Nothing seemed to predestine this child born in the Caribbean to an affluent family of merchants to become one of the founder members of Impressionism under the ever-changing skies of the Île-de-France.
Born in 1830 on Saint Thomas, one of the Antilles islands, which at the time had belonged to Denmark since 1671, Camille Pissarro was a Danish citizen and would remain so all his life, though both his parents were of French origin. Their bourgeois status at the time of their meeting, however, did not affect their willingness to break the religious laws of their fathers to indulge in a highly unusual love story! Rachel, who was at the time pregnant with her fourth child, was made a widow. In order to secure the succession, she had the young Frédéric Pissarro (from a Portuguese Marrano family and the nephew of her dead husband) come to Saint Thomas from Bordeaux. He promptly fell in love with his aunt by marriage and gave her another child. The scandal created by this union in the island’s Jewish community would not be accepted for another eight years. While waiting, Frédéric took Danish nationality and the couple were able to celebrate a civil wedding in 1826.
From his parents, Pissarro inherited the courage to break the rules when necessity so required. After studying in Passy in a highly renowned boarding school, where his talent as a draughtsman was immediately noticed, he was destined by his father to take over the family business in Saint Thomas together with his elder brother. However, his meeting with Fritz Melbye, a young Danish painter, on Saint Thomas in 1850 decided Pissarro to take up a career in art. In 1852 the pair left Saint Thomas, with nothing but their ideals to support them, to visit Venezuela, attracted by the country’s liberal ideas inspired by the French Revolution and its intelligentsia ardent about French culture.
“I was in St. Thomas in 52, a well-paid shop clerk. But I couldn’t stand it, so without giving it a thought I dropped everything and ran off to Caracas, to break the mooring that tied me to bourgeois life.” (1878)
Against his will, Pissarro returned to Saint Thomas to keep the family shop but only in exchange for his father’s promise that he would be allowed to return to France as soon has his brother returned. A year later, in 1855, Pissarro left the Antilles on a permanent basis to live in France.
“To stop a young man going where his passions take him is virtually impossible.” (1898)
His father finally accepted the idea that his son would take up art as a career but his financial support depended on his son entering the École des Beaux-Arts, the school at the top of the academic hierarchy. But Pissarro, who had become a fervent enthusiast of plein-air painting during his period with Melbye, compromised on this requirement by enrolling in private courses given by the school’s teachers, while following another type of teaching at the Académie Suisse and from Corot in Fontainebleau. These formed the foundations for the cultural revolution – aesthetic and political – that the Impressionism of Pissarro and his friends would later bring about.
Immediately rejecting the cosseted existence that was available to him, Pissarro honed his political opinions through contact with Maria Deraismes (whom he met in Pontoise), a feminist and anticlerical activist who militated for workers’ rights. Until the end of his life, Pissarro would remain a fervent supporter of the anarchist ideology that was then very much in favour in literary and artistic circles. The books written by Proudhon, the father of anarchism in France, De la justice dans la révolution et dans l’église (1858) and Du principe de l’art et de sa destination sociale (1865), were to affect him in the long term and define for him a link between art and life: not the principle of art for art’s sake but moral and physical education for “the art that cannot exist separate from truth and justice and the expression of human life”.
“The bourgeoisie, the true bourgeoisie, is becoming addled […], it is losing the idea of beauty, it is getting everything wrong […]. Everything that it has admired for the past fifty years is falling into oblivion, becoming old-fashioned, becoming ridiculous.” (1833)
“The Impressionists are in the right, it is sound art based on the sensations and it is honest.” (1883)
“I firmly believe that our ideas steeped in anarchist philosophy leave their mark on our work, which, for this reason, [is] uncongenial to current ideas.” (1891)
For Pissarro, Impressionism was one aspect of the progressive movement whose aim was to shake off ideological and religious yokes to allow peoples and the individual to exist in freedom. To him it was a question of breaking the conventions of academic painting by abolishing the hierarchy of subjects and placing emphasis on motifs taken from real life, and, above all, of attempting to capture on canvas, in the truest manner possible, the “sensation” perceived at a given moment.
An admirer of Louise Michel, who became a friend of the family, Pissarro read works by Pyotr Kropotkin, complimented Jean Grave for his sociological book La Société mourante et l’anarchie (which would earn its author two years in prison), and frequented Benoît Malon’s “Club de l’art social” but refused to illustrate its publications, convinced that it should “educate its buyers” rather than “workers [who] as long as they have capitalism and starvation wages will not give a damn about beauty”.
