Camille Pissarro, the first of the impressionists
Camille Pissarro was a major figure in the history of Impressionism, considered by some as the father of the French Impressionist Movement. He certainly was its dynamo, embodying its characteristics. He was revolutionary in portraying common people in their natural settings, with no artifice or pomp and was criticised as ‘vulgar’ for not adhering to the style and subjects imposed by the Salon de Paris, then the only venue for young artists, before the advent of galleries.
Author and critic Emile Zola wrote: “Camille Pissarro is one of the three or four true painters of this day…. I have rarely encountered a technique that is so sure.” Pissarro was a friend and mentor to many artists as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. Cézanne called him “the humble and colossal Pissarro” and “the first of the Impressionists.”
Pissarro was born in St Thomas, Virgin Islands then a Dutch colony. His father was a merchant who married the widow of his uncle, causing a scandal, and had with her four children. Pissarro was sent to study in Paris in 1842, and returning home he worked in his father’s shop until 1853 when he ran away with an artist friend to Venezuela to dedicate himself to art. His father then accepted his choice and called him back and sent him in 1855 to Paris to study painting.
Pissarro had a kindly and gentle nature and was very helpful to other artists. He found art schools in Paris stifling and uninspiring, so he asked the French painter Camille Corot, whom he admired, to become his teacher. Corot encouraged him to work outdoors, in ‘plein air’. After a year in Paris, he started leaving the city to paint the countryside. Unlike most other artists, he preferred to finish his canvas outdoors, often in one sitting, to capture the light and the atmosphere.
With vibrant strokes he depicted the peace and freshness of the countryside. His subjects were simple and restricted, and he achieved a subtle intimacy and personal feeling for the scene. Typical of the impressionist style, he would work in rapid and spontaneous gestures, applying pure colours, and clear
hues. His advice to other painters was to “use nature as a guide.”
Another characteristic of Impressionism was to spread thick paint and show the brushstrokes (a heresy for the traditionalists). It reflected the light, gave strength and a three-dimensional effect.
During the Franco-prussian war in 18701871, Pissarro moved to England where he saw Monet again and discovered the English landscapists Constable and Turner. Back in Paris in 1871, he found his home ransacked and of the 1500 paintings he had left behind, only 40 remained. Critics feel that the process of the birth of
Impressionism was lost with these paintings, which were used by German soldiers as floor mats.
When the Impressionists had their first exhibition in 1874, critics were horrified. They found the subjects too common and the canvases, with their heavy paint and bright colours coarse and unrefined. The young artists prided themselves in working fast to catch the first impression.
The second exhibition in 1876 had mixed reviews. One critic wrote: “Try to make Monsieur Pissarro understand that trees are not violet, the sky is not the colour of butter...”. However, a more positive critic wrote: “Camille Pissarro has been a revolutionary through the revitalised working methods with which he has endowed painting,” and another wrote “Rather than glorifying … the rugged existence of the peasants, he placed them …in their habitual surroundings, thus becoming an objective chronicler of one of the many facets of contemporary life.”
Around 1885, Pissarro distanced himself from Impressionism, which he felt had served its time. This fastened the demise of Impressionism. After meeting Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, he learnt the art of Pointillism, where small patches or dots of contrasting pigments, placed next to each other would be perceived by the retina as a single hue. In 1889, he moved away from Pointillism, finding it too slow and too artificial, and went back to the spontaneous method and into Neo-impressionism and Post-impressionism. After Pointillism, his style became more masterful.
In 1892, he had a successful exhibition, which gave him for the first time financial security. He suffered from an eye infection that made it difficult for him to paint outdoors, so he began working from windows of hotel rooms in Paris and other cities. He would paint in series, the same scene at different times of the day and different seasons. Always prolific, he became a distinguished and unrivalled painter of the cityscape. These works were simple, powerful, vibrant, and yet calm.
Almost all his life, Pissarro suffered financially, and partly for this reasons, he settled outside the city with his wife (his mother’s maid whom he married in1871 and with whom he had eight children). Alive, he sold few paintings, but in 2014, a painting went for a record £19.9 million. He finally gained esteem and influenced younger artists and helped form the avant-garde movement of the 20th century.
Le Haure, Morning, sun… (1903)
Young Peasant with Straw Hat (1881)
Picking Peas (1887)
The Road to Versailles Snow (1870)
The Market in Gisors (1895)
The Little Country Maid (1882)
Young Girl with Stick (1881)