From a humble upbringing on the Island of St. Thomas (part of the Danish West Indies), Pissarro became one of the most important Impressionist painters of twentieth-century France.
Pissarro’s father (Frederick Abraham Gabriel Pissarro) caused a stir by marrying Rachel Manzano Pomié, the wife of his deceased uncle. Pomié hailed from a respected French-Jewish St. Thomas family.
Under Jewish Law, a marriage of this nature is forbidden. It outraged the small Jewish community on the island.
At the age of twelve, Pissarro’s father sent him to France. He studied at the Savary Academy in Passy (near Paris) and developed a love of the old masters. Supported by Monsieur Savary himself, Pissarro’s talent was evident.
Returning to St. Thomas at seventeen, Pissarro often drew from nature. Nonetheless, his father ensured that he worked as a port clerk (part of the family business). During this time, the young man took every opportunity to practice drawing during lunch breaks, mornings, and evenings.
He later painted the beautiful island in works such as A Creek in Saint Thomas Antilles (1856).
These early experiences formed the basis of Pissarro’s mature style, and his paintings contain carefully observed figures and landscapes saturated with vibrant colors and soft light.
At 21, Pissarro met Fritz Melbye (a Danish artist). Serving as a friend and mentor to Pissarro, Melbye encouraged him to pursue painting as a full-time career. As a result, Pissarro left his job and his family and moved to Venezuela. He drew everything he could in this fascinating country, filling up many sketchbooks and canvases.
In 1855, Pissarro returned to Paris. He worked as an assistant to Anton Melbye (brother to Fritz Melbye). Pissarro studied painters such as Courbet, Millet, and Corot. The artist was impressed by their innovative, realistic techniques, and he sought instruction from Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
While Pissarro’s early paintings correlated with the traditional “Salon” style (allying with conventions of the time), Corot encouraged him to rebel. As a result, he focused more on everyday rural scenes, painting “en Plein air.” However, he soon left Paris to pursue the daily realities of the French countryside.
Pissarro returned to Paris in the late 1850s. While studying at the Académie Suisse in 1859, he met several aspiring young artists. Counting Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne as friends, they later formed the French Impressionist group.
The artist was a father figure for many impressionist artists. Indeed, Cézanne never forgot his sympathy, understanding, and encouragement. In addition, Pissarro's part of the French Impressionist movement supplied a sense of community and support.
In some ways, Camille Pissarro is the “purest” impressionist. He believed in the importance of depicting individuals in nature without fake mythological narratives or unnecessary grandeur. He was also the only artist to participate in every French Impressionist exhibition.
Even in his early career, critics noted Pissarro’s extraordinary skill and talent. In 1868, Emile Zola described him as one of the few “true painters of this day.” Another critic described how Pissarro enveloped “objects in atmosphere” and painted “the smell of the earth.”
After the mid-1860s, Camille Pissarro’s reputation grew significantly. His impressionist landscape paintings are particularly celebrated.
Pissarro married in 1871 in Croydon (London, UK) to his mother’s house cleaner (Julie Vellay). They had seven children together. Continuing the family legacy, six of Pissarro’s children also became painters.
Camille Pissarro and his family lived outside Paris (in the villages of Pontoise and, later, Louveciennes). These rural locations inspired many of Pissarro’s paintings, such as The Harvest Pontoise. They feature everyday village scenes, farming landscapes, woods, rivers, and people hard at work.
With the onset of the Franco-Prussian war, and despite this seeming idyll, the family moved to Norwood. Pissarro found the transition to a small village on the outskirts of London difficult. His deep impressionist style in oil paintings such as Upper Norwood, Crystal Palace, and Snowy Landscape at South Norwood) proved unpopular in the UK.
Despite this, Pissarro met Paul Durant-Ruel in London. As a leading art dealer, he secured many of Pissarro’s significant sales throughout his life.
Meeting up with Claude Monet (also in London at this time), the two artists viewed the famous landscapes of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, confirming both Camille Pissarro and Monet’s “en Plein air” approach.
