Camille Pissarro Biography

Camille Pissarro was an accomplished painter, able to capture the world around him in a variety of painting styles. Pissarro was also a teacher, mentor and father figure to artists such as Cezanne and Gauguin. Pissarro was the only Impressionist painter to provide works for all eight of the Impressionist group exhibitions. His unifying force, and fatherly presence, helped to define, shape and hold together this diverse and incredibly important movement in painting.

Youth and Education

Camille Pissarro was born in St. Thomas in 1830. At the age of 12, Pissarro was sent to Paris to boarding school. Here, he began his life as an artist, sketching the landscape around the school. The young boy wanted to continue his life in this fashion, but was sent back home at age 17 to work with his father. This was not the life that Pissarro desired, and he often played truant to sketch boats on the harbor. This rebellious streak will appear often in the Camille Pissarro biography and in Pissarro paintings. He was never afraid to speak his mind and work for what he felt was right.

In 1852, Pissarro met Fritz Melbye and sailed with the painter to Venezuela. He would stay there for 2 years, painting the native scenes and honing his craft, all while working to avoid his father's business. He would later say that he had, "abandoned all I had and bolted to Caracas to get clear of the bondage of bourgeois life." When Pissarro returned to St. Thomas in 1854, his parents realized that Pissarro was determined to be a painter, and he wouldn't be convinced otherwise. They arranged for him to move to Paris in 1855 to study painting in earnest.

Early Career

Pissarro began to take private lessons and learn more about how to realistically paint human forms. He began to work as a copyist of paintings in the Louvre. Pissarro also attended the World's Fair Exhibition of contemporary art, and was introduced to the landscape paintings of Camille Corot. These were incredibly exciting paintings for Pissarro, and he sought out the older painter and began to receive training on an informal basis. Corot would encourage Pissarro to paint what he had seen in nature, remaining true to his internal vision. Camille Pissarro paintings of this time are typically landscapes, containing an element such as a road or a stream that recedes into the middle distance. A Creek in Saint Thomas, Antilles is a typical painting of this time period. Lines are clear, colors are distinct, and the landscape is painted realistically.

In 1860, Pissarro entered a romantic relationship with Julie Vellay, who had been employed as his mother's maid. The two would marry in 1871 and have a large family of eight children together. The couple would live together in Pontoise, although Pissarro would retain his Paris apartment.

Camille Pissarro paintings were regularly accepted by the Salon at this time, meaning they were shown in exhibitions and placed up for sale. Few of these paintings by Camille Pissarro were actually sold, however, and Pissarro began to feel that the Salon system was unfairly prejudiced toward large paintings, and that the jury selections were rigged. Pissarro began to share these views with the younger artists who looked up to him for advice, including Monet and Renoir. These influential discussions would eventually lead to the Impressionist independent group exhibitions.

In 1870 Pissarro left for London during the outbreak of the Franco-German war. He was forced to leave quite quickly, leaving behind many of his belongings, including many paintings by Camille Pissarro. The Prussians would use the large canvases as cutting boards for carving meat, and most of the paintings would be destroyed. Pissarro would discover this in 1872 when he returned to Pontoise.

Pissarro and Impressionism

Upon his return to Pontoise, Pissarro gathered his young protégée artists around him and began to paint in earnest. He developed a true Impressionist style of a light palette, tiny brushstrokes and abundant light. He gave extensive lessons to Cezanne, encouraging the artist to develop this new style as well.

In 1874, Pissarro developed a cooperative with the Impressionist painters, and they began to exhibit their paintings as a group, independent of the Salon. In this same year, the first show was held, including five Pissarro paintings. Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and others would also participate. The group held another exhibition in 1876, and 12 Camille Pissarro paintings were included. A Path in the Woods, Pontoise, demonstrates the fractured light, deep brushstrokes and Impressionist style that Pissarro utilized during this time.

In 1879, the group began to fracture and dissipate. Sales were disappointing and the critics were harsh. As talented painters such as Monet, Sisley, Renoir and Cezanne dropped out of the shows, sales plunged yet farther. This was an extreme blow to Pissarro, who had multiple children to feed and little to no other income to rely upon. Regardless, Camille Pissarro refused to show his work in the Salon system and wrote to his son, "I will calmly treat the path I have taken and try to do my best." As the group continued to fragment, Pissarro began to experiment with style in his paintings. He began to use a small, pointed brushstroke.

Final Years

In 1892, a major retrospective of Pissarro paintings was held, and the artist achieved a level of financial stability he'd never before experienced. His health began to decline during this time, and it would become difficult for the artist to paint in the typical way. He wouldn’t be able to stand outside in the weather and generate his landscape images. Ever the consummate artist, Pissarro learned to paint in a new way.

Pissarro rented a room in Paris, high up from street level. For Camille Pissarro, the Boulevard Montmarte would be endlessly inspiring from this perch. He would paint the street at night, during the day, in the snow and in the sun. At times, he would paint multiple canvases at one time. The Camille Pissarro Boulevard Montmarte series of paintings would be some of the most popular images the artist would generate.

In 1903, Pissarro died, leaving behind his large family. Many of his descendants are artists themselves, including his great-granddaughter Lelia. Joachim Pissarro, Camille's great-grandson, is a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.