Unlike his friend and fellow dedicated landscape artist Alfred Sisley, Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) saw commercial success in his lifetime, although it was a long time coming. He was perhaps the most central figure among the French Impressionists at the time of their first exhibition in 1874, and painted with almost every other member of the movement.
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. Soon after that, he moved to Paris, where he worked as assistant to Fritz’s brother Anton, 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.
The Marne at Chennevières (1864) is perhaps Pissarro’s finest landscape from this period, and demonstrates his following 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.
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. 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.
The following winter his paintings concentrated on road scenes around Louveciennes, a theme which continued for many years, spanning the seasons.
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. Although Pissarro is known to have painted only fourteen oils before returning to France, they mark an early peak in his art.
His superb view of The Avenue, Sydenham painted in 1871 was a landmark: it was his first painting sold to Durand-Ruel.
Unusually, Pissarro painted a preparatory gouache of this view, which looks along what is now known as Lawrie Park Avenue towards Saint Bartholomew’s Church, which had been built in 1832.
Durand-Ruel was also important in securing both Pissarro and Monet admission to the International Exhibition of Art in South Kensington, London, after their paintings had been rejected by the Royal Academy. Pissarro had two paintings exhibited there, and some favourable criticism, but little came as a result.
On 14 June 1871, Camille and Julie married in nearby Croydon. The artist’s present to his wife was this delicate View of Alleyn Park, West Dulwich, painted earlier that year. Taking Sydenham Hill as his vantage point, Pissarro here looks down over Alleyn Park towards the white chapel of West Norwood cemetery.
This part of what is now South London was becoming rapidly urbanised when Pissarro lived there. In 1870, a large college was opened to provide private education for the children of those richer families, and the following year Pissarro painted it in this view of Dulwich College, London.
With the Paris Commune crushed, and order being restored to France under the new Republic, the Pissarros returned to live a more settled life in Louveciennes again, after the shock of discovering that most of his 1500 or so paintings had been damaged or destroyed by occupying Prussian soldiers. Pissarro again lived close to Alfred Sisley, and the two often painted in company. Renoir’s mother also lived in the village, which enabled the three painters to meet quite frequently.
This is a wintry scene of The Post-House, the Route de Versailles, Louveciennes, Effect of Snow from 1872. This looks from the ‘Royal Gate’ of the Château de Marly towards the post-house, a landmark which features in several of Pissarro’s works from this period. This painting was bought that Spring by Durand-Ruel, who sold it a year later to Jean-Baptiste Faure, the opera singer, Pissarro’s first collector and Sisley’s enduring patron.
Pissarro painted this woodland view of an Avenue in the Parc de Marly in the autumn of 1871. It looks towards the village of Marly-le-Roi from the Port du Phare, inside the grounds of the Château de Marly. His skilful use of staffage draws the eye towards the far end of the avenue. The artist seems to have sold this painting quite quickly to an unknown buyer, from whom Durand-Ruel bought it in early 1873.
Although the Pissarros were able to live on the money generated by his painting, they must have got by in relative poverty. In April 1872, they moved from Louveciennes to Pontoise, where they rented a house and Camille established his studio.
In 1873, Pissarro was one of the prime movers of the French Impressionists. It was he who first suggested that they should set up their own alternative to the Salon, and he was one of the those who established their official Société Anonyme collective, and wrote their charter. Pissarro was in effect the father of the Impressionists, both in age and role. That summer, he started renting a studio in Montmartre.
Pissarro’s output while he lived in Louveciennes and Pontoise was prodigious and of high quality. One painting which stands out, though, is Hoar Frost at Ennery from 1873, which was exhibited at the First Impressionist Exhibition the following year, bought that autumn by Faure, and now graces the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Some of the critics of the day praised it, comparing it to some of Millet’s best paintings, but the influential Castagnary was acid in his comments, and another described its frost on deeply-ploughed furrows as “palette scrapings placed uniformly on a dirty canvas.”
One interesting observation about this work is Pissarro’s overt use of colour in its shadows, a controversial issue at the time. The rhythmic cast shadows of trees are here dark brown where they fall on the ploughed area, and blue-green further back where they fall on frost-covered grass.
Chestnut Trees at Osny from about 1873 was another of Pissarro’s paintings exhibited at the First Impressionist Exhibition, which also gained some praise, in this case from the critic writing for L’Artiste. It was exhibited in 1883 at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, where it was much better appreciated, but remained in the artist’s own collection until his death.
At the First Impressionist Exhibition, Pissarro exhibited only five paintings, listed in the catalogue as:
- Hoar Frost at Ennery (above),
- Chestnut Trees at Osny (above),
- The Orchard,
- Garden in Pontoise Town,
- A Morning in June.
This image of Pissarro’s painting of the Farm at Montfoucault from 1874 is valuable for its lightly raking light, revealing the texture of the paint surface. It also demonstrates how Pissarro could use lower chroma when the lighting conditions dictated. This painting was made while the Pissarros spent the winter with their friends in Montfoucault, and was exhibited at the Second Impressionist Exhibition. Like so many of his paintings it remained unsold when the artist died in 1903.
The year 1875 didn’t start well. Pissarro had spent the winter with their friends at Montfoucault, where the calm he so badly needed after the First Impressionist Exhibition was broken by the news that their new Impressionist society was in debt to the tune of over three thousand Francs, and had to be liquidated. Durand-Ruel was also suffering financially: he closed his London gallery and stopped buying Pissarro’s paintings. Over the summer of 1875, the Pissarros sank more deeply into debt. By the autumn they had no choice but to join their friends the Piettes at Montfoucault until the New Year.
The following year, Pissarro painted another large view, this time of one of the gardens in Pontoise which features in many of his works of this time: The Garden of Les Mathurins at Pontoise, belonging to the Deraismes Sisters (1876). In fact, the sisters were only renting this large and impressive property, which was just down the road from where the Pissarros lived, in the Hermitage district of Pontoise. It had formerly been a convent until the French Revolution.
One of the two sisters, Maria Deraismes, is seen standing in front of an ornamental burnished sphere (detail below). She was a famous figure of the day, an early feminist who founded her own newspaper and more.
Pissarro’s painting of this garden is unusually large, and possibly his first work in which he achieves finely textured colour as a precursor to his later Neo-Impressionist style. This was exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877.
It wasn’t until the 1890s, when Pissarro was in his sixties, that his art achieved the commercial success it had so long deserved.
On this blog
Camille Pissarro, to 1870
Camille Pissarro, 1870-74
Camille Pissarro, 1875-79
Camille Pissarro, 1880-84
Camille Pissarro, 1885-89
Camille Pissarro, 1890-94
Camille Pissarro, 1895-99
Camille Pissarro, 1900-03
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.