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Artists Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro

Danish-French Painter and Printmaker

Movement: Impressionism

Born: July 10, 1830 - St. Thomas, Danish West Indies

Died: November 13, 1903 - Paris, France

Quotes

"Everything is beautiful, all that matters is to be able to interpret."
Camille Pissarro
"Don't be afraid in nature: one must be bold, at the risk of having been deceived and making mistakes."
Camille Pissarro
"Paint the essential character of things."
Camille Pissarro
"Work at the same time on sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis...Don't be afraid of putting on color...Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression."
Camille Pissarro
"[we Impressionists were like] mountaineers roped together at the waist."
Camille Pissarro
"Pissarro was like a father to me: he was a man you turned to for advice, and he was something like le bon Dieu."
Paul Cézanne

"It is only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you discover to your surprise that you have rendered something in its true character."

Synopsis

The only painter to exhibit in all eight Impressionist exhibitions organized between 1874 and 1886, Camille Pissarro became a pivotal artist and mentor within the movement. While the Impressionists are known for their depictions of city streets and country leisure, Pissarro covered his canvases with images of the day-to-day life of French peasants. His greatest work joins his fascination with rural subject matter with the empirical study of nature under different conditions of light and atmosphere, deriving from intense study of French Realism. Like those of his Impressionist cohorts, his paintings are delicate studies of the effect of light on color in nature. However, he continually sought out younger, progressive artists as colleagues, and his articulation of scientific color theory in his later work would prove indispensable for the following generation of avant-garde painters.

Key Ideas

Pissarro's earliest artistic studies were carried out in Paris, France, and Caracas, Venezuela. In Paris, his artistic education stressed an empirical Realism that carried through his entire career; in Caracas, he studied nature and peasant life under tropical conditions, focusing on the effects of light on color, which he would help theorize as a key Impressionist theme.
Pissarro's art cannot be divorced from his politics. Influenced artistically by the Realist painter Gustave Courbet, Pissarro's paintings dignify the labor of peasants in communal villages, reflecting the socialist-anarchist political leanings that the two artists shared.
Pissarro, working closely with the younger Neo-impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac late in his life, was one of the earliest artists to experiment with color harmonies. In his canvases, complementary colors in broken, dashed brushstrokes weave together to heighten the vibrancy of his compositions. In doing so, they visually embed his peasant figures harmoniously into the landscapes to which they belong and which belong to them, communicating a symbolic link to their terrain largely absent from Impressionist painting.
Unlike the Impressionists who lived in Paris, Pissarro chose to live most of his life in the French countryside, where he received younger artists interested in studying his techniques. More than any other member of the movement, he is known for the gentle demeanor and passion for experimentation that made him an artistic mentor. His longtime collaboration with the young Cézanne, for example, made him an indispensible influence on twentieth-century modernism.

Most Important Art

Hoar Frost, the Old Road to Ennery, Pointoise (1873)
Considered one of Pissarro's masterpieces, Hoar Frost is one of five paintings he exhibited at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Here, a peasant worker traverses a field in Pissarro's hometown at the time, Pointoise. The painting's emphasis on color harmony is an important antecedent to Neo-Impressionist techniques, but his true achievement is bringing a focus on composition to the Impressionist canvas. Cézanne famously said "We must make of Impressionism something solid like the art of the museum" in reference to the movement's lack of underlying structure. Cézanne's mentor Pissarro, however, used tilled fields crossed with foot-trampled paths and regularly spaced trees on a horizon to create a balanced composition. The cool color palette and offset vanishing point fall comfortably into the rhythm of the canvas, directing the viewer's attention to the wandering figure.
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Camille Pissarro Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

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.

Early Training

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, 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 Edouard Manet's dissident circle in the 1860s, an important antecedent to his contributions to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

Mature Period

Camille Pissarro Photo

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 Felix 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.

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Camille Pissarro Biography Continues

Late Years and Death

Camille Pissarro Portrait

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.


Legacy

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 nineteenth- and twentieth-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 twentieth-century avant-garde.

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 twentieth-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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Camille Pissarro
Interactive chart with Camille Pissarro's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Camille Corot
Gustave Courbet
Jean-François Millet

Friends

Claude Monet
Paul Cézanne
Georges Seurat

Movements

Realism
Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Camille Pissarro
Camille Pissarro
Years Worked: 1851-1903

Artists

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Georges Seurat
Paul Signac
Alfred Sisley

Friends

Edgar Degas
Mary Cassatt
Paul Cézanne
Georges Seurat

Movements

Pointillism
Neo-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism

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Useful Resources on Camille Pissarro

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Camille Pissaro

By Joachim Pissarro

Pissarro

By Richard R. Brettell, Joachim Pissarro, and Guillermo Solana

Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country

By Karen Levitov and Richard Shiff

The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro's Series Paintings

By Richard R. Brettell and Joachim Pissarro

More Interesting Books about Camille Pissarro
Populating the Landscape With Idealism

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
August 4, 2011

The Radical Eye of Impressionism's Patriarch

By Karen Rosenberg
The New York Times
September 14, 2007

The Innovative Odd Couple of Cézanne and Pissarro

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
June 24, 2005

When Paul Met Camille

By Phyllis Tuchman
Artnet
2005

More Interesting Articles about Camille Pissarro
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