Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)
Camille Pissarro was born in 1830 on the Danish island of St Thomas to a family of merchants. He would become the oldest of the founding members of Impressionism, which was conceived in Île-de-France.
His parents, of French origin, sent him to study at the well-known boarding school in Passy so that he could take over the family business, however, Pissarro made the acquaintance of Danish painter Fritz Melbye in St Thomas, a meeting which inspired him to choose an artistic career. They left together in 1852 for Venezuela, drawn by its policy inspired by the French Revolution.
Reminded of his father, Pissarro left the West Indies definitively for France in 1855, promising his father he would join the École des Beaux-Arts in order to secure his financial support. However, the young man, who practiced painting ‘en plein air’ (outdoors) with Melbye, enrolled instead in various private courses (including the Swiss Academy), and worked with Corot at Fontainebleau.
Having quickly turned his back on the bourgeois existence available to him in the West Indies, he cultivated his opinions alongside militant Maria Deraismes, becoming a staunch anarchist for the rest of his life, and following Proudhon and his vision of an art that must be ‘an expression of human life’ and ‘truth’, in opposition to that which the bourgeoisie appreciates.
For Pissarro, Impressionism would be part of the progressive movement for the liberation of individuals and the public, the transgression of the codes of academic painting manifested in the choice of subjects drawn from real life and, above all, the rendering of sensation perceived in a moment upon the canvas. Thus was Pissarro’s aim, all the while in rejection of every kind of literature.
He practiced the principle of liberty in his private life, too, taking as his companion Julie, the poor and Catholic assistant cook of the house (much to the displeasure of his Jewish parents who themselves braved what was forbidden in their own banal love story).
Pissarro remained faithful to his commitments for his whole life, despite many financial difficulties. He painted signs and stores while Julie maintained the henhouse and vegetable garden, which earned them a small pension payment by his parents until his 42nd year.
The beginning of 1872 brought a fortuitous change for Pissarro when dealer Paul Durand-Ruel bought many of his paintings and began to market the artist’s new art in France and abroad. (Pissarro met Durand-Ruel in London in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War.) However, the dealer’s support of the artist was interrupted after a market crash in 1882, and during Pissarro’s Pointillist period, a style of which Durand-Ruel was not fond. The painter then received the precious help of his friends Piette, Caillebotte, Gauguin, and Monet. Beyond the artist’s talent, all of his friends attested to his qualities of heart and courage in adversity. Nevertheless, the artist was frequently crippled by doubt, especially regarding others’ interest in his work, which inspired his own criticism of himself.
In the face of repeated refusals from the official Salon, Pissarro decided with Monet in 1873 to create a society where they could organise their own exhibitions, the first held at Nadar in 1874, followed by seven others. If he sought to break entirely with academic art, he did not renounce traditional landscapes such as by Le Lorrain, Constable, Turner, and elderly Corot who shared with him lavish advice.
In search of his own style, from 1866 Pissarro worked in collaboration with his friend Cézanne whom he met at the Swiss Academy. Cézanne inspired Pissarro’s compact compositions and forms created against large flat areas of dark colours. But in 1872, Pissarro, who had gone to live in Louveciennes and then in England, returned to Pontoise with a much lighter palette, which Cézanne henceforth adopted definitively. They collaborated in mutual research in 1875, especially on greens, conceiving compositions with offset axes and utilising the palette knife.
Pissarro’s Impressionist painting vividly captures and represents the feel of the vibration of light and air, as perceived by the artist within a precise moment.
Pissarro’s entire oeuvre is marked by such sensations, as well as by a quest for unity. His son Lucien recognised these values, which the master at the end of his life would call ‘a relationship of agreements’, which is the ‘great difficulty of painting’, wrote journalist Robert de La Villehervé.
Pissarro painted the landscapes that surrounded him during his travels (Normandy, London, Belgium, Amsterdam) and those where he settled (Louveciennes, Pontoise, Osny), the last of which being Éragny-sur-Epte near Gisors from 1884. He consumed the landscapes in every season, and at every hour of the day. When he visited Montfoucault in 1874 he began painting genre scenes of peasants and animals, before starting large-format peasant figures ‘plainly and without make-up’ in 1880-1882 (notes Huysmans in 1887).
An incurable eye infection in 1893 precluded him from painting in the open air. He was given a workshop in the barn at Éragny which he occupied during the summer; the remainder of the year he spent indoors at a window in town in Rouen, Le Havre, or Paris. This period marked the beginning of his many urban scenes, following those of Monet, which enabled him to explore the range of resources of his Impressionist art with vivacity in the final ten years of his life, to the point of reaching his limitations:
‘The motifs are quite secondary to me: the atmosphere and the effects are the emphasis for me. (…) I end up finding in the same place effects I did not know or that I had not tried or achieved. What I do not find easily are the practical means.’ (April 1903.)
Pissarro devoted himself entirely to Seurat and Signac’s Pointillism between 1886 and 1894. Outside this period, his brushwork is so varied that it is not easy to discern his stylistic evolution. He was the only Impressionist to join the younger generation, and he was thus the eldest among them, indeed seduced by the luminous unity generated by the ‘scientific’ technique. After many years spent passionately defending the movement, even to the point of falling out with Gauguin, he was relieved when he eventually detached from the group, realising it was not compatible with the free spontaneity of his temperament.
From this moment, life and movement became the real subjects of elderly but innovative Pissarro in his urban views, reaching the limits of abstraction with his simplified forms.
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