He kept those rare works of art that chimed with his ideas for an exclusively private use: all his life he kept on the wall of his studio a portrait of his friend Cézanne painted around 1874, in which he made clear their shared admiration for Courbet, a victim of reactionary France (Courbet was sentenced to finance the rebuilding of the Vendôme column, which had been taken down during the Paris Commune; unable to pay, Courbet went into exile in Switzerland). In 1888, Pissarro created an album of 28 satirical drawings called Les Turpitudes sociales, in which he contrasted the life lived by the poor in the cities with the comfortable world of the bourgeoisie, with the purpose of opening the eyes of his children to reality.
But this lay alongside his artistic concerns as, for Pissarro, painting’s primary mission was to rid itself of all narrative or literary intent in order to focus on the rendition of “sensation”. He did not want to take an active role in the anarchist movement, as Maximilien Luce requested in 1891, as he feared the consequences it would have on his career. Nonetheless, he was obliged to extend a visit to Belgium to avoid arrest after the assassination of Sadi Carnot by an Italian anarchist. But although he denounced the terrorist acts that grew in number as from 1892, he did not hesitate to contribute to collections for the benefit of the children of imprisoned anarchists and for the creation of a “people’s university” in Nancy.
“…respect for freedom. He did not believe it was possible to have too much of that idea”, as Mirbeau was to say in 1903. Pissarro applied this principle just as much in his private life as, to the great displeasure of his parents, he would choose the kitchen assistant in his house, a girl of modest and Catholic upbringing, for his partner, and took trouble to raise his many children in a manner that would encourage their individual personalities to develop.
“Do not forget that you must be no-one but yourself! But to do so takes effort!” (1883)
Throughout his life, Pissarro would remain faithful to the many engagements he took up as a young man despite the numerous difficulties he had to contend with.
“What I suffered is incredible, of course, but I lived. What I suffer today is terrible, much more than when I was young and full of enthusiasm and fervour, [because now I am] convinced that I no longer have a future ahead of me. However, it seems to me that I would not hesitate, if I had to start it all over again, to follow the same path.” (letter of 1878 referring to his period in Venezuela)
Although his parents were impatient to see him achieve financial independence, they continued to send him a small allowance until he was 42. To earn a little money, Pissarro painted signs and awnings (1868) while his wife Julie grew vegetables in the garden and kept a few hens.
“I knew a painter who had two children, a wife, and 80 francs a month for bite and sup. Well, this fellow and his family ate well, though it’s true they only wore shoes when they went to Paris…. You know the painter. They ate at lot, all the same: no luxuries, but good meat and good vegetables – every day” (letter written circa 1895 to his son Georges describing the year 1866)
Starting in March 1872, Paul Durand-Ruel – whom Pissarro had met in London when he had taken shelter there during the 1870 war with Prussia – bought enough of the artist’s paintings to allow him to support his family without his parents’ allowance.
The dealer began to dedicate himself to raising awareness and appreciation of the new Impressionist form of art both in France and abroad, but his financial support to Pissarro was not regular, partly because he suffered inconveniences himself, in particular after the bankruptcy of Union Générale, the company of his friend Féder to whom he was giving credit, partly because he did not always like Pissarro’s art, as was the case during his pointillist period. In consequence, Pissarro turned to other dealers, such as Theo van Gogh, who remained a strong supporter of the Impressionists until his death in 1891. Before he enjoyed success at his retrospective exhibition in 1892, and especially the one in 1896, Pissarro was obliged to turn for help to his painter friends and collectors: the house of Piette was always open to the Pissarro family in Montfoucault en Mayenne; Caillebotte was a patron for the entire Impressionist group, which meant Pissarro was able to avoid having his possessions seized in 1876; Gauguin, his “pupil” and still a stock broker, bought some of Pissarro’s paintings and searched for collectors (1879–80); and Monet, whose paintings sold extremely well much earlier than those of the other Impressionists, lent him the money to buy the house in Éragny.
Aside from his artistic talent, Pissarro was appreciated for his qualities as a man. As Jean Grave emphasized in 1903: “a sure and faithful friend, an upright and sincere artist, big-hearted and a fine, simple man” (Les Temps nouveaux).
Cézanne would later say, “As for old Pissarro, he was a father to me. A man to consult and a little like the good Lord” (1926).
