French Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro, was one of the most prolific of the French impressionists. Pissarro was the son of a Sephardic Jewish father and Dominican mother. He grew up in the Caribbean, but he studied and painted in France. He was one of the most productive of the impressionists. For many years he painted in obscurity and great poverty. This was especially difficult on his wife anc children. He endured prolonged financial hardship in keeping faith with the aims of Impressionism. Because he looked Jewish, he had further difficulties after the Drefus Affair caused an outburst of anti-Semitism in France. Despite acute eye trouble, his later years were his most prolific.
Camille's father was o Abraham Gabriel Pissarro, of Sephardic (or "Morrano") Jewish ancestry, and Rachel Manzano-Pomié, a Dominican of Spanish descent. The Pissarros operated a dry goods store in what is now known as the Pissarro Building, 14 Dronnigens Gade in Queen's Quarter, Charlotte Amalie. Overlooking the main street, the family's upstairs residence was a spacious apartment. Large shuttered windows and
high ceilings let breezes through during the hot summer months.
Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830 on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, in the then Danish West Indies. He spent the first 11 years of his life in the amazingly diverse melting pot of
the Virgin Islands. It was a busy time for the little port town of Charlotte Amalie.
Dozens of merchant sailing ships would come to call every week
with trade goods; during the age of sail, "free port" status and
favorable tradewinds made St. Thomas a major point of
transshipment between the Americas, Europe and Africa. As diverse
as the itineraries of these great ships was the variety of the peoples
and cultures settled in the Danish West Indies. As a boy, Camille
spoke French at home, English, and Spanish with the Negro
population of the island. We have few details on his childhood or how he was dressed as a boy.
Camille's parents sent him to Paris at age 12 to a small boarding school. It was there that the director, seeing his interest in art, advised him to take "advantage of his life in the tropics by drawing coconut trees."
When he returned to St. Thomas in 1847, this advice had been taken
to heart. He devoted all his spare time to making sketches, not only of coconut trees and other exotic plants, but also of the daily life
surrounding him. Time and again he drew the donkeys and
their carts on the sunny roads, the Negro women doing their
wash on the beaches or carrying jugs, baskets, or bundles on
their heads. In these studies done from life he revealed himself
to be a simple and sincere observer. Whenever his father sent him to the port to supervise arrivals,
the young man took his sketchbook with him. While entering
the boxes and crates that were being unloaded, he also made
drawings of the animated life of the harbor with its sailboats
gliding along the blue waters, coasting large, verdure-covered
rocks capped by Danish citadels. For 5 years the budding
artist thus struggled between his daily chores and the urge of
his avocation. His father refused to allow him to devote himself to painting. He ran away one day, leaving a note for his parents. In the company of Fritz Melbye, a Danish painter from Copenhagen whom he had met while sketching in the port, he sailed to Venezuela. As he later said, he "bolted to
Caracas in order to get clear of the bondage of bourgeois life." Having gained this sudden independence at age 23, one can easily imagine the exhilaration felt as he eyed his new surroundings! A time
to dream, to explore, grow. Under Melbye's direction he produced
paintings and watercolors, and made countless drawings in pencil, ink
and wash; many of these annotated in Spanish with the signature
His parents by 1852 had become resigned to his ambition and
pledged their support. He returned to St. Thomas, then left his
Caribbean home for Paris to further his studies and ultimately pursue
Finding no inspiration in the classes of academically acknowledged
masters, Pissarro's attention was drawn towards the fringe (frontier?)
of the craft, certain artists whose work did not conform to widely
accepted styles. In their work he began to see the emergence of a distinct form, one that expresses the artist as eloquently as its subject. His eye was guided by the way scenes and objects imprinted on the mind. Every aspect of the subject was recorded faithfully, especially conditions of light: Pissarro perceived light as inseparable from the things it illuminates. Painting with delicate or bold strokes of fluid light one could reach beyond sense of sight, into the realm of emotion.
Most art connoisseurs of the time did not grasp its significance and
were distracted by this bold departure from the classic. Those of the
old school often looked no further than technical execution; the
granularity of the artist's hand was so unexpected, seemingly childish.
Finding a personal expression was difficult for the young artist. He
distanced himself from teachers Melbye and Corot, passing through a
period of severe self-criticism. Then a break: a chance meeting with
Monet, Cézanne -- and through them, a network of acquaintance;
these friendships brought new insight and encouragement.