Both artists subsequently viewed light and modern life with renewed vigor. From the mid-1870s onwards, Pissarro’s painting became much more spontaneous. Works such as Resting in the Woods (1878) feature loose brushwork and thick impasto technique.
French Impressionist artwork uses loose, free brushwork and bright colors. Painting outdoors was paramount. Artists also working in the same style depict the fleeting effects of light and modernity. While often involving rural and coastal subjects, it also features everyday urban life.
Returning to France after the war, Pissarro sadly discovered almost all his Impressionist paintings destroyed. Of 1,500 paintings created over many years, only 40 survived. As some of the earliest Impressionist works, this destruction leaves a significant hole in our understanding of art history.
Despite this setback, Pissarro continued to work undaunted. Along with his French Impressionist friends, he took part in the first “Impressionist exhibition” in 1874. He displayed five impressionist landscape paintings at the show, including the calmly beautiful Hoarfrost.
Shocking and horrifying critics, comments included “vulgar,” “commonplace,” “sketchy,” and “an insult.” Camille Pissarro wrote to a friend, saying, “the critics are eating us alive.
Despite his integral importance to the Impressionist movement, Pissarro distanced himself from the group in the late 1880s and 90s, returning to painting simple countryside scenes reminiscent of his work in Venezuela.
Using small dots and dabs of pure color creates the illusion of blended shading when viewed from a distance. Pissarro found these pointillism techniques fascinating. So he adopted them in many paintings, for instance, Apple Harvest at Eragny and Woman in a Meadow.
These works are notably different from Pissarro’s early Impressionist paintings. Instead, they mark his transition from Impressionism toward Neo-Impressionism.
The art dealer Theo van Gogh contacted Pissarro in 1884. He asked if his older brother, Vincent Van Gogh, could stay with him. Pissarro was deeply impressed by Van Gogh’s work and welcomed the proposition.
Lucien Pissarro, the artist's son described how his father saw “the power” of the young Van Gogh. Indeed, Van Gogh was just twenty-three years old at the time.
Pissarro influenced Van Gogh through their discussions on light and technique. He specifically advised Van Gogh on ways to express color and light. These formative ideas stayed with Van Gogh throughout his astoundingly creative yet tragically short career.
By the late 1880s, Camille Pissarro paintings had moved away from Neo-Impressionism. Despite his earlier associations with Seurat and Signac, he described it as “too artificial.” His work became more subtle, controlled, and careful as he approached old age.
Pissarro faced continuing financial problems well into his sixties, but he remained true to his creative approach, prioritizing integrity over commercial success.
During the 1890s Pissarro returned to London where he painted views of Kew Gardens and Stamford Brook, giving fascinating insights into the city’s expansion. However, London never inspired Pissarro to the same extent as Paris.
The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897) exemplifies Pissarro’s infatuation with Paris. He painted the wide avenue in all weathers, at all times of the day. Intriguingly though, this artwork is the only night painting by Pissarro.
Pissarro painted the work to explore patterns of artificial light reflected on rainy pavements. The cool white street lamps contrast with the warm, traditional yellows of shop windows. Pissarro’s brushwork is so loose and free that it is almost abstract, merely suggesting passing crowds and traffic.
In later years, Pissarro suffered from recurrent eye infections. As a result, Pissaro could not paint Plein air except in clear weather. As a result, he increasingly painted city scenes from hotel windows and balconies. As demonstrated in The Tuileries Gardens Morning Spring Sun (1899), his later paintings contain views from a high-up perspective.
Pissarro died on 13 November 1903 in Eragny-sur-Epte. He is buried in his beloved Paris, and his tomb is in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
If you love the unparalleled beauty of Camille Pissarro art, explore our extensive collection of high-quality oil paintings from famous Impressionist artists. As well as Pissarro Impressionist landscape paintings, you’ll find stunning artwork from Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and many more.