Whenever he was in a position to do so, Pissarro was generous to those less well-off than himself. He organized a sale at the house of his friend, the art critic Octave Mirbeau, to help the widow of “père” Tanguy, the paint-seller, to which he donated three paintings; he encouraged talented young artists (Cézanne and Gauguin, among others); he ignored differences of opinion with certain artists in an attempt to help them (for example, in 1889 he participated in a subscription to be able to donate Manet’s Olympia to the French State, even if he considered the painter too career-minded); and in 1891 he recommended his old friend Gauguin to Mirbeau, thinking that a good article might help the younger painter finance his trip to Tahiti. After abandoning the divisionist technique, he maintained his friendships with the group of Neo-Impressionists, and, even though he was suffering a period of intense artistic crisis, he demonstrated scorn – an exceptional thing for him – for those who rejected the method.
“I expected to see him overwhelmed by the death of Félix and the illness of Lucien [two of his sons]. He has an admirable philosophy of life and serene resignation. He is more vigorous than ever and works with enthusiasm”, his friend Signac observed with astonishment in 1898.
However, his strength of character and his love of art were put to the test by the doubts that frequently assailed him. On several occasions he thought of giving up painting, partly due to the difficulty he had in selling but also on account of his low opinion of the value of his work. In 1883, following the success of the solo exhibitions of Monet and Renoir held at Durand-Ruel’s gallery, Pissarro had his own show in May. “I shall appear distinctly sad, tame and lustreless after so much brilliance!” (April 1883). And speaking about the paintings he had recently made in Rouen, he said: “I’ve just finished my series of paintings. I look at them often. I myself, who made them, find them horrible at times” (November 1883).
“Chin up! You know, I’m beginning to think, what with the coolness of the collectors, that there’s something missing in my art, something essential that’s lacking! I work hard, for goodness’ sake! […] It’s comical! Monet demands exorbitant prices for his painting, and they buy them. True, he’s a master; but it’s not true, then, that I am one, since they ignore me.” (1894)
“When I see the painting of the others, mine seems so sad and feeble!!” (1895)
“A very complex character” noted Gauguin, who carried out a handwriting analysis on Pissarro in 1884, whereas Pissarro explained:
“…I am melancholic by nature, unrefined and wild in appearance, it is only after some time that people can appreciate me” (1883).
Regarding his appearance, this is what Mirbeau had to say on the matter: “Pissarro is one of the old brigade. Sixty, the head of an apostle, always a portfolio under each arm. Which has given rise, at the ‘Nouvelle-Athènes’ where the School has its headquarters, to the greeting: “Hail Moses!… He bears the Tables of the Law” (Tout-Paris, 1884)
Like the friends he met at the Swiss Academy or Gleyre’s studio, Camille Pissarro became weary of being refused entry to the official Salon and in 1873 decided with Monet to create a company that would allow them to set up their own exhibitions. The one held in Nadar’s studio in 1874 was the first of a series of eight that would arouse rivalry and dissent within the Impressionist group, and at which Pissarro would be the only artist to be present at all of them. But the break with academic art represented by the Impressionist movement did not mean that everything that had preceded it should be ignored, as Cézanne made clear:
“Pissarro used to say that the Louvre ought to be burned to the ground; he was right, but it mustn’t be done! And he would stop you with a gesture, as if to avert a misfortune that he would have been the first to bemoan!” And in 1903 Pissarro said, referring to a critic: “This Mr Dewhurst hasn’t understood a thing about the Impressionist movement…. All he sees is a method of execution, and he mixes up the names. […] He leaves out the influence of Claude le Lorrain, Corot, the entire eighteenth century, especially Chardin”.
Landscape painting realized en plein air had been Pissarro’s favourite subject since his youthful years in Venezuela. This continued to be the case in France, where he received the advice of Corot: “I fervently admired him and it is hardly surprising that his influence made itself felt in my earliest pictures”. When he travelled abroad, he always visited museums and exhibitions: in London in 1870–71 he discovered the British landscape artists, Constable and Turner in particular, who seemed to be in search of the same goals as himself.
He met Cézanne at the Académie Suisse in 1861 and, as from 1866, Pontoise became the stamping-ground for work they carried out together, in which they had a mutual influence on one another. Initially Pissarro, who was in a period of development, adopted the compact, structured composition and construction of forms created by Cézanne using large, dark flat tints. But following a stay in Louveciennes and England, Pissarro returned to Pontoise in 1872 with a much lighter palette that marked a decisive turning point in the art of Cézanne. Then, around 1875, they both turned to multi-tonal research, in particular in relation to green, and experimented with an off-kilter composition (added to an orthogonal composition) and the use of a palette knife.
These were years in which Pissarro’s painting reflected the full depth of Impressionism, taking subjects from real life and representing them in bright, clear colours, with little touches of the brush, the momentary sensation of the vibrating air and light captured on the canvas.
