born July 10, 1830 , St. Thomas , Danish West Indies
died Nov. 13, 1903 , Paris, France
French Impressionist painter, who endured prolonged financial hardship in keeping faith with the aims of Impressionism. Despite acute eye trouble, his later years were his most prolific. The Parisian and provincial scenes of this period include “Place du Théâtre Française” (1898) and”Bridge at Bruges ” (1903).
Pissarro was the son of a prosperous Jewish merchant, Abraham Gabriel Pissarro, and Rachel Manzano-Pomié. At the age of 12 he left home for studies in Paris , where he showed an early interest in art. Returning to the West Indies after five years to work in his father’s store, he began making sketches of the exotic island and its people. Because he was unable to obtain his father’s permission to study art, he ran away to Caracas in 1853 and remained there for two years with the Danish painter Fritz Melbye. Finally, Pissarro’s father relented, and in 1855 he returned to France . His earliest canvases, dating from this period, are figure paintings and landscapes of the tropics and of the French countryside; although broadly painted, they show the careful observation of nature that was to remain a characteristic of his art throughout his life.
The uninspired academic teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he was enrolled, led Pissarro to seek out the painter Camille Corot, who permitted Pissarro to call himself Corot’s “pupil” at a Salon exhibition in 1864. At this time Pissarro was also attracted to the rural, sentimental paintings of the Barbizon artist Jean-François Millet and to the works of Gustave Courbet, the leading proponent of everyday Realism. During the 1860s Pissarro participated in the famous Parisian Café Guerbois discussions, in which artists and writers exchanged ideas, and worked with the younger painters Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet. To escape the Franco-German War, in 1870 Pissarro fled to England ; there he and Monet, who had also fled France , visited the museums, where they viewed British landscape paintings. It was in London that Pissarro married Julie Vellay, formerly his mother’s maid, who had already borne him two of their seven children.
When Pissarro returned to France in 1871, he found his house in Louveciennes looted and a great number of his paintings destroyed. Soon he was to look for another house in Pontoise. (Because it was costly to live in Paris , Pissarro, like several of his painter friends, lived in villages not far from the city.) His surroundings formed the theme of his art for some 30 years and were always carefully chosen: “I require a spot that has beauty!” At Pontoise he was joined by Paul Cézanne in 1872, and the two of them painted out-of-doors, even in the middle of winter.
Pissarro’s paintings are never dramatic; on the contrary, his leading motifs during the 1870s and 1880s are simply houses, factories, trees, haystacks, fields, labouring peasants, and river scenes. Forms do not dissolve but remain firm, and colours are strong; during the latter part of the 1870s his comma-like brushstrokes frequently recorded the sparkling scintillation of light, as in “Orchard with Flowering Fruit Trees, Springtime, Pontoise” (1877). Although his paintings were sold by the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who represented several of the Impressionists, Pissarro continued to experience financial hardships, which he described in letters to his eldest son, Lucien; this remarkable correspondence began in 1883 and lasted for 20 years.
In some of the letters to his son, Pissarro expressed dissatisfaction with his own work. Preoccupied by problems of style and technique, he eagerly embraced the Neo-Impressionist theories of Georges Seurat, whom he met in 1885 through the painter Paul Signac. Seurat’s technique, consisting of meticulously painted small dots of juxtaposed colours, was adopted by Pissarro; for about five years he painted in this “divisionist” manner, a style which made his works unpopular with dealers, collectors, and even his old fellow artists. Overwhelmingly discouraged by their continuing state of poverty, Madame Pissarro considered drowning herself and their two youngest children. Finally, Pissarro abandoned the style, not, however, because of the opposition he met but because “it was impossible to be true to my sensations and consequently to render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the effects, so random and so admirable, of nature …” At about this time, also, there was an estrangement from Paul Gauguin, who had formerly worked at his side but now was involved with the new Symbolist movement.
A large and successful retrospective exhibition of Pissarro’s paintings was held by Durand-Ruel in 1892, giving the artist greater financial stability, although by this time he was troubled by a chronic eye infection that frequently made it impossible for him to work out-of-doors. Both in 1893 and 1897 he took hotel rooms in Paris from which he painted 24 canvases of the city’s streets by day and by night, in sun, rain, and fog. During the 1890s he also did a series of river scenes in Rouen , likewise depicting the various effects of nature. From 1900 until his death three years later, Pissarro continued working, mainly in Paris , Éragny, Dieppe , and Le Havre , with freshness of vision and increasing freedom in his technique. More than 1,600 works, consisting of oils, gouaches, temperas, pastels-and even paintings on fans and on porcelain-as well as nearly 200 fine prints, give testimony to the high quality of Pissarro’s half century of work.
Pissarro was the only Impressionist painter who participated in all eight of the group’s exhibitions. His kindness, warmth, wisdom, and encouraging words cast him in a fatherly role to struggling younger artists-Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Gauguin-who were exploring new means of personal expression. Despite financial burdens that continued until he reached his 60s, Pissarro never lost faith in the new art, believing that “one must be sure of success to the very end, for without that there is no hope!”