PISSARRO Camille
( 1830-1903). Born at Saint-Thomas in the West Indies (then a Danish possession); died in Paris. 'Of all painters,' said Cézanne, 'Pissarro was nearest to Nature.' His entire life was devoted to observing the changing effects of Nature, which he succeeded in capturing in innumerable oil paintings, water-colours, drawings and engravings. He never tired of studying the same village church, the same fields in different seasons, a market place, the Paris boulevards, and he infused a rare poetic quality into these subjects. He had a long struggle with his parents -- a French father and a Creole mother -- before obtaining their consent to leave the West Indies to study art in Paris, and had reached the age of twenty-five when finally he arrived in France. His first enthusiasm was for Corot, and he started work under his supervision -- with permission to style himself 'pupil of Corot'. But his aged tutor disapproved when in 1865 Pissarro joined up with Monet, Renoir and other young artists grouped around Manet, though Daubigny and Courbet (whose influence is evident in some of Pissarro's early work) accepted the newcomers with goodwill. In 1870 Monet and Pissarro fled to London to escape the Prussian occupation, and there found Daubigny, who gave them valuable help and advice and introduced them to the young French art dealer Durand-Ruel, whose name has since become firmly linked with that of the Impressionists. Durand-Ruel bought Pissarro's work first in London and then on a larger scale in Paris; little by little he became the regular dealer of Monet, Pissarro and all their friends, sharing their setbacks as well as their painfully slow climb to fame. In England Pissarro studied Turner and Constable. On his return to France he found his house looted and his canvases (nearly a thousand) destroyed. But his joy at being back in France lent him courage, and he settled in Pontoise, where Cézanne came to work with him ( 1872-1874) and profit from his advice. Pissarro made regular trips to Paris, thus keeping in touch with his friends. With them, in 1874, he countered the official Salon's systematic refusal to hang their work by organizing the first independent picture exhibition. A hostile critic writing about this exhibition first applied the word 'Impressionist' to their work. The following eight exhibitions organized by the Impressionists between 1874 and 1886 -- which met mainly with ridicule and insults -- were due in large part to Pissarro's indefatigable initiative and his gift for reconciling adverse factions. He was the only member of the group to exhibit at each show, and he was alone in offering his friendship to the younger painters of promise. In 1890 he interested himself in Gauguin and introduced him to the group. Later he joined up with Seurat and Signac in their efforts to reconcile art with science, and he insisted on their being included in the final exhibition of 1886.
Pissarro, senior by two years to Manet and by ten to Monet, was the eldest of the group. Without exception, all the painters and writers included in his circle felt a profound esteem for this kind and gentle man, who united an innate goodness with an indomitable fighting spirit. A convinced atheist, Pissarro was also a socialist tinged with anarchist ideas, and he considered the artistic struggle as inseparable from the question of the artist's role in modern society. But however radical his views, they were free from hate and imbued with a disinterested integrity which commanded general respect even among those less socially conscious than he. Everyone knew of his personal difficulties, his continual fight to provide for his family of six children, and they could not but admire the composure and complete lack of bitterness with which he discussed the essential artistic or political problems of his day. Pissarro never ceased to advocate humility before Nature, though he refrained from imposing his ideas on others. The advice he gave to Cézanne and Gauguin must have been similar to that given to his children, to whom he wrote in one of his admirable letters: 'Beware of trusting to my judgment! I am so anxious to see you succeed that I don't hide my opinions from you; but only accept what corresponds to your own feeling and way of understanding. What I most fear is that you should resemble me too much. So go ahead, and work!' To this respect for the individual he added a rare gift for pedagogy. 'He was so wonderful a teacher', said Mary Cassatt, 'that he could have taught a stone to draw correctly.'
Pissarro's artistic development can be divided into various phases. His early work shows the influence of Corot and Courbet: a poetic conception of Nature is expressed in hardy strokes of the palette knife and his colours are often as dramatically sombre as those in Cézanne's first paintings. Little by little his colours grew lighter and he stressed the solidity of masses in subtle but opaque shades, greys often dominating. 'As early as 1965', Cézanne tells us, 'he eliminated black, bistre, sienna browns and ochres.' It was just before the 1870 war that he took the decisive step towards light colouring and the analysis of shadow, and the study of English landscape painters during his exile in London encouraged him to pursue this course and confirmed his conclusions. The outcome was the series of intensely vital, lyrical canvases painted between 1870 and 1880 -- his truly 'Impressionist' period of open-air painting and discoveries in the use of colour. Light itself became a 'subject' -- the principal element in his picture. The artist was attracted by golden and silver effects, vast stretches of green, delicate foliage, trees in flower, corn-fields, streams and mottled skies. He studied all these first around Pontoise, then at Osny and Éragny-sur-Epte near Gisors, where he settled in 1885. With these lighter colours he worked in small commalike brush strokes, which enabled him to depict the brilliance of light without breaking up the forms on which it shone. By 1884 Pissarro began to feel dissatisfaction with this technique, finding it too crude, and it is not surprising to find him attracted in the following years to Divisionism (see NeoImpressionism) in an attempt to reconcile Seurat's rigid theories with his own poetic temperament. This effort was doomed to failure; in 1890 Pissarro began to realize, as he put it, 'the impossibility of following my sensations, and consequently of expressing life and movement and rendering Nature's marvellous but fugitive effects, of giving individuality to my drawing'; so he abandoned the Pointillist technique 'to retrieve with difficulty and by hard work what I had lost, without losing whatever I may have found'. Pissarro spent the last years of his life in the search for a new liberty of expression. His efforts were astonishingly fruitful and in his views of Rouen and Paris he succeeded in uniting exquisite sensibility with a superbly vigorous technique. Profiting from his Impressionist and Divisionist experiments, his art became powerful yet subtle, firm of line and rich in colouring. Though mainly a landscape artist, Pissarro also painted portraits, still lifes and nudes. 'If we examine Pissarro's art as a whole,' wrote Gauguin in 1902, 'in spite of a certain unevenness, we find not only a tremendous artistic will which is never belied, but also an essentially intuitive, pure-bred art. He took from everyone, you say? Why not? Everyone, though denying him, took from him too.
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