Camille Pissarro’s life began in an exotic world, on the rocky island of Saint Thomas not far from Puerto Rico. His father owned a hardware store and wished to see his children carry on the business. He sent his son to France to study, where Camille stayed for six years. This is where he began to draw and the principal of the school encouraged his student’s artistic inclinations. At the time landscapes were already the centre of his attention, and he strove to learn how to render spacial depth and lay out the composition of a painting.
Pissarro was impassioned, intelligent, and kind, and indeed became a sort of “father” to the Impressionists. As he appears in his Self-Portrait, Pissarro is forty-three years old and, with his spreading beard and serious, direct gaze, he looked very much the patriarch. The landscape Banks of the Marne in Winter (Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago) was accepted by the Salon in 1866. That same year Pissarro moved to the small town of Pontoise.
In 1868 he settled down very close to Paris, in Louveciennes, where Sisley and Renoir’s relatives lived. As a Danish national he was not drafted during the Franco-Prussian war, and when the Prussian army drew close to Louveciennes, Pissarro fled to Brittany and he wasn’t able to take his paintings with him. The works at Louveciennes included not just his own, but canvases Monet had stored with him, as well. The Prussian soldiers who occupied Pissarro’s house destroyed almost 150 of these paintings: they threw them over the muddy paths of the garden, soggy with rain, to make it easier for them to come and go. During this time Pissarro was in London, where he met with Claude Monet and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel.
The year of the first Impressionist exhibition he was essentially painting in only a single tonality, his work was not yet completely free of Corot’s influence. In 1869 or 1870, in Landscape in the Vicinity of Louveciennes, Autumn (Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum), Pissarro had painted backyards and kitchen gardens, instead of poetic paths and the mirror of the water. One of Pissarro’s best landscapes appeared at the first exhibition in Nadar’s studio in 1874: Hoarfrost (Paris, Musée d’Orsay), in which the motif is completely devoid of any charm whatsoever.
In all, Pissarro showed several dozen of his landscapes at every Impressionist exhibition until the eighth and last, in 1886. He painted flowering fields and ploughed fields, the bare branches of trees in winter, apple trees blossoming impulsively, and light blue shadows and pink light on the snow. The Road to Ennery near Pontoise (Paris, Musée d’Orsay) inevitably brings to mind Sylvestre’s reference to Pissarro’s ‘naïvete’.
Occasionally Pissarro travelled to London, Brussels, or Rouen. This very lively city, with its port, appealed to him. He painted Rouen for the first time in 1883. The best view of the Great Bridge was from the windows of the Hotel d’Angleterre, and Pissarro painted it enthusiastically (The Great Bridge, Rouen). No matter what Pissarro’s attitude might be towards his motif, it remained that of an Impressionist and the role of weather was in no way least important for him. For an Impressionist painter, painting a landscape from a window was the same as working in the open air. In 1885 Pissarro met Seurat and Signac. For a short interval he and his son Lucien adhered to their “pointillist”, “neo-impressionist style,” and both began to paint using small, juxtaposed touches of colour. In the beginning Pissarro was captivated by the way Seurat tackled the lessons of classical art and the science of colour.
In the 1890s Pissarro began to paint the Parisian landscapes that were to assure his reputation as an urban landscape painter. He had previously painted isolated urban views on occasion: Boulevard Rochechouart in 1878, and a snowy effect in The Outer Boulevards, also from 1878. In this series Pissarro continued and elaborated on the image of the new Paris of their time, which Monet had begun in his Boulevard des Capucines (Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts). The old Impressionist, whom life had taught wisdom, was no longer interested in the details of the landscape. He sought to penetrate to what was essential, which is what he had aspired to throughout his life as a painter. Pissarro’s last apartment in Paris was on the Quai Voltaire. His last landscapes represent the perspective of the dock, slightly curved in a circular arc, with the dome of the ‘Institut de France’, the booksellers’ stalls, and the hurried passersby. This is where the painter died on 13 November 1903.
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