter, Camille Pissarro, was one of the highly influential Impressionists of his era. His artistic contributions shaped the development of both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, having studied under the innovators of the movement Jean Baptiste Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet. Pissarro was particularly known for founding a society of emerging artists that solidified the hold of Impressionism in France.
Pissarro was a great leader for his group. For his group members, he like a father to them who would always coach them until they develop mastery of the subject, teach them of his old-age wisdom, and his great display of lighthearted personality calmed them in most struggling days. As a painter, Pissarro’s subject was ordinary men and women interacting in natural settings.
The most notable characteristic in his work is that the figures were drawn and painted with little to no grandeur, sticking to the most realistic and naturalistic representation of the “common man”. Even though this was the case, the Paris Impressionist gallery still chose to trust in his talent and skill that he was the only painter to have achieved all of eight consecutive art show at the society’s exhibitions from 1874 to 1886.
At the height of his career, towards the last decade of the century, he was a major source of inspiration of several younger painters such as Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent Van Gogh. He was indeed the father-figure of all Impressionist painters. A few examples of his major art works include Jallais Hill, Pontoise (1867), Entrée du village de Voisins (1872), The Harvest (1882), and a series of landscape paintings depicting the view of the Boulevard Monmartre a Paris (1897).
Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830 in an island known as the US Virgin Islands today. His parents were of French Jewish origin, in which his father was a French citizen and his mother was a Creole. The union of his parents was not well-received by their respective family sides because of racial discrimination, and this resulted to Pissarro’s need to attend an all-black school rather than a school for Jews.
Pissarro was only twelve years old when he was sent to Paris to study. There he was keen to displaying his drawing skills but did not fully developed it yet as he was about to return to his hometown, St. Thomas Island, to aid his family in their business. While helping out in the business, he would spend some time drawing images of the local port. Soon after he realized he wanted to pursue fine arts, he joined the company of Fritz Melbye, a Danish painter, in Venezuela and worked as an assistant for two years.
In 1859, Pissarro attended the Academie Suisse to learn more about art. There he met the future of Impressionism, Armand Guillaumin, Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne. All of them shared a common interest, which was to paint in realistic style, but the official art institutions like the Paris Salon was not in their favor. As a result, the painters often had to go by the dictation of the institution and they have not escaped the harsh critical take of the Salon in regard to their works.
However, the Salon’s rigid impositions did not intimidate Pissarro. In fact, his desire to reject grandeur and artifice in his painting even grew bigger, saying that as an Impressionist he must paint individuals in their natural environment no less. In 1863, the Salon rejected all of his colleagues’ works but Emperor Napoleon III requested that the paintings be placed in a separate hall which called Salon des Refuses.
After working studying art and struggling with developing his own style, Pissarro entered the workshops of Gustave Courbet and Camille Corot. These two Impressionist masters introduced him to new approaches that the group developed and so there he was acquiring new skills that would serve him well later in his career. Of the two mentors Pissarro considered Corot as his official master from 1864 to 1865.
Throughout the 1860’s, Pissarro was actively exhibiting his works at the Salon where he possibly befriended Edouard Monet, and then joined his group of Impressionists together with James Abbott McNeil Whistler. His early works depict the pristine condition of nature, but when he arrived at Paris his choice of subject changed to cities and figures.
In Paris, he also began painting the agricultural activities of the peasants. He would paint the French countryside in en plein air together with Corot but the student preferred finishing his work outdoor compared to Corot who had always opted finishing his works in his studio. This was one of the reasons why Pissarro earned the “vulgar” reputation because of how he realistically represented what he saw. For instance, he would even include beer bottles or garbage in a street scene painting.
Summer of 1871 Pissarro moved to Pontoise and married Julie Vellay, a daughter of a vineyard farmer. The two had seven children and they stayed in Pontoise for ten years and then settled in Louveciennes after. These two places were such an inspiration to him for he portrayed them in several of his paintings, most of which are now considered as major works.
