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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro, better known as Camille Pissarro, was a founding father of the French impressionist movement. Discover more about the life and career of this truly impressive artist who impressed in both portraiture and landscape painting.

Pissarro was several years older than his impressionist contemporaries, and when combined with his contemplative temperament, he was considered the Godfather of the Impressionist movement. Pissarro evolved his style his whole life, constantly seeking out new approaches and techniques. He was actively involved in both the neo-impressionist movement of Georges Seurat and the post-impressionist wave of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Although, like many of his fellow masters of the time, Camille knew little financial success in his lifetime, today, his paintings fetch multi-million-dollar prices at auction and his work can be found in Museums all over the world.

Influences and Style

When Pissarro moved to Paris in 1855 and began studying art in earnest, he naturally sought out the coveted Ecole des Beaux-Arts. However, it very quickly became clear to him that the structured and stifled guidelines, promoted by the school were in complete conflict with the creativity that Camille wanted to express. The school taught classical style and the use of traditional subject and expected all its students to produce works within those parameters. Pissarro already admired the work of Courbet and Corot, who completely rejected the romantic and classical schools, and he wanted to follow their lead and produce work that was faithful to what he saw around him.

Pissarro's passion was the rural scene and he felt that the only way to express the beauty and reality of what he saw was to experience it. Consequently, he was an ardent advocate of the Barbizon school's technique of painting en plein air or in the outdoors, as he believed it was the only way to truly capture the reality of light. In fact, Camille's work was often so realistic that it included details that many believed to be course and unnecessary such as garbage or droppings. However, the honesty of the painting, in Pissarro's view, was the beauty of it. Camille continued to find inspiration from fellow artists throughout his life and he explored many different techniques, but he always returned to the landscape, either rural scene or cityscape, for his subject matter.

Pissarro and the Impressionists

In 1859 Camille was studying a the Académie Suisse, a free studio which encouraged students to think outside the box, founded by Charles Suisse. It was here that Pissarro first encountered the radical young painter, Claude Monet. Even though Pissarro was ten years older than Monet, they found they had much in common and they shared the same views on painting, art and how it should be expressed. It wasn’t long before the two developed a strong bond began and to share techniques and ideas with other painters who believed in their vision. They were to become, the impressionists.

While Monet's work is considered quintessentially impressionist, it was, in fact, Pissarro who had the managerial skills necessary to organise the group into the movement they would become. He sought out and set up venues for their shows and he was the only member of the movement to actually display works at all eight of their exhibits between 1874 and 1886. However, Camille’s fervour for the movement was not only fuelled by his need to paint and express himself as he saw fit, but also by an extreme distaste for the establishment and all it stood for.

Although he was no revolutionary, he firmly believed that the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the judging committee they used were fascist in nature and made no allowances for young artists and their new ideas. Through the founding of the impressionist movement, Camille hoped that they could provide an outlet for artists everywhere to be true to their work which, of course, they did.

Beyond Impressionism

By the mid 1880's Pissarro felt that his creative expression was stalling. He began to seek out new and interesting techniques and styles of painting to move beyond the now established impressionist school. A meeting with young painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac gave Camille the inspiration he had been looking for. Seurat and Signac were pioneers in the new technique of pointillism which involves the application of many small dots of colour to create an image. They were also the founders of a movement called the neo-impressionists whose focus was colour and its application.

While the movement was relatively short lived, they opened a gateway for the avant-garde of the art world to explore colour in all its expressive glory. Pissarro’s experiments with pointillism were very successful, indeed, Hay Harvest at Eragny (1887) proves that he was the only impressionist who was able to transition into neo-impressionism, such was his versatility as a painter. Camille's foray into this new world, however, was quite brief and he soon returned to his preferred techniques and subjects believing the approach of Seurat to be too superficial and technical for true expression. However, his departure from impressionism was enough to destabilise the movement and it disbanded shortly thereafter.

Famous Works

Pissarro's work is certainly not the most famous of the impressionist paintings, however, there is much to admire. Perhaps one of the best known of his works is, Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St Thomas (1856). Ironically, this painting was created in Paris from the memory of his home island and not fashioned out of doors, but that, in itself does much to explain the genius of his skills. The colours are so expertly blended and applied that the viewer is easily transported to the Caribbean with its tropical light and exotic hues. This painting was created before the impressionists were formed, but it clearly states Camille's credentials as a future member. The painting can be found today in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.

Pissarro is, of course, considered one of the great landscape artists and, Road to Versailles at Louveciennes (1869) does much to explain why. Not only is it a masterclass in the impressionist school with its broad, confident strokes and cool palette to describe the winter scene, but it is light and fleeting, allowing us to believe we are witnessing a snapshot of life. Although there is economy of detail, the colours and subject matter offer a realism that is rarely depicted so sensitively. The painting is currently housed in The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, USA.

Camille's Legacy

A very tangible legacy attributed to Pissarro, is that fact he also left behind a profoundly artistic family. Three of Camille's sons went on to become successful artists in their own right; most famously Lucien Pissarro who, like his father, was a very fine landscape artist. The dynasty extends beyond his children to his grandchildren and great grand-children, including graphic designer Claude Bonin-Pissarro and his son, abstract artist, Frederic Bonin-Pissarro.

Pissarro's name has been in the news recently as several of his works have been the subject of legal action. Jewish owners of Camille’s work were forced to give up their ownership during the Holocaust of the 2 nd World War. These paintings, found hanging today in museums round the world, were identified by the descendants of the Holocaust victims and they, in turn, sued for ownership for their families. Many have been successful and subsequently donated the works back to the museums in which the paintings are housed.

However, perhaps Pissarro's most enduring legacy is the fact that he influenced and taught so many great painters in his lifetime. Various now-famous masters trained with Camille, his former pupil list reads like a veritable who's who of 19 th and 20 th century art; from Seurat and Cezanne to Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. It has been said that he was an extremely generous and supportive teacher, indeed American Impressionist Mary Cassatt who also trained with him believed that, "he (Pissarro) could teach stones to draw correctly", such was his gift. It would seem therefore, that Pissarro certainly played an important role in moulding and mentoring many of the pivotal artists who followed him.