The Art of Camille Pissarro



Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was a French Impressionist painter and graphic artist, born in Saint Thomas in the West Indies of a Jewish father and Creole mother. He moved to Paris in 1855 where he studied with the French landscape painter Camille Corot. Initially strongly influenced by Corot and thus associated with the Barbizon School Pissarro subsequently joined the Impressionist School. In 1859 Pissarro met Monet and with him became a central figure in the Impressionist group. Pissarro worked under Corot at the Academie Suisse where he also met Courbet, Manet, and Cezanne. Pissarro had great admiration for Corot who had advised him to paint small sketches before nature and above all to “study light and tonal values execution and colour simply add charm to a picture.”

Pissarro was the oldest member and dean of the Impressionist group. He was born in St. Thomas (now US Virgin islands) on July 10th, 1830. St Thomas was a Danish colony and Pissarro maintained his Danish citizenship. He was the son of  Jewish parents of Spanish-French extraction. Originally sent to Paris aged 12 he finished school and was summoned back to St. Thomas. In St. Thomas de devoted his time to painting and drawing but ran away in 1852 with the painter Fritz Melbye to Caracas. Finally his parents sent him back to Paris in 1855 to study painting. It was in Paris that Pissarro met Corot after being attracted to his work – he visited Corot who agreed to teach him. Pissarro, when he first exhibited in the Paris Salon, was called the ‘pupil of Corot’. Eventually Pissarro, who became the much respected father-figure of the Impressionists, was the only painter to exhibit at all eight Impressionist exhibitions, which he largely organised.

Pissarro’s early landscapes such as The Marne at Chennevieres (1864-1865), see Figure 1, were highly praised by Emil Zola and Castagnary but received little public recognition. Soon the young artist found inspiration in Gustave Courbet and began increasingly out of doors. Initially he earned his living painting


Figure 1.  The Marne at Chennevieres (1864).

decorative blinds and fans and despite great poverty he refused to seek Salon recognition. A little later he was impressed by Manet, who left his influence on him. Through chance meetings with Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, and their friends he became a member of the small Impressionist circle. Pissarro was also influential as a teacher of Cezanne and Gauguin (1879-83) and open to changing influences. Both Cezanne and Gauguin spoke glowingly of him.

During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) his home at Louveciennes was overrun by the invaders and his paintings destroyed. He lived in London between 1870-1872, having joined Manet. His paintings of this time include Fox Hill, Upper Norwood (1871), see Figure 2,  and Crystal Palace (1871) see Figure 3. In London he also admired the works of Constable, Turner and Dutch painting.


Figure 2.  Fox Hill, Upper Norwood (1870)

Crystal Palace

Figure 3Crystal Palace (1871).

Pissarro was thus influenced by English landscape painters. In 1872 he settled in Pointoise, where he had lived between 1866 and 1869 in association with Cezanne.

In the 1850’s Pissarro became dissatisfied with is own technique. He lived principally at Pontoise until 1884 when he settled in Eragny. In 1886 his discouragement made him break with Impressionism and he experimented with pointillism or divisionism (Neo-impressionism), thus adopting the theories of Seurat. The new style, however, proved unpopular with collectors and dealers, and so Pissarro returned to a freer impressionist style. He therefore returned to a broader execution more akin to his former style. Mainly interested in landscapes and rural life  Pissarro also painted a few portraits of deep insight and some exquisite still-life’s. He drew incessantly and made numerous lithographs, etchings, and monotypes. It was from 1884 onwards that he lived at Eragny near Gisors, and where he met Signac and came to know Seurat, whereas Cezanne had settled at Auvers-sur-Oise.

Pissarro’s paintings differ from those of other Impressionists in two major aspects. Firstly, the Pontoise paintings particularly, for example Cote du Jallais (1867), see Figure 4, are more carefully composed with a high horizon, controlled recession, and dense colour areas. These are the paintings that influenced Cezanne. Secondly, his landscapes, as well as


Figure 4.  Cote du Jallais (1867).

being a direct observation of certain conditions, are always inhabited. He always anchored his pictures with placed architectural features and used roads, like Corot, to lead the ety into the picture. Pissarro also showed a taste for earth colours and strongly structured pictures. A painter of sunshine and scintillating light he produced many quiet rural landscapes and river scenes. Pissarro also painted street scenes in Paris, Le Havre and London, see Figure 5. His dark urban scenes are nature within a town. Indeed, Pissarro’s output of paintings shows the stages of the development of Impressionism.


Figure 5.  Old Chelsea Bridge (1871).

