‘He reminded you of one of the prophets’: 10 things to know about Camille Pissarro
The only artist to show work in all eight Impressionist exhibitions, Pissarro is known for his radical depictions of rural life and his cityscapes of fin-de-siècle Paris. Illustrated with works coming to Christie’s in London
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was born to French Jewish parents on Saint Thomas, in what is now the US Virgin Islands. At the age of 12 he was sent to school in Passy, France, and it was there that he developed an interest in painting.
Returning to the Caribbean aged 17, he found himself working as a clerk for his father. Fortunately, fate intervened in the shape of the Danish artist Fritz Melbye: when Melbye left for Venezuela in 1852, Pissarro went with him, beginning his life as an artist.
Back in France from 1855, Pissarro discovered the new work of the Barbizon and Realist painters, Corot, Daubigny, Millet and Courbet, and was inspired by their direct depiction of landscape.
Taking classes at the Académie Suisse in Paris, he met Monet and Cézanne, who shared his aversion for what they regarded as the hackneyed art of the Salon. In the 1860s, they would meet up regularly with fellow painters Renoir, Sisley and Manet, and writers such as Emile Zola, to debate art at the Café Guerbois.
A new form of painting was in the making: one that shunned the conventions of the Academy and Salon for real life. Painting outdoors, often side by side, Pissarro and his friends conceived a new pictorial language, capturing fleeting impressions of the world in rapid brushstrokes.
In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war broke out and Pissarro fled to London, taking his future wife, Julie, and their son, Lucien, with him.
From his home in Lower Norwood, Pissarro visited the National Gallery with fellow exile Monet, admiring the work of Turner and Constable. When they submitted work to the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, however, it was rejected.
Pissarro’s time in England was important for another reason: it was here that he met the gallerist, dealer and champion of Impressionism, Paul Durand-Ruel.
Back in Paris in 1873, Pissarro joined forces with Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Morisot, Cézanne, Degas and others to create the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. In April the following year, they staged their first exhibition.
Pissarro exhibited five works, including Gelée blanche, 1873, now at the Musée d’Orsay. Most critics were scathing, with one reviewer providing a name for the movement by mocking Monet’s 1874 seascape, Impression, soleil levant.
But Pissarro’s position as a leading figure in the new movement was confirmed. ‘Pissarro, for his part, is powerful and restrained,’ wrote the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary. ‘His synthetic vision perceives the scene as a whole… [but] he has a deplorable predilection for market gardens.’
‘Le père Pissarro’ went on to exhibit in all eight Impressionist exhibitions and become an important mentor to younger artists including Gauguin and Cézanne.
‘Pissarro was like a father to me,’ Cézanne recalled, ‘he was a man you turned to for advice.’ Or, as Matisse put it, ‘One could not help liking him, he reminded you of one of the prophets.’
Pissarro is best known for the rural scenes he painted in and around the towns and villages of the Ile de France. Working outdoors, he captured cottages, kitchen gardens, winding pathways and rolling fields as they appeared to him, in a clear departure from the classical vistas of academic landscape painting.
Pissarro painted people throughout his career, but from the mid-1870s they began to taken on greater prominence.
Fruit pickers, farmers, maids or washerwomen were captured mid-task or at rest, bathed in symphonic contrasts of colour and light that Pissarro often created in his studio.
Pissarro’s political beliefs were as revolutionary as his paintings, informed by the writings of anarchist thinkers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin.
His paintings reflect his affiliation with domestic and rural workers and his belief that everyone was equal, regardless of class or status. Painted on a scale previously reserved for historical figures or the wealthy bourgeoisie, these figures are endowed with monumentality and grandeur.
In 1886, Pissarro met Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who rejected the spontaneity of the Impressionists in favour of meticulously applied dabs of paint and the colour theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul.
Pissarro initially adopted this technique, but by 1890 he had turned away from Pointillism.
‘How can one combine the purity and simplicity of the dot with the fullness, suppleness, liberty, spontaneity and freshness of sensation postulated by our Impressionist art?’ he asked his son Lucien in a letter of 1888.
Later in his career, Pissarro turned his attention to Rouen, Le Havre, Dieppe and Paris — and his views of these rapidly modernising cities are considered among his finest works.
In L'Anse des Pilotes et le brise-lames est, Le Havre of 1903, for instance — currently available for Private Sale — Pissarro uses rapid brushwork to convey the windswept sky, agitated waters and lively atmosphere of the Normandy port.
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In the late 1890s, Pissarro embarked on a series of paintings of Paris, working from hotel rooms to capture panoramic views of the city’s grand new boulevards.
‘I am delighted to be able to paint those Paris streets that people have come to call ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and vital,’ he wrote. ‘This is completely modern!’
Like Monet, Pissarro painted the same vistas at different times of day. Sold at Christie’s in 2018, La Rue Saint-Lazare, temps lumineux (1893), above, is an excellent example.
As well as oil paintings, Pissarro created a body of work on paper — graphic work, pastels, gouaches — that far exceeds those of the other Impressionists, except perhaps Degas.
From his early thirties, he also made prints, viewing them as a vital means of experimentation.