The so-called 'Father of Impressionism'
Monet. Renoir. Cézanne. We’ve all heard these famous names before. They belong to the Impressionist painters, who lived and worked in France at the end of the 19th Century. But only one of these famous painters was in every single one of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. That artist is Camille Pissarro, often known as the ‘Father of Impressionism’. But how did this West Indies-born boy of Jewish descent become the center of the French art world? Read on to find out...
The early years
Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830, on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. His parents, Frederick and Rachel Manzano de Pissarro, were Portuguese-Jewish and French-Jewish respectively.
At the age of eleven, Pissarro’s father sent him to boarding school in Paris, France, where he soon developed a passion for art, particularly the French masters. When he returned home at the age of 17, he took the advice of his teacher Monsieur Savary with him: paint outdoors. But, though the young Pissarro was determined to paint, his father had other ideas, and on returning home Pissarro had to work as a clerk in his father’s business. Painting became a part-time hobby that he would squeeze into every minute of his spare time.
So, naturally, Pissarro jumped at the first chance to leave his job and return to his passion for painting. In 1852, Pissarro met Danish artist Fritz Melbye. Pissarro and Melbye would strike up a friendship and Melbye strongly supported Pissarro's artistic endeavors.
In 1852, Melbye was leaving for Venezuela; Pissarro seized his chance and went with him. He wrote, "I was a well-paid clerk in St Thomas but I could stand it no longer. Without a second thought, I threw in the towel and headed for Caracas.” It was the first bold, radical change of direction in Pissarro’s life, but it would not be the last.
Pissarro spent two years in Venezuela, making ends meet by painting celebrity portraits for rich clients. When he returned home to St Thomas in 1854, he told his father that he wanted to be a painter and that, in order to pursue his dream, he would have to move back to the center of the art world at that time: Paris, France.
But despite moving back to the bustling city, Pissarro always retained his love of the outdoors and country life, and this would be a continual subject of his paintings throughout his career.
Learning from the Masters
Pissarro moved back to Paris aged 25, supported by a small allowance from his father. There, he caught the last few days of the Paris Exposition.
He was blown away by what he saw. In particular, he loved the Realist and Barbizon School works of Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, both famed for their images of working peasants in rural settings. He was fascinated by the way these artists depicted the contemporary lives of ordinary people, and this approach would have a huge impact on Pissarro’s own art.
He was also a fan of Camille Corot’s landscape painting, and Corot would go on to tutor and mentor the young Pissarro. Corot was among one of the first French landscape artists to paint outdoors, or en plein air (at that time landscapes were usually sketched outdoors and then finished in a studio).
This was a revolutionary approach - producing lighter, more realistic artworks than the historical paintings that were currently in favor in the Salon. Pissarro too began painting outdoors, spending considerable amounts of time in the countryside outside Paris where he painted from nature.
Pissarro learnt a lot from these predecessors and worked many aspects of their Realist and Barbizon techniques into his own art. But he always made these techniques and approaches his own. In many ways, he can be seen as the bridge between this older school of painting and what was to come.
Pissarro had his first big success in 1859 when the Salon accepted one of his landscapes. But Pissarro, while gaining a reputation, would face financial hardship for many years, despite his father’s allowance. In 1870 he began a relationship with his mother’s maid, Julie Vellay. The arrival of their first child Lucien in 1863 exacerbated these financial issues as Pissarro’s artwork now also had to support a small growing family (the couple would marry in 1871 and go on to have eight children together).
A ‘revolutionary’ style
Pissarro was interested by the revolution in representation that had been begun by Gustave Courbet; Courbet had caused a scandal in the Paris art scene as he depicted ordinary, working people in his paintings, as opposed to the historical and mythic subjects that were fashionable at the time. In particular, he focused on the physical labour of rural peasants.
This focus on working people appealed to Pissarro’s politics: a socialist, anarchist, atheist and Republican himself. Pissarro’s own paintings would similarly often focus on figures in rural settings, and by doing so, they legitimized these 'lowly' experiences as worthy subjects for high art.
But it wasn’t just Pissarro’s political subject matter that was radical, he was also experimenting with revolutionary new styles and approaches to painting. As well as taking on influences from his predecessors, Pissarro was also very influenced by his contemporaries. In the 1860s, he began to hang out with a group of young artists who would become known as the Impressionists.
