Camille Pissarro was a Danish-French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter born on the island of St Thomas (now in the US Virgin Islands). His importance resides in his contributions to both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Pissarro studied from great forerunners, including Gustave Courbetand Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. He later studied and worked alongside Georges Seurat and Paul Signac when he took on the Neo-Impressionist style at the age of 54. In 1873 he helped establish a collective society of fifteen aspiring artists, becoming the “pivotal” figure in holding the group together. Art historian John Rewald called Pissarro the “dean of the Impressionist painters”, not only because he was the oldest of the group, but also “by virtue of his wisdom and his balanced, kind, and warm hearted personality”.
Pissarro is the only artist to have shown his work at all eight Paris Impressionist exhibitions, from 1874 to 1886. He “acted as a father figure not only to the Impressionists” but to all four of the major Post-Impressionists, including Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.
When he turned twenty-one, Danish artist Fritz Melbye, then living on St. Thomas, inspired Pissarro to take on painting as a full-time profession, becoming his teacher and friend. After this, Pissarro chose to leave his family and job and live in Venezuela, where he and Melbye spent the next two years working as artists in Caracas and La Guaira. In 1855 he moved back to Paris where he began working as assistant to Anton Melbye, Fritz Melbye’s brother.
In 1859 his first painting was accepted and exhibited. He and Corot both shared a love of rural scenes painted from nature. It was by Corot that Pissarro was inspired to paint outdoors, also called “plein air” painting. During this period Pissarro began to understand and appreciate the importance of expressing on canvas the beauties of nature without adulteration. He therefore left the city and began to paint scenes in the countryside to capture the daily reality of village life. He found the French countryside to be “picturesque,” and worthy of being painted.
Pissarro moved to England during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Returning to his home in France at the end of the war, Pissarro discovered that the majority of his existing body of work had been destroyed. He soon reconnected with his artist friends, including Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas. In 1873, Pissarro established a collective of 15 artists with the goal of offering an alternative to the Salon. The following year, the group held their first exhibition, dominated by a style that became known as Impressionism. The unconventional content and style represented in the show shocked critics and helped to define Impressionism as an artistic movement.
“Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.” – Camille Pissarro.
By the 1880s, Pissarro moved into a Postimpressionist period, returning to some of his earlier themes and exploring new techniques such as pointillism. He forged new friendships with artists including Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and was an early admirer of Vincent van Gogh. While in keeping with his lifelong interest in innovation, Pissarro’s turning away from Impressionism contributed to the general decline of the movement, which he had influenced greatly.