Camille Pissarro, a French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter, was born on the island of St. Thomas on July 10, 1830. His father, Frederick Pissarro was of Portuguese Jewish decent, and his mother Rachel Pissarro was native Creole. His father was a merchant who married the widow of his deceased uncle. The marriage caused trouble within the small Jewish community of St. Thomas, either because Rachel was not Jewish, or because she was previously married to Frederick’s uncle. Thus, their four children were forced to attend the all-black primary school. At the age of 12, he was sent to France to attend Savary Academy in Passy near Paris. Here he developed an early appreciation of the French art masters. Monsieur Savary himself game him a strong grounding in drawing and painting. However, in 1847 he returned to St. Thomas, where he engaged against his will in the family business.
In 1852, Pissarro went to Venezuela with Danish artist Fritz Melbye, and brought back various sketches. In 1855 he traveled back to Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Suisse. He worked as assistant to Danish painter Anton Melbye, and studied the paintings of Gustave Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny, Millet, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Camille Pissarro’s initial paintings were in the traditional standards of the Paris Salon committee in order for his work to be shown. The Paris Salon’s annual exhibition was essentially the only marketplace for young artists to gain exposure.
While in Paris, Pissarro met Camille Corot and fell under his influence. They shared a love of rural scenes painted from nature. From him, Pissarro was inspired to paint outdoors, or “plein air” painting. His first painting was exhibited in 1859. Pissarro began to understand and appreciate the importance of expressing the beauties of nature without adulteration.
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, Pissarro moved his family to Norwood, a village outside of London. Being of Danish nationality he was unable to join the army. In London his paintings of what was later called “Impressionist” style did not do well. During this time Pissarro created paintings of Sydenham and the Norwoods. One of the largest of these paintings, The Avenue, Sydenham, is in the collection of the London National Gallery. Twelve oil paintings date from his stay in Upper Norwood. Pissarro met Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, in London, who helped to sell his paintings for most of his life.
When Pissarro returned to France after the war, he discovered that of the 1,500 paintings he had created over 20 years, only 40 remained. The others had been damaged or destroyed by the soldiers. It is assumed that many of the destroyed paintings were of the Impressionist style which he was then developing.
During the 1880s, Pissarro began to explore new themes and methods of painting. He created paintings of the life of country people, as he had done in Venezuela in his youth. This period marked the end of the Impressionist period. It was Camille Pissarro’s intention to help educate the public by painting people at work or home in realistic settings, without idealizing their lives.
In 1884, Pissarro met George Seurat and Paul Signac. Both had a more “scientific” theory of painting, using very small patches of pure colors to create the illusion of blended colors and shading when viewed from a distance. Pissarro spent 1885 to 1888 practicing pointillism.
Camille Pissarro died on November 13, 1903 from blood poisoning. He was survived by sons Lucien, Georges, Félix, Ludovic-Rodolphe, Paul Emile; and daughter, Jeanne.