One of the masters of French art, Camille Pissarro was a movement in and of himself. Today he is one of the best known of the Impressionists, and it can be argued that the movement itself owes more to him than any other member. Persistent in his exploration of style, he was also a born teacher — his pupil Mary Cassatt once claimed that he could have taught a stone to draw correctly — as well as an advisor to his fellow artists. Thanks to his ability to both digest the artistic discoveries of his colleagues and express them in a teachable way, he was also instrumental in ensuring the survival of the Impressionist legacy in the next generation.
Fenaison a Eragny by Camille Pissarro. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
Paul Cézanne once wrote to his friend, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, "As for old Pissarro, he was like a father to me. He was a man to be consulted, rather like God." Indeed, Pissarro served in a fatherly role for many of the movement’s key figures, holding together the Impressionists during times of tumult and encouraging their pursuit of their art. Proof of his commitment to the group lies in the fact that he was the only Impressionist who contributed to all eight Impressionist exhibitions organized between 1874 and 1886. Read on to learn more about this pivotal figure in art history.
Born in the Virgin Islands, where his father was a teacher, he came to Paris in 1855 determined to become a painter. He admired Eugène Delacroix, took lessons from Camille Corot, who was to be a major influence on his early work, and became a pupil at the Académie Suisse, where he could draw and paint from life. There, his work — combining Gustave Courbet’s sense of compositional flair with the serene luminosity of Corot — greatly impressed the young Claude Monet. For the next two decades, their careers would closely intertwine, and together they moved towards the techniques and theories of Impressionism.
He began to submit works to the Paris Salon beginning in the 1860s, primarily exhibiting landscapes that displayed a knowledge of the 18th-century French masters. However, it was also during these years when Pissarro grew closer and closer to his fellow Impressionists, whose distinctive style was beginning to take form. He spent much of his free time outside of the city in Louveciennes, a rural region about 12 miles west of Paris, where he painted the French landscape en plein air. With a focus on light and atmosphere, his works from this period display his more fully mature Impressionistic style.
The Birth of Impressionism
After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Pissarro fled with Claude Monet to England, a move that would have a profound impact on the trajectory of not only their own careers, but also the Impressionists as a whole. London proved a rich source of subject matter, but more importantly, it was there where they met Paul Durand-Ruel, a French art dealer who would be of pivotal importance to the later successes of Pissarro and his contemporaries.
On his eventual return to Paris, Pissarro was met with devastating news. The approximately 1,500 paintings that he had left behind in Louveciennes had been almost entirely destroyed during the war — only some 40 works remained. He was devastated and left in a state of near poverty due to the loss. In response, he threw himself into a period of fervent painting, experimenting with styles championed by Monet and Cézanne that also betrayed the continued influence of Corot and Jean-François Millet.
During this time of frenzied creation, Pissarro approached his fellow painters with the notion of holding a separate exhibition removed from the official Paris Salon. The show would showcase the group’s distinctive style that was now almost fully developed. To assist in bringing his idea to fruition, he established the artistic collective known as the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs in 1873, which included the likes of Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. The following year, the group held the first of eight Impressionist exhibitions that would change the trajectory of art forever.
By the 1880s, Camille Pissarro was becoming increasingly interested in emerging stylistic movements that were moving him further away from pure Impressionism. Seduced by new theories of light and color set forth by the likes of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and Charles Blanc, he fell under the influence of Georges Seurat, who possessed a deep-seated belief in a scientific approach to art. The Pointillist technique espoused a more theoretical approach to color theory, allowing artists to explore the science of optics rather than simply painting what is seen. For nearly five years, Pissarro experimented with the style, producing a series of Pointillist paintings composed through the application of tiny dots of pure color. However, he eventually grew weary of the more tedious approach, finding the style too rigid and returning to his earlier Impressionist outlook.
In 1892, Pissarro held a very successful one-man exhibition at the gallery of his faithful dealer, Durand-Ruel; though he had a number of financial successes throughout his career, this was the moment he finally achieved a degree of financial stability. During this period of his life, he divided his time between Paris and Éragny, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris that had served as the setting for many of his important Pointillist landscapes. While residing in the city, Pissarro primarily painted sprawling urban views that were almost always captured from an aerial perspective. A recurring eye infection forced him to remain indoors during cold weather, and so he often painted scenes he viewed through the windows of hotel rooms. Though he was suffering issues with his sight, these works display a technical vivacity and energy as convincing as that which informed the landscapes of his youth.