“Art is in fact an expression of thought but also of sensation, above all of sensation. […] I began to understand my sensations, to know what I wanted, around the age of forty, but vaguely; at fifty, that was in 1880, I formulated the idea of unity but without being able to render it; at sixty, I began to see the possibility of representing it.” (1890)
“I recently saw at Durand’s a canvas that I had done in England, ‘The Church at Sydenham’ [a canvas painted in 1871] […] it had a unity that filled me with joy.” (1890)
Throughout his entire career, the quest for unity was fundamental to Pissarro, as his son Lucien made clear: “It is astonishing how everything forms a whole, the early works, the series at Pontoise, the systematic divisions and the recent things all form a whole when seen together […]. Your things still reflect this research into a harmony of values which, all in all, is the most typical attribute of your work” (August 1903).
Robert de La Villehervé, a journalist who spent time with Pissarro several weeks before his death, described the method used by the artist: “Meticulous, he often cleaned his palette, removing with a knife the daubs of colours, so that he might once again squeeze onto it, from tin tubes, very pure and very clear colours, the colours of the prism and the silver white used for the light. His method was invariable. He always began a painting by a search for harmony between the sky on one hand and the land and water on the other. He only concerned himself with details afterwards. What he calls “a relation of agreements”, which is the “great difficulty in painting”. What he is interested by less and less is the material aspect of painting (the lines). “Reduce even the tiniest details to the agreement of the whole, that is to say the harmony.” (1903)
It was probably his demanding nature that stimulated his abhorrence of gilded frames: he imposed the use of a white frame (which first appeared in 1877 at the third Impressionist exhibition) or a frame painted in the complementary colour to the dominant colour of the work (1880, fifth Impressionist exhibition).
Although he kept a pied-à-terre in Paris for most of the time where he could meet dealers and collectors during winter, Pissarro lived with his family in small provincial towns in the countryside, such as Louveciennes and Pontoise, the village of Osny and, as from 1884, in Éragny-sur-Epte near Gisors. It was in Éragny that he found his favourite motifs – village streets, river banks, fields, meadows, trees, houses and small factories. He painted landscapes all year round (note his snow effects and the use of shadows painted in colour) and at any time of the day, preferring a constant but discreet human presence. This approach was to change in 1874 when, during a stay in Montfoucault, Pissarro launched himself into painting animal and country scenes in which the local people were shown at their customary occupations (working in the fields or at home, or at rest), and then during the period 1880–82 tackling large format works of country people. However, what interested him was not their appearance; as Huysmans remarked, Pissarro “is one of the only painters who have till now portrayed country people directly and simply, not charging them with either humanitarian ideas or sentimental poses, but showing them as they are, exactly and truly…” (1887).
“In my opinion, the most corrupt art is sentimental art, the art of the orange blossom, which makes wan women swoon” (1883).
Several portraits of friends and family, notably those of his children, such as Minette with a Bouquet (1872), demonstrate the affection he had for his model.
And, owing to a bout of bad weather that dragged on during a stay in Paris, the theme of the nude made an appearance in the mid-1890s: bathers by a river, of which one resembles Millet’s Goose-herder (c. 1863), and the Nude in an Interior from the Back, which prefigures Bonnard.
Although he also painted still-lifes, the genre of the landscape was his favourite, for which he often found it necessary to travel to find new motifs. Thus he visited Rouen in 1883, 1896 and 1898; London, where his son Georges lived, in 1890, 1892 and 1897; Belgium in 1894, Amsterdam in 1898, Moret-sur-Loing in 1901 and 1902, and Varengeville, Berneval and Dieppe (all in Normandy) at the turn of the century. Finally, in summer 1903, a few months before his death, he visited Le Havre, the city where he had arrived back in 1855 to begin his life in France.
The year 1893 marked a turning point in the subjects he chose to paint, caused by an eye infection that he never managed to rid himself of and which left him almost unable to paint outdoors. Consequently, he had a studio organized for him in his barn at the bottom of the garden in Éragny.
“The studio is splendid, but I often ask myself what is the point in having a studio? In the past, I would do my painting anywhere. In all seasons, in sweltering heat, rain, biting cold, I managed to work with enthusiasm. […] Will I be able to work in this new environment??? Surely my painting will feel the effects? My painting will put on gloves, I’ll become official, damn it!!! (BH III, 935, 1893)
He worked in the studio during the summer while in autumn, winter and spring, for a period lasting from between one and seven months, he would set himself up behind the window of a hotel room or rented apartment in a town or city. These repeat views of urban life introduced Pissarro to the notion of a series of paintings, something Monet had taken up several years earlier.
