Camille Pissarro - Biography and Legacy
Danish-French Painter and Printmaker
St. Thomas, Danish West Indies
Biography of Camille Pissarro
Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born to a Jewish-Portuguese family and grew up in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, then the Danish West Indies. His parents, Frederic Pissarro and Rachel Petit, owned a modest general hardware business and encouraged their four sons to pursue the family trade. In 1842, Pissarro was sent away to a boarding school in Passy near Paris, France, to complete his education. His artistic interests began to emerge thanks to the school's headmaster, Monsieur Savary, who encouraged him to draw directly from nature and to use direct observation in his drawings, empirically rendering each object in its truest form. At age 17, Pissarro returned to St. Thomas to immerse himself in the family business; however, the artist quickly tired of mercantile pursuits and continued to draw ship scenes in his leisure time at the shipping docks.
In the early 1850s, Pissarro abandoned the family business after meeting the Danish painter Fritz Melbye, following Melbye to Caracas, Venezuela, and committing himself to becoming a painter. This act signals a dedicated independence that Pissarro would never abandon in his career; largely if not entirely self-taught, Pissarro was uncompromising in his commitment to his art, a major factor that contributed to his persistent poverty. By 1855, Pissarro had returned to Paris, where he was exposed to the artwork of Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny, and Jean-François Millet at the Exposition Universelle and where he began attending private classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1856. He began working with Corot, who encouraged him to submit to the Salon. Taking classes at the Academie Suisse in 1859, Pissarro met Cézanne, who would become one of his closest lifelong friends. In 1861, Pissarro registered as a copyist at the Musée du Louvre, and around this same time he met Julie Vellay, the daughter of a vineyard owner in the Burgundy region. They married in London in 1871, eventually having eight children. His daughter Jeanne-Rachel (nicknamed "Minette") grew ill and died of tuberculosis in 1874 at the age of eight, an event that deeply impacted Pissarro, leading him to paint a series of intimate paintings detailing the last year of her life.
Pissarro began submitting to the Salon in the late 1860s. His landscapes of that decade reflect his profound knowledge of and exposure to the compositional techniques of the eighteenth-century French masters. However, it was in these years that Pissarro also grew close with the Impressionist circle. Keeping a studio in Paris, he preferred to spend his time in Louveciennes, a rural region about 12 miles west of Paris favored by the Impressionists. There, distanced from the urban environment, he painted en plein air, depicting peasant subjects in natural settings and focusing on light effects and atmospheric conditions created by the change of the seasons. These new concerns in his art resulted in a more purely Impressionist mature style. Though Pissarro had work accepted at the official Salon in 1859, he would exhibit at the Salon des Refusés with Édouard Manet's dissident circle in the 1860s, an important antecedent to his contributions to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.
The first half of the 1870s is considered the height of Pissarro's career, when he completed some of his most significant pieces, including Hoar Frost, the Old Road to Ennery, Pointoise (1873). Several personal developments contributed to the sophisticated output of his mature period. From 1870 to 1871, he fled to London to escape the chaotic events of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, during which time the majority of his earlier works were destroyed. In London, Pissarro was introduced to Claude Monet, and the two grew to favor J.M.W. Turner's work exhibited at the National Gallery. Daubigny introduced them to the art dealer Paul-Durand Ruel, who would later serve as Pissarro's agent in France. Having returned to Paris, Pissarro and Monet organized the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 at the photographer Nadar's gallery. Though the exhibition was met with harsh criticism and confusion from viewers, Pissarro's contributions received the more thoughtful commentary from writer and art critic Philippe Burty, who noticed the stylistic rapport between the work of Pissarro and Millet. The critic Theodore Duret would reiterate this in personal correspondence with Pissarro. Perhaps most importantly, Pissarro's professional and personal relationship with Cézanne reached its height in the mid-1870s when the two worked together, closely reexamining and reworking Pissarro's paintings from the 1860s.
Late Years and Death
By the late 1870s, Pissarro's work revealed conflicting stylistic choices drawing him away from a purely Impressionist aesthetic. As Impressionism became more widely accepted, Pissarro worked to keep his art avant-garde and relevant by testing new theoretical concepts. He and Edgar Degas made prints together based on the compositional techniques used by Japanese woodblock engravers; he also began collaborating with the next-generation Neo-Impressionist painters Paul Signac and Georges Seurat in the mid-1880s. This affiliation with younger artists was due to both political and professional affinity. Aesthetically, Pissarro was interested in the Pointillist technique espoused by these artists for its theoretical basis in color theory, a concept that resonated with his original exposure to empirical drawing as a child and his Impressionist fascination with the effect of light on color. Politically, he was a committed anarchist, and the color harmonies underpinning Pointillism, created by the juxtaposition of complementary colors, were linked in his mind to the utopian promise of social harmony achieved by the union of individuals in an anarchist society.
Though the notion of Pissarro as a political painter is a contested one, events in his personal life bear out his deeply held affiliations. In 1894, after an Italian anarchist assassinated the French president, Pissarro briefly moved his family into exile in Belgium to avoid political persecution. Briefly thereafter, Pissarro fell out with his close friend Degas over the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), which began when the French government convicted the Jewish military captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason. When it was discovered that Dreyfus was innocent and that the government chose to cover up their mistake rather than admit their fallibility, the reaction in French society showed a tendency toward anti-Semitism that was intensely troubling to the Jewish Pissarro. Degas was among those whose latent anti-Semitism came to the fore in response to the scandal, to the extent that he would cross the street to avoid his former friend and artistic collaborator. Pissarro died before the Dreyfus Affair was ultimately resolved, but the polarizing incident magnified his dedication to social justice in his final years. He contracted a recurring eye infection late in life that negatively affected his ability to work outdoors, but he continued painting from the windows of his home and certain Parisian hotels. He died of sepsis, or blood poisoning, in 1903 and was survived by his wife and seven children.
The Legacy of Camille Pissarro
Pissarro was greatly influenced by the Realist landscapists Corot, Courbet, and Millet and greatly influential to a host of younger painters. As a result, his body of work created a vital bridge between 19th- and 20th-century realism and abstraction, especially within the legacy of French modernist painting. His personal investment in the evolution of aesthetic technique contributed to significant developments in the later avant-gardes.
In particular, Cézanne famously learned the Impressionist style in the early 1870s by copying a work of Pissarro's when the two were painting together in Louveciennes. It is not a stretch to say this relationship was a pivotal step on the long road that ended with Cézanne becoming the father of 20th-century modernism. Their artistic interchange lasted for decades, and Cézanne, three years after Pissarro's death, identified himself in a retrospective exhibition as "Paul Cézanne, pupil of Pissarro." Specifically, Cézanne's work shows a willingness to construct a painting not only via the intense study of nature, but also through the manipulation of color to arrive at a "truer" visual image. Gauguin affectionately referred to the "intuitive" nature of Pissarro's art, and Gauguin's frank and naive rendering of French peasants in his early career and Tahitian villagers in his mature work owes to Pissarro's direct, unadorned depictions of the rural countryside.