After having spent most of his life outside Paris in Louveciennes, Pontoise, and Evagny, a recurrent eye infection forced him during his last years to work from behind closed windows. His eyesight deterioration forced him to thus give up painting out of doors. see Figure 6.


Figure 6Morning. An Overcast Day, Rouen (1896).

He therefore moved to Paris and still travelled each year to vary his subjects – but many of his later works are town views painted from windows in Paris. He was blind when he died. His later Paris work was as fresh and spontaneous, as well as masterly as ever. He depicted with an admirable truth the peculiar atmosphere, colour, and teeming life of the boulevades, streets and bridges of Paris, see Figure 7 and Figure 8.


Figure 7. Boulevade Montmartre, Afternoon (1897).


Figure 8.  Boulevade Montmartre at Night (1897).

Pissarro was widely respected for his rare talent and his genuine understanding of nature. He was very prolific both as a painter and graphic artist. He had a sense of community and saw the importance of drawing. He is known for his sylvan lyricism and great humility as well as wisdom and kindness. Pissarro had a profound interest in others – the first to encourage Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and the American Impressionist Mary Cassat – and he had a humane philosophy tinted with anarchism and unselfishness. He admired Millet and Daumier, shared their respect for the working man, and expressed strong socialist sentiments and undertones in his letters. He wrote beautiful letters to his son, the artist Lucien Pissarro, which were published in 1943. Pissarro reflected the human community as a socialist and he continued to learn to the end of his life. Camille Pissarro was not a bohemian but had a somewhat conservative family lifestyle. Nineteenth century art was very cosmopolitan and shared ideas across national boundaries. Pissarro was never entirely integrated into French society. There was also a barrier between him and the younger Impressionists such as Monet and Bazille.

In 1851 Pissarro met Fritz Melbye (1826-69) in St Thomas and this was his first contact with a living artist. He accompanied Melbye to Venezuela where he did drawings and sketches in an around Caracas. Also early drawings of St Thomas which are related to styles in drawing manuals. Pissarro’s art developed in his two and a half years in Venezuela where he used water colours as a medium because oils were not a portable medium at this time.


Figure 9Charlotte Amaline Harbour, St Thomas. Fritz Melbye (1852)

Pissarro  portrait of fritz-melbye1852-1854

Figure 10.  Portrait of Fritz Melbye (1852-1854). Camille Pissarro.

In Paris  in 1855 at the Ecole des Beaux Arts he did his first figure drawing practice. At this time the Ecole offered no tuition in painting, which started in 1863, but concentrated on drawing only. On his death these there were only eleven drawings in his studio of which few survive. However, Pissarro mastered this academic art only moderately. We can still see his soft broad modelling in black chalk and charcoal. In Paris he did tonal drawing. From 1855 to the 1860’s there were a clearly defined set of drawings which are also related to contemporary art.

In 1855 the Paris Exhibition was dominated by Ingres, Delacroix and the Romantics. Corot’s exhibits greatly influenced Pissarro and had a fundamental impact on his art. Pissarro described himself as a pupil of Corot even though he had only studied his paintings. Corot’s drawings also influenced Pissarro greatly. Thus the reduction of landscape to broad masses and leaving out details. Thus he learnt from Corot the importance of tonal values whereby tonality becomes important as a feature of Pissarro’s art. The drawings now show the effect of light and a monochromatic sense of tone. It is worth noting that Daubigny also developed an interest in tonality acquired from Corot. Pissarro was also influenced by Daubigny at this time. Thus his techniques and motifs are linked to the Barbizon school and thus Romantic landscape. In the 1870’s he turned to pastel. For example, he did a portrait of his wife’s niece using a technique learned from Degas.


Figure 11.  Self-portrait in chalk pastel (1873).

Also in the 1870’s the rural working classes are becoming a concern for Pissarro. For him figures take on an increasingly important role – whereas Monet left out figures altogether. Pissarro brought models into the studio and then transposed them into landscapes. His later figure studies are done in broad charcoal with coloured pastel details, which often reflect the style of Millet. See Figure 12.


Figure 12.  The Woodcutter (1879).  Camille Pissarro.

Pissarro’s panting technique took its cue from his drawings and pastel painting technique. Therefore his drawings cannot be divorced from his paintings. Pissarro also did a number of fashionable fan shaped pictures and his drawing type reflects his finished paintings. In the 1890’s Pissarro’s social study drawings reflect his anarchist politics and were a theme for an illustrated book. His son Lucien, in London in the 1880’s, leaned book illustration and collaborated with his father Camille. Thus for Pissarro his old fashioned drawings for preparation remained a fundamental importance to him.


Leave a comment

Filed under History Of Art

Discussion & Comment Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s