Camille Pissarro

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Pissarro contributed to the formation of Impressionist techniques and thus to the Impressionist movement in France in the last half of the nineteenth century. In addition, he played an instrumental role in establishing a series of exhibitions to promote the work of the Impressionist artists.

Early Life

Born in Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas, Jacob Camille Pissarro was the third of four sons of Jewish parents, Frédéric Pissarro and Rachel Manzano-Ponie Petit. His father’s family had left Bordeaux, France, in search of a better life and settled on St. Thomas, where they established a family-operated trading store. To his father’s displeasure, Camille spent his youthful years roaming the luxurious paths of the island, preferring to sketch and paint rather than work in the family business. At the age of twelve, Camille was sent to school in Passy, a suburb of Paris.

In Passy, the young Pissarro was encouraged by his schoolmaster to nurture his obvious talent, despite explicit instructions from his father that he was to be educated in business. After five years in Passy, his father called him home. The time in France, however, had left its mark on Pissarro. For the next five years, Pissarro preferred to sit by the docks, drawing and sketching the ships, or to hike across the island in search of suitable motifs for his sketchbook. During one of these excursions, he encountered Fritz Melbye, a Danish marine and landscape artist who encouraged Pissarro in developing a method of working outside, “in the fresh air” (en plein air), which he continued throughout most of his career. In 1852, the two artists moved to Caracas, Venezuela, where Pissarro remained for two years, painting continuously and interacting with the energetic artistic community in the capital. The years in Venezuela awakened Pissarro to his own ignorance of technique and of new directions then being taken in art. He left for France in 1855, never to see his homeland again.

Pissarro was twenty-five when he arrived in Paris, enthusiastic but naïve and already sporting the full, Old Testament prophet beard for which he became famous among his friends. While attending the Universal Exhibition, he discovered the work of Camille Corot, whose reputation, as both a painter and a teacher, was then at its height. Despite his youth and inexperience, Pissarro managed to show his work to the great master. Corot was favorably impressed, encouraging Pissarro to focus on developing what he termed values, or the harmony between two tones, in his work.

Life’s Work

The meeting with Corot in 1855 set Pissarro on a path which he was to follow, with only occasional digressions, for the remainder of his artistic career. Heeding Corot’s advice, he began to pay particular attention to the importance of tonal values in creating a truly harmonious work. He practiced a lifelong attention to the importance of drawing, to self-discipline manifested in daily exercising of his craft, to pleinairisme (“plain-airism”), to painting what he felt, and to painting not bit by bit but rather working on the whole canvas at once. In all of this he followed the tenets established by Corot. This focus on sensation ultimately became the basis of Pissarro’s work.

In 1858, Pissarro moved to Montmorency in order to paint the landscape en plein air. This first move to the country announced Pissarro’s lifelong struggle to reject the bourgeois oppressiveness of the city in favor of simpler, rural settings. Although later in life he was often to return to Paris, staying in various hotels and painting views of the city from his window, in his early years, he preferred the bucolic setting of the countryside to the bustle of urban life. During his frequent trips to the city, he developed friendships with most of the young avant-garde artists of the time, such as Paul Cézanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Because of his natural ability to offer criticism and guidance without offending the delicate egos of his colleagues, Pissarro quickly became a trustworthy and articulate spokesman for the diverse group of artists soon to be known collectively as the Impressionists.

In 1871, Pissarro married Julie Vellay. Their first of seven children, Lucien, became an accomplished artist in his own right. Although much in love in the early years of their marriage, the couple’s constant financial struggles turned Julie into a sharp-tongued, unsupportive partner in later years. From all accounts, except those of Julie, Pissarro was a loving father. Nevertheless, his financial responsibility to his children never deterred him from resolutely continuing his painting even in the worst of times.

Firmly established among the Impressionists in Paris by 1863, Pissarro exhibited three paintings at the Salon des Refusés, an exhibit organized for those artists whose work had been refused by the judges for the official Salon exhibit of that year. The system of exhibitions was tightly regulated at the time by official judges (under the...

(The entire section is 2095 words.)