Camille Pissarro Self-Portrait (1903)

Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro (July 10 1830—November 13, 1903) is the irreducible Impressionist master and of the movers of Neo-Impressionist experimentation.

Early Life

Pissarro is exceptional among the Impressionists, not least for his peripheral origin. Far away from Metropolitan France, where most of his peers were born, Pissarro was born in the Caribbean, on the island of St. Thomas, then a Danish possession. He was born to a lower-middle-class Jewish family with French roots.

His formative period consisted of the attendance of an all-black Protestant elementary school on St. Thomas, then a boarding school near Paris, and the acquaintance of the Dutch artist Fritz Melbye, the person who advised him to take up painting as a regular profession. Up until then, which is to say the age of twenty-one, Pissarro had worked as a port clerk who practised drawing on the side. With Melbye, Pissarro also spent a two-year period in Venezuela, where he sketched and painted the scenery, continuing a passion possibly acquired in St. Thomas.

Interest in painting

In Paris, like his soon-to-be-Impressionist contemporaries, Pissarro sought out the great art teachers, like Gustave Courbet, and progressively matured a sense of disappointment at their schematic approach. Yet, thanks to the tutoring of such masters as Camille Corot, Camille Pissarro was able to express early his lifelong love of landscape in the correct Naturalist style and thus earn himself admission to the official Salon.

From 1859 Pissarro began to exhibit at this prestigious gallery. Besides exposure, for the struggling artist, a most desirable benefit of the Salon was the possibility of accomplishing a sale.

Despite his ostensibly growing mastery of the academic technique which could have been his fortune, Pissarro also cultivated his art independently from Corot. He travelled to the French countryside to paint en plein air, his favourite technique and setting, and to develop a personal approach. As a budding Impressionist, Pissarro captured the landscape before his eyes as if were about to vanish, operating on several registers at once and reserving the finishing stages for his studio.

Camille Pissarro’s inner circle of artists

Pissarro became friends with several artists of the upcoming Impressionist circle during the last stages of his formal education. He was an encouraging friend to Claude Monet, Armand Guillaumin, and Paul Cézanne; he then also became friendly with Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Frédéric Bazille.

The acquaintance of these artists led to the realisation that they had all matured various dissatisfactions with the policy of the Salon and that they had all begun to consider en plein air painting as important. Pissarro’s personal stress of disagreement was towards the academic view that human subjects should be made to appear grand. On the contrary, he agreed with his peers that the truth about people could only be portrayed in natural and realistic settings.

Formation of The Impressionists

In 1863, when Emperor Napoleon III exercised his prerogative as an authority on art to relegate the rejects of the main Salon to a Salon des Refusés, the Impressionist group was informally brought together. These were the artists whose works were almost entirely rejected from the first Salon, while at the second, much-derided, Salon only Pissarro and Cézanne had won an admission.

By 1868 Camille Pissarro was presenting himself as an entirely independent artist by not crediting his masters anymore in the catalogues of his paintings. By the end of that decade, he had also become familiar with and fascinated by, Japanese prints, sharing thereby the enthusiasm of the Impressionist group for the newly discovered traditional iconographies of Japan.

When the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 broke out, Pissarro, like Monet, found refuge in London. While Monet was dodging the draft, Pissarro was simply staying away from the war as he could not, with only his Dutch citizenship, be recruited. An enormous number of paintings that Pissarro had left behind in Paris — amounting to hundreds of pieces — were destroyed in the war, chiefly by being used by the soldiers for materials.

Together with Monet in London, Pissarro made a study of the masterly landscapes of John Constable and J.M.W Turner. He also established contact with Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who would enable both Pissarro and Monet to sell the occasional painting in their many years of financial strain.

Pissarro produced a multitude of oils portraying English scenery in-between his several visits from 1870 to 1897.

The Father of the Impressionists

Immediately after the war, Pissarro emerged as the guiding figure of the Impressionist movement thanks in the main to his initiative and in part to his fatherly appearance.

He was instrumental to the creation of the Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors and Engravers in 1873. It was to be the organisation that would set up the first Impressionist exhibition the following year. Pissarro even provided a baseline charter for this group of fifteen artists destined to collaborate for a very short period.