The group of bohemian painters met at the Café Guerbois in Paris, where they would exchange ideas and debate the issues of the day. Pissarro in particular loved to talk politics!
These artists had much in common: a fondness for painting outdoors; an obsession with light, color and movement, rather than form; the use of free, imprecise brushwork; contemporary subject matter; freedom from the rules and restrictions of the Salon; and a tendency to paint things as they appear to the eye - painting the perception or impression of a subject.
As Pissarro began painting in this Impressionist style in the late 1860s, his works stopped being accepted at the Salon. Because of this, several of the Impressionist painters, Pissarro included, decided that they wanted a separate, dedicated exhibition of their work.
Pissarro was a pivotal figure in the group - first named the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc - and, as the eldest, was often seen as the 'father of Impressionism'.
The first Impressionist exhibition is held in April 1874. But - perhaps surprisingly - the exhibition was widely derided. The artworks shocked and horrified the critics, who were used to scenes portraying religious, historical, or mythological settings, and who saw the style as unfinished and messy.
But despite the criticism, this was a pivotal moment in the history of modern art. It also gave these artists a name: art critic Louis Leroy wrote a review in which he said that all the paintings were just "impressions" and this, though intended as an insult, now described the new movement of 'Impressionist' painters. Over the course of the next eight Impressionist exhibitions, the public would grow ever more used to and appreciative of this new, revolutionary approach to painting.
It’s never too late to try something new
Throughout his career, Pissarro would never fix on one style, and was a constant innovator.
Despite the increasing appreciation of Impressionist artworks, in the late 1880s, Pissarro radically departs from the art movement he had helped create! Proof that it’s never too late to try something new, at the age of 57 Pissarro also turns his hand to Neo-Impressionism, specifically Divisionism.
In 1885 Pissarro met Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, both of whom were experimenting with a more "scientific" version of Impressionism that drew from contemporary color theories. In these paintings we see lots of small patches of pure, opaque colors which, when viewed from a distance, merge in the eye to create the effect of shimmering light.
“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science.” - Georges Seurat
Seurat introduced Pissarro to this entirely new way of painting. Pissarro spent the years 1885 to 1888 practicing this technique, often referred to as Divisionism.
The Apple Harvest from 1888 is a masterful example of this style. Here we can once again see Pissarro depicting the lives of working rural peasants. But if we zoom in we can see that, though Pissarro uses a familiar subject, here he is experimenting with a radically new approach to painting. Pissarro has used small strokes of blue, green, yellow and pink which, when viewed from afar, blend together to create a light, vibrant scene of rural life.
But by 1890, at 60 years old, Pissarro abandoned Neo-Impressionsim forever, returning to an Impressionist style. The art market was beginning to change and Pissarro found financial stability for the first time in his career. Due to the waves that Pissarro himself had initiated, the power of the Salon was diminishing and the art world would be changed forever.
Pissarro was endlessly resilient, and resolutely committed to his work and the work of painters around him. Despite continual poverty in the 1870s when many Impressionist painters were very poor, and despite the protestations of his wife, Pissarro never gave up painting, and indeed never gave up on the Impressionists themselves, always encouraging other artists within the movement.
In 1889, Pissarro contracted a serious eye infection, meaning that he was physically unable to paint out of doors, en plein air, as he once had. But again he didn’t give up - instead, he began to paint outdoor scenes as seen through his window in the city.
He painted so many paintings from this hotel bedroom in Paris that it now has a suite named after him!
Towards the end of his life, Pissarro returned to the city, where he painted several paintings in series, capturing the changing movement and light within the same scene.
Where he had once painted rural laborers, he now focused on the life of urban workers, and his work was as political as ever.
A lasting legacy
Up to the end, Pissarro was still painting extraordinary artworks and continually evolving, adapting and innovating his style.
Pissarro had a monumental effect on the Impressionist movement, either through his own radical approach to painting, or in the support and guidance that he gave to other Impressionist painters like Monet and Cézanne. Cézanne said "he was a father for me. A man to consult and a little like the good Lord," while Renoir referred to his work as "revolutionary", through his artistic portrayals of the "common man", as Pissarro insisted on painting individuals in natural settings without "artifice or grandeur".
Today, Pissarro’s works often sell for millions of dollars, although in his own time he never saw success at this scale.
"Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing." - Camille Pissarro