Working feverishly, he described in paint the port activities taking place around the bridges and wharves of Rouen and Le Havre, the busy life in Paris (the district of Saint-Lazare, the Boulevard Montmartre, the Place du Théâtre-Français and the Pont Neuf), the views down onto the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre from his apartment in Rue de Rivoli, and on the Square du Vert-Galant and the Seine from an apartment in Place Dauphine.
“I have effects of mist, haze, rain, the setting sun, grey skies, […] wet weather with a great to-do of cars, pedestrians, workers on the wharves, boats, smoke, haze in the distance, full of life and very busy.” (Rouen, 1896)
“I’m delighted to be able to have a go at Paris streets, which are said to be ugly, but are so silvery, so bright, so vibrant with life, they’re altogether different from the boulevards – they’re totally modern!!!” (Paris, Place du Théâtre-Français, 1897)
During the last ten years of his life, these many series offered the chance to Pissarro to explore the resources of his Impressionism and to take them as far as they would go.
“You know that motifs are of only minor importance to me: what I consider are the atmosphere and effects. […] I eventually find in the same spot effects that I didn’t know, and that I hadn’t attempted or succeeded with. What I don’t find easily is the practical means.” (April 1903)
What does Pissarro’s personal language consist of?
He had long been accustomed to have several canvases on the go at the same time, each of which was prepared so that he could paint on it the atmospheric effect that was at that moment occurring in front of him and which he could continue to work on, gradually, until the painting was completed. Although he had a long career, by simply looking at his work it is difficult to define the different stages of his stylistic development from the time that he applied the principles of Impressionism. During the 1870s his art, mostly based on the use of contrasts, sometimes resembles that of Sisley in its subtly shimmering effects, of Monet with the richness of the pictorial matter, or of Cézanne as has already been commented.
But when viewed overall, it becomes clear that he has many and recurrent painterly effects: he has a great variety of touch, fine and disciplined, long and broad, thick and vigorous; the design is created with small touches but can be simplified and even disappear beneath a thick touch, or even on occasion be rendered with a black line; the range of colours, which are generally pale and subdued, is very nuanced but he also occasionally uses very bright colours to the point of saturation.
Pissarro’s artistic development was marked by a particular stylistic adventure. His discovery in 1885 of the pointillism of Seurat and Signac opened up new horizons to him just at the moment he found himself in difficulty. Pissarro had begun using the Divisionist technique of applying small, connected dots of colour in the early 1880s to “make bright and luminous […] that is to say with the least divergence possible in the oppositions.” (1885)
This “scientific impressionism”, based on recently discovered optical laws, represents “a new phase of the logical march of Impressionism” (June 1886). Systematic division of the tone into small touches of pure colour through the effect of simultaneous contrast produces an “impression of unity, simplicity and light” (1887) that fulfilled all his expectations.
Though he was the eldest of the Impressionists, he was the only one in the group to join with the young generation that showed its work at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition.
Even though he adapted the divisionist procedure to suit his temperament by using large dots and overlapping, comma-like touches instead of tiny juxtaposed points, Pissarro defended the theory despite the near unanimous scepticism of his entourage. In 1894 he ended by turning away from and even disparaging this technique that took so long to use, all the more so since it was necessary to wait for each touch to dry before applying the next. Pissarro called it the “cold sensation” in contrast with spontaneity and freedom of execution. Relieved to have left it behind him, he touched up some of his divisionist works, but he never lost the knowledge he had gained in the use of colour, and did away with the use of intermediary whites (which separated each colour) with the result that chromatic intensity was heightened.
“Having ascertained […] the impossibility of pursuing my altogether fugitive sensations, and, consequently, of giving life and momentum to them; the impossibility of pursuing the altogether varied efforts of nature; the impossibility, or the difficulty, of giving character to my design, of not falling into the round, and so on and so forth, I have had to call it a day – it was high time! I wasn’t made, it would seem, for this art, which gave me the sensation of the levelling down…of death!” (1890)
It was in the representation of life and movement that Pissarro introduced innovation at the end of his career. In Le Boulevard Montmartre, Mardi Gras, he depicted the teeming crowd using tiny, fine and closely packed coloured lines, while he portrayed the night-time animation of a well-lit street (Boulevard Montmartre, Night Effect) using broad, multidirectional touches: two different techniques that took schematization of the forms to the threshold of abstraction.
Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, 1993
Joachim Pissarro, Claire Durand-Ruel-Snollaerts, Pissarro, catalogue critique des peintures (3 volumes), 2005
Claire Durand-Ruel-Snollaerts, Pissarro, patriarche des Impressionnistes, 2013