At the group’s effective dissolution after the last exhibition in 1886, Camille Pissarro was the only artist to have taken part in every one of them. And while most members of the Impressionist circle came to express some kind of public dislike of one another, Camille Pissarro seems to have been generally liked and appreciated. He was often described as considerate and unassuming.

Pissarro was also known for his willingness to teach other artists and give advice. The former Impressionists referred to him affectionately as ‘father Pissarro’. His son, Lucien Pissarro, wrote appreciatively of his artistic pupillage under him, and in 1884, by the mediation of his art dealer brother, the young Vincent van Gogh also came into contact with him and benefitted from his guidance and encouragement.

Pissarro, like the rest of the Impressionist set, had to weather the mostly negative public reception of their revolutionary style. Save for a few professional critics like Zola, the Impressionists were mostly deprecated. Pissarro’s own work was regularly indicted for the seeming unreality of his chromatic choices, which so clearly violated the accepted tenets of Realism.

Pissarro impact on Neo-Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

Camille Pissarro- The Harvest, Pontoise (1881)
The Harvest, Pontoise (1881)

From the 1880s, with the various Impressionists taking different artistic paths, Camille Pissarro combined his love for the countryside and the peasant folk with his desire, to tell the truth about the life of people. His preferred subject in this period, depicted in a notably realistic and rounded-up fashion, are peasants at work in rural environments (see The Harvest, Pontoise, or Hay Harvest at Éragny).

In 1885, Pissarro met Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. This led him at once to a study of their laborious pointillistic technique, which he was proud to showcase at the last Impressionist exhibition the following year. His personal technical development was appreciated. Pissarro considered this extremely analytical, scientific approach to colour a natural development of the Impressionist project. Such experiments were already being referred to as Neo-Impressionism, and they constituted a phase which, in Pissarro’s own telling, lasted four years in his case.

In his ultimate period, Pissarro synthesized his exceptional artistic trajectory in paintings grounded in the Impressionist idea, tempered with care for shape and fine detail, and always turned towards the reality of life.

Pissarro’s artwork enjoyed the same ironic fate as that of the other leading Impressionists. Having usually failed to fetch a good price while the artist was living, it went on to be sold in the 20th and the 21st century for exorbitant sums. In 2007, Pissarro’s Les Quatre Saison (1873) set a record for the artist by selling at no less than $14,601,000. In 2014, Le Boulevard de Montmartre (1897) overtopped that value by being purchased for over $26,300,000.

Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather (1896)

Camille Pissarro- Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather (1896)
Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather (1896)

An instance of Pissarro’s late painting, shows the quay around a precisely located bridge over the Seine in the city of Rouen, in Normandy. In his typical modus operandi, Pissarro had familiarised himself extensively with the site before painting it from the elevated perspective of a hotel room window. The ‘rainy weather’ variant belongs to a series upon the selfsame subject as seen from different perspectives and under varying weather conditions.

The painting represents Camille Pissarro’s return to an Impressionist technique after years of experimentation with Pointillism and Divisionism. The rapid brushstrokes have caught a bustling urban scene on a rainy day. It is pregnant with a strong impression of cold humidity. The synesthetic effect is further helped by the sense of urban hubbub, in this scene of the urban multitude caught in their quotidian commutes and chores.

Red Roofs, the Angle of a Village, Winter (1877)

Camille Pissarro- Red Roofs, the Angle of a Village, Winter (1877)
Red Roofs, the Angle of a Village, Winter (1877)

In the midst of his more precisely Impressionist phase, Pissarro depicted a rural scene of houses with red roofs partially screened off by the stalky figures of bared trees (fruit trees in the foreground, tall trees beyond the houses). The flora and the lighting testify to the coldness of the season.

This sombre subject is captured by means of the Impressionist quick touch, but, in Camille Pissarro’s characteristic style, the shape of every object is unambiguously outlined. In fact, the sketch-like lines of the trees stand in a geometric contrast with the precise volumes of the square houses between them. Pissarro’s awareness of Impressionism and of the possibilities beyond it is here, as elsewhere, clearly manifest.

The artist’s primary interest is the landscape itself. The absence of human figures and movement makes this study of things as they are Pissarro’s distinctive accomplishment.

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