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Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro

French impressionist painter
1830 - 1903

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was a key member of the French Impressionist group of painters. He was born in St. Thomas in the West Indies, where his father was a prosperous merchant. The Pissarro family, French and Jewish in origin, had settled in the Danish colony of St. Thomas a few years earlier. Pissarro received his early education at a boarding school near Paris where he displayed a talent for drawing. Returning to St. Thomas, the young man had little interest in the family business, and spent his time sketching the picturesque port. In 1852, he left for Venezuela in the company of the Danish painter Fritz Melbye, and worked as an artist there for two years.

Barges à La Roche-Guyon
Barges à La Roche-Guyon, 1865
Musée Pissarro, Pontoise

Pissarro settled in France in 1855. He arrived in time to see the great Exposition Universelle (World's Fair) which included a large art section. Following the advice of Corot, whose landscapes he had admired at the fair, Pissarro was soon painting and sketching in small towns and villages near Paris, along the Seine, Oise and Marne rivers. He studied at the Académie Suisse and formed friendships with Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and other future members of the Impressionist group. By the late 1860s, his powerful realist landscapes were praised by the prominent critic Emile Zola.

Lower Norwood under snow
Lower Norwood Under Snow, 1870
National Gallery, London

Camille to move to England during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870-71) and, with Monet, he painted a series of landscapes around Norwood and Crystal Palace as well as studying English landscape painters in the museums. On returning home to Louveciennes at the end of the war a year later, Camille discovered that only 40 of his 1500 paintings - almost twenty years' work - remained undamaged.

In the summer of 1871 Camille settled in Pontoise where he was to remain for the next ten years, gathering a close circle of friends around him. Cézanne repeatedly came to stay with him and under Camille's influence learned to study nature more patiently.

The pond at Montfoucauld
The Pond at Montfoucault, 1875,
Barber Institute of Arts, UK

These were also the years of the first Impressionist group exhibitions which were initiated by Monet, but in which Camille was to play a major role and which earned him much criticism for his art. While mainly interested in landscape, he liked to introduce people (generally peasants going about their rural occupations) and animals into these and they often became the focal point of the composition. It was this unsentimental and unliterary approach, and the complete absence of any pretence, that seemed to stop his work from finding appreciation with the general public.

Le jardin des Mathurins à Pontoise
Jardin des Mathurins à Pontoise

Always searching for new means of expression, Pissarro was one of the most innovative of the Impressionists. He was among the first to divide colors, as in his painting Le jardin des Mathurins à Pontoise, 1876 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City), where the sunlit path is made up of brushstrokes of pink, blue, white and yellow ochre. Pissarro also excelled at drawing; the largest collection of his drawings is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

One of the few collectors who did show interest in Camille's work was a bank employee called Paul Gauguin who, after acquiring a small collection of Impressionist works, turned to Camille for advice when he decided to become a painter himself.

Apple picking at Eragny-sur-Epte
Apple Picking at Eragny-sur-Epte
1888, Dallas Museum of Art

In the 1880's Camille moved from Pontoise to nearby Osny, and then to Eragny, a small village much further from Paris. In 1885, at a time when he was dissatisfied with his work, he met both Signac and Seurat. He was fascinated by their attempts to replace the intuitive perceptions of the Impressionists with a scientific study of nature's phenomena and by a "divisionist" technique based on optical laws. Despite the fact he had reached his middle fifties, he did not hesitate to join the two young innovators, followed by his son Lucien. The following year he passed this new concept on to Vincent Van Gogh who had just arrived in Paris and was keen to learn of the most recent developments in art.

In common with many artists and writers of his day, he became a fervent anarchist. He produced a powerful attack on French bourgeois society in his album of anarchist drawings, Turpitudes Sociales, 1889.

Boulevard Montmartre, Rainy weather
Boulevard Montmartre,
Rainy Weather, Afternoon, 1897

Pissarro gradually abandoned Neo-Impressionism in the 1890s, preferring a style that better enabled him to capture his sensations of nature, although retaining the lightness and purity of colour acquired during his divisionist phase. In the last years of his life Camille divided his time between Paris, Rouen, Le Havre and his home in Eragny and painted several series of different aspects of the cities with varying light and weather effects, while expressing the dynamism of the modern city. Many of these paintings are considered amongst his best and make a fitting finale to his long and eventful career.

Boulevard Montmartre, night
Boulevard Montmartre, Night 1897
National Gallery, London

An excellent teacher, he counted among his pupils and associates the French painters Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne, his son Lucien Pissarro, and the American impressionist Mary Cassatt.

Camille Pissarro was actively painting up until the end of his life. When he died in the autumn on 1903 in Paris, at the age of 73, he had finally gain public recognition.

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