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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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Camille Pissarro, a Danish-French Impressionist as well as a Neo-Impressionist painter, was born on St Thomas Island (then in Danish Antilles, but now in the American Virgin Islands). Pissarro's importance resides in the contributions he made towards Impressionism as well as Post-Impressionism.

The date of birth of Camille is 10 July 1830. When he was 12 years old, he was sent by his father to a school in France at the Savary Academy located in Passy, an area near Paris. While Camille was a young student, he started developing an appreciation of the art masters in France. Monsieur Savary gave Camille a strong grounding in painting and drawing and suggested that he should draw from nature when he goes back to St Thomas Island, which he did after turning 17. However, his father preferred Camille to work in his business and gave him a job to work as a cargo clerk. During the next 5 years at this job, he took every opportunity and started practising drawing after work and during breaks.

When Camille was 21 years old, the Danish marine painter Fritz Sigfred Georg Melby inspired him to starts painting as a full-time job, and he became his friend and teacher. Camille decided to leave his job and family and live in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, where together with Fritz they spent the next 2 years in La Guaira and Caracas working as artists. Camille drew everything that he could, including village scenes, landscapes and many sketches that could fill up numerous sketchbooks.

Life in France

He returned to Paris in 1855 and started working as an assistant to Fritz's brother Anton Melbye. Also, he studied works by other artists whose techniques impressed him. They include Corot, Jean-François Millet, Charles-François Daubigny and Courbet. Additionally, he enrolled in several classes taught by art masters at schools like Académie Suisse and École des Beaux-Arts. However, according to art historian John Rewald, Camille eventually found the teaching methods of these masters as "stifling". This prompted him to look for alternative instructions, which Camille received from Corot.

Corot's Influence and Paris Salon

His initial paintings were displayed at the Salon, which was the official body known to be the greatest Western world's biennial or annual art event whose academic traditions used to dictate the type of art acceptable. During that time, the Paris Salon annual exhibition was the only marketplace where young artists could gain exposure. Therefore, Camille worked in the prescribed and traditional manner to make sure that he has satisfied the tastes of the official committee of this event.

Camille's first painting was accepted by the Salon and exhibited in 1859. During that period, his other paintings were typically influenced by his tutor Corot. The two had a passion for rural scenes that were painted from nature. Corot inspired him to paint outdoors (plein air painting). He found Corot, together with Gustave Courbet's work, to be statements of picturesque truth. He also admired Jean-François Millet's work, especially his sentimental interpretations of rural life.

Beauties of Nature on Canvas

During this period, Camille started understanding and appreciating the significance of expressing the beauties of nature on canvas without adulteration. He started leaving the city and started painting countryside scenes to capture the everyday reality of village life. Camille found the countryside in France to be pictorial, hence worthy of being painted. Unlike Corot, Pissaro preferred finishing his paintings outdoors, at one sitting, giving his paintings a more realistic feel.

Life in London

In 1871, Camille married Julie Vellay and they had 7 children together. Following the outbreak of the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War, he left for London. This is where he met with the art dealer called Paul Durand-Ruel and Monet. He stayed in South London for a while and painted scenes of the suburbs that were emerging there like The Crystal Palace, London (executed 1871). He moved back to Pontoise in 1872, where he gathered some painters around him, such as Guillaumin and Cézanne, to whom he demonstrated his style of painting from nature. As a result, Cézanne changed his whole approach to art.

Life as an Impressionist

In the early 1870s, Camille was thinking of ideas to create an alternative to the Paris Salon, which he discussed with Renoir, Monet and others. The group devised the idea of forming a society that had a charter based on the union of local bakers. By January 1874, Camille helped to establish a cooperative along those lines. On April 1874, the group held an exhibition at Nadar's studio in Paris.

The show was named the first Impressionist exhibition. Camille showed 5 paintings at this show, including Pontoise (1873) and Hoar Frost. Other artists also showed their work. The artists shared a common desire of recording the modern world surrounding them by making sure they capture the transient effects of colour and light. These Impressionists artists avoided traditional compositions and modelling and instead focused on high-keyed colour, tone and texture. Camille favoured rural subjects but shared the desire of other artists of painting the effects of light as it falls on objects.

The Last Years

By 1890, Camille believed he finally understood how to achieve the unity that he was pursuing in his painting career. In 1892, Paul Durand-Ruel held a successful retrospective of the artist's work. This was the first time that Camille achieved some financial stability. On 13 November 1903, Camille Pissarro and was buried in the largest cemetery in Paris called Père Lachaise Cemetery.