There were two ‘pure’ landscape painters among the core of the French Impressionists: Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who seldom painted in other genres, and Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) who almost never strayed beyond landscapes, and remained an Impressionist to the end. In this new series of articles, I’m going to step through their careers and their paintings, looking at similarities and differences. For a start, neither really qualified as a French Impressionist: Pissarro was Danish, and Sisley British, although for much of their careers they lived and painted in France.
Both suffered as a result of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, losing much of their previous work. In Pissarro’s case this amounted to well over a thousand paintings. In today’s article about Pissarro and tomorrow’s on Sisley, I therefore cover the period up to that war, for which we now have fewer works than we should.
(Jacob Abraham) Camille Pissarro was born and brought up on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas, in a mixed Portuguese Jewish and Creole family, of Danish nationality. When at boarding school in France he showed himself to be an able artist, and at the age of 21 he travelled to Venezuela with friend and painter Fritz Melbye, where he worked as an artist for two years.
Pissarro painted this Landscape with Women Under a Large Tree in 1854-55, either on the island of Saint Thomas or when he was in Venezuela. It appears to have been painted in front of the motif, in sketchy style, but with careful anatomical construction of the tree. The four figures are quite gestural too. The artist sold this work to Anton Melbye, Fritz’s brother, when he was working for him later in Paris.
Two Figures Chatting by a Roadside from 1856 is another landscape from the same period, this time in more finished style.
Soon after completing that, Pissarro moved to Paris, where he worked as assistant to Anton Melbye, then a successful artist in the city.
In Paris, Pissarro tried classes at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Suisse, but settled with instruction from the great plein air landscape artist and grandfather to the Impressionists, Camille Corot.
Pissarro quickly became an almost compulsive painter of trees, and in Forest Path from about 1859 in good Barbizon style. That year he had his first painting accepted for the Salon, and at the Académie Suisse met Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Armand Guillaumin, and others who were to form the Impressionist movement. He started to travel further afield, specialising in landscapes, and painting extensively en plein air.
In 1860, Pissarro’s parents, who were then living in Paris, took on a servant girl by the name of Julie Vellay. To their dismay, their son Camille soon fell in love with her, and his parents dismissed Julie from service. The couple lived together, and in 1863 their first son was born, although they didn’t marry until they had two more children, in 1871.
This rustic view of Donkeys at Pasture painted in 1862 didn’t sell until 1873, though.
Landscape at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire was painted en plein air in 1863, when Pissarro was among those whose work was included in the Salon des Refusés.
The Marne at Chennevières (1864) is perhaps Pissarro’s finest landscape from this period, and confirms his art follows the tradition from Valenciennes, through Daubigny and Corot.
For several periods from 1864 onwards, the Pissarros shared the large house of friends in the tiny hamlet of Montfoucault, on the border of Normandy and Brittany. Then between 1866-68, they lived for periods in the small town of Pontoise, to the north-west of Paris, on the River Oise, a tributary of the Seine. One distinct advantage of being there was that his friend and champion Charles Daubigny lived not far away, in Auvers-sur-Oise.
Côte de Jalais, Pontoise (1867) shows the hill of Les Jalais at l’Hermitage, where Pissarro lived, viewed from the Chemin des Mathurins in Pontoise. This was exhibited at the Salon in 1868, where it was well received by Zola, Castagnary and several other critics, and went on to show in Le Havre later.
In 1869, the Pissarro family moved to Louveciennes, again to the north-west of Paris, where they intended to settle down in a large rented house. This town is located between the River Seine and the Forest of Marly, an ideal location for a landscape artist. It was here that Pissarro first got to know Alfred Sisley well, when they painted in company, and alongside Monet and Renoir – all four of them starving, and fighting off despair from their lack of sales.
As many artists before him, Pissarro used trees to frame his motifs in repoussouir, but during the late 1860s they started to invade more central areas of the canvas. In about 1869, in his Winter Landscape at Louveciennes for the first time tree trunks and branches spread across his canvas, breaking up the motif behind into small sections.
That same year his winter paintings concentrated on road scenes, with attendant trees, around Louveciennes, a theme which continued for many years, spanning the seasons. The following year his rushed and more sketchy trees resolved into finer and more subtle representations, as he started to use brighter colours too.
Pissarro’s Houses at Bougival, Autumn is clearly dated 1870, although by that time he had moved from Louveciennes. It is also thought to have been exhibited at the Salon that year, suggesting it may have been started in late 1869.
Following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, in September 1870 the Pissarros’ house in Louveciennes was requisitioned by the invading Prussians. The family fled first to their friends in Montfoucault, then in December travelled on to England, where they settled in Norwood, at that time an outer suburb of London. When in England, Pissarro met Paul Durand-Ruel, who became his dealer, and Monet (again), who had also fled to London. I will look at his paintings from this period next week.
Brettell RR (1990) Pissarro and Pontoise, Yale UP and Guild. ISBN 978 0 300 04336 5.
Pissarro J (1993) Pissarro, Pavilion Books and Harry N Abrams. ISBN 1 85793 124 6.
Pissarro J and Snollaerts CD-R (2005) Pissarro. Critical Catalogue of Paintings, 3 vols, Wildenstein Institute and Skira. ISBN 88 7624 525 1.
Rothkopf K ed (2006) Pissarro. Creating the Impressionist Landscape, Philip Wilson, London. ISBN 0 85667 630 6.