A few years after he had arrived in Paris, his parents left their
business with a caretaker and settled in Paris; they had hired a
maidservant from Burgandy. Pissarro thus met his greatest admirer
of all time and life long companion, Julie Vellay.
At first associated with the Barbizon school, Pissarro subsequently joined the impressionists and was
represented in all their exhibitions.
In 1869 Pissarro moved from Pontoise to
Louveciennes, on the outskirts of Paris. After the
outbreak of war in 1870, as the victorious
Prussians advanced, he removed his family from
danger, first to Brittany and later to London.
While he was away, the Prussians took over his
house and, rather than splash their uniforms with
French country mud, put down Pissarro's stored
paintings as duckboards and tramped over them.
According to Pissarro's own estimate, no more
than 40 paintings survived out of 1,500. In this
respect, at least, Pissarro would have suffered
less if his paintings had sold more readily and
been dispersed. As it is, he is known primarily for
his work affer 1869. Fortunately he had not yet
reached his most creative period. While in England, he made a study of
English art, particularly the landscapes of Joseph Mallord William Turner. For a time in the 1880s Pissarro, discouraged with
his work, experimented with pointillism (see Neoimpressionism); the new style, however, proved unpopular with collectors and
dealers, and he returned to what he found to be a freer impressionist style.
Discouraged by their attempts to pass the critical scrutiny of the
Salon juries, in 1874 Pissarro joined Monet for a project to organize
independent exhibitions. Renoir, Sisley, Béliard, Guillaumin, Degas,
Cézanne, Berthe Morisot were among those whose works were
offered. Art critics sometimes fall on the new and unfamiliar as to a fell feast. And so they did; Pissarro and his fellows met with thunderous opposition. In a community that valued technical detail and
photographic realism--and expected the artist to idealize the subject,
this was seen as an absurdity. Articles panning the exhibition coined
the term "impressionist" as an insult.
Artistic acceptance was slow to come, barely achieved in Pissarro's lifetime. In Rewald biography one finds a fascinating account of these years. The challenges of Pissarro's own life were as arduous as those of the Movement woven around him; here was a man who faced obstacles
with strength and dignity. Through years of poverty and despair the impressionists labored to gain a place in the world. Carrying their banner, Pissarro remained true to his vision. He experimented with theories of art; studied the effects of light, climate, and the seasons; adopted new techniques; from these he fused a style that remains his own, within the larger style of Impressionism. And Pissarro was especially regarded as a teacher; he became the centre of a group of painters--Renoir, Monet, Degas, Cézanne--who respected his art and turned to him for inspiration. Pissarro, thanks to this generosity of spirit, did much to bring about the achievements of the Impressionists.
A painter of sunshine and the scintillating play of light, Pissarro produced many quiet rural
landscapes and river scenes; he also painted street scenes in Paris, Le Havre, and 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.
The Dreyfuss Affairs (1894) caused difficulties fot Pissarro even after his art had become popular. Captain Dreyfus was a devoted French Army officer unjustly accused of trason and confined for years on Devil's Island off French Guiana. The Affair caused an outburst of abti-Semitism that startled many complacent French Jews. He had a Jewish apparance. Thus it became difficult for him to appear in public. He was even abandoned by his old colleage Degas who became a virulent anti-Semite.
Pisarro had four sons and one daughter. They had very difficult early childhoods because their father could not sell his paintings and support the family. His daughter tragically died at an early age. Several painting of her exist. The most famous one shows her in a smock with short pants. An unusual costume of a girl. All of the boys wore long hair when they were young. The youngest boy until he was 11 or 12. Some the books on Passario contain photographs of his children. At least one of these photos shows a fairly large boy at play with the ends of his hair rolled up on curlers.
In his 74th year, Camille Pissarro had finally attained the
respectability that had eluded him most of his life. His paintings were
starting to fetch high prices at auction and a new generation of artists admired his work. Pissarro never lost his capacity for enthusiasm and response, his love of nature, and the bright spectacle of life around him, which he set down on his canvas with unforgettable lightness and loveliness. An active, productive Master of his art until the end, Camille Pissarro succumbed to blood poisoning on 13 November, 1903 in Le Havre,
France; survived by sons Lucien, Georges, Félix, Ludovic-Rodolphe,
Paul Emile; and daughter, Jeanne.
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