While living in the French countryside, he portrayed the views of the 19th century village life. He painted peasants at work in the farm fields, rivers and woods. Although he stepped back from the hustle and bustle of the big city he still kept in constant communication with Renoir, Bazille, Monet and Renoir.
The Franco-Prussian War created pressing problems in the industry that resulted to its sudden downfall. The art market grew sour and less and less patrons were interested in hiring an artist to paint for them neither did the Salon. So Pissarro sought refuge in London, England together with Monet.
In London, Pissarro continued painting landscapes that depicted the views of the English cityscape and countryside. One of the works he produced there is Lower Norwood under Snow in 1870. However, his Impressionist style was not too appealing for the English audience to appreciate it. He told Theodore Duret in a letter that “my painting doesn’t catch on, not at all…”
To turn things around and to his favor, he met up with Paul Durand-Ruel, a well-known Parisian art dealer. Ruel who also happened to be in London at the time helped him sell his art works. He introduced Pissarro to the works of the highly celebrated English landscape painters such as William Turner and John Constable.
The said English landscapists were known for the perfect and delicate treatment of light and color, which they executed outdoor. This cemented Pissarro’s belief in the importance of painting outdoor because it will give any landscape painter the truest and realistic depiction of the natural environment and light. His excursions in London made a significant impact in his style, which by now became more spontaneous, freer (brushstrokes) and he gave a deeper emphasis on the perspective of his works.
Paintings Completed in London
During the early 1870’s, Pissarro painted Norwoods and Sydenham. In this suburb he discovered St. Bartholomew’s Church and was very inspired to paint it in a monumental size. The work is now known as The Avenue, Sydenham and is now part of the London National Gallery’s collection. Additionally, he portrayed the views of Lordship Lane Station, The Crystal palace, among many churches.
Around 1871, Pissarro returned to Paris to check up on his family and his paintings. Unfortunately, out of 1,500 paintings only 40 had survived the damage of the war. His colleagues were there for him when he needed him the most, to recover from such a huge loss. And in return, Pissarro shared with them the realizations he wanted to materialize by the time he arrived at Paris.
Pissarro taught the likes of Cezanne how to observe nature patiently. The group tried to revive Impressionism by conducting exhibitions which were led by Monet. During this period, Pissarro began focusing on drawing figures to include them in his landscape paintings. He believed that landscape artists should introduce individuals and animals into their works and paint them in a naturalistic manner. However, the public seemed still doesn’t catch up on this new painting style.
The continuous rejection of the general public fueled Pissarro to innovate his style in order to find the right means to express a common man’s life in his natural setting. And so he was one of those artists who divided colors by introducing a sunlit pavement made up of blue, white, yellow and pink shades. A fine example of this is his Jardin des Mathurins a Pontoise (1876).
Paul Gaugin, a successful banker, bought a few paintings from Camille Pissarro. He would be his patron until the 1880’s. During this period, he frequently moved from one place to another from Pontoise, to Osny, and then to Eragny a town completely outside of Paris. In 1885, he befriended Seurat and Signac to get insights about their intuitive observations of nature so he could deepen his knowledge of nature.
Pissarro joined Seurat and Signac’s company to develop a divisionist technique that would lay the foundations of Neo-Impressionism. The technique was purely based on optical laws and he shared this concept with Vincent van Gogh.
In his 50’s already, Camille Pissarro began slowing down with his work. He particularly abandoned Impressionism and instead focused on figuring out a style that could sharpen and capture the sensitivities present in nature. He traveled across Paris, Le Havre, Rouen and Eragny to portray as many landscapes as he could. The different natural settings of these places translated into a beautiful series of landscapes through Pissarro’s paintings.
In the last few years of his life, Pissarro dedicated himself to teaching younger painters including his son Lucien. He still painted though quite a few only because he contracted an eye infection that disabled him to work outdoors. He died on November 13, 1903 at the age of 73 in Paris.