Camille Pissarro is considered the father of Impressionism, which sort of makes the most quintessentially French art movement half-Jewish. And while his stylistic offspring like Renoir and Monet may have produced more masterpieces, Pissarro was the revolutionary who took art into the 20th century.
Although Impressionism became one of the most important schools of art in the modern world, Pissarro remained an innovative painter throughout his life. Perhaps best known for his landscapes of the French countryside, he had a very varied career. Indeed Pissarro tried his hand at varied styles from pre-Impressionism to Impressionism to Neo-Impressionism and Pointillism, which is the use of dots to form an image (see this self-portrait by Van Gogh for an example).
Pissarro constantly experimented with his technique and style. In his mid-50s, when he was established as a leading Impressionist, he began to paint in the Pointillist style, much to his art dealer’s chagrin. But despite his varied styles, and although he painted more cityscapes than other Impressionists, Pissarro is still most recognized for his landscapes of the French countryside—yet he was born and raised thousands of miles from France on a Caribbean Island.
In fact Camille Pissarro was born into a scandal on Caribbean island of St. Thomas, which was then part of the Danish West Indies. His Sephardic Jewish parents came to the Caribbean from the French city of Bordeaux. Their antecedents had come to Bordeaux from Portugal, probably at the time of the Inquisition (from the late 15th to the 16th centuries). But it was in the West Indies, where Pissarro’s father Frédéric arrived in St. Thomas to help run the family’s dry goods business after the death of his uncle, that the whiff of scandal surrounded the family.
In addition to managing the family business, Frédéric was also in St. Thomas to help his aunt in the wake of her loss. But her loss became his gain—and hers too—as Frédéric Pissarro and his widowed aunt Rachel fell in love and decided to marry. However the Jewish community in St. Thomas did not consider it kosher to marry a relative by marriage. They would not recognize the marriage between Frédéric and his uncle’s widow. Regardless the two lived together as man and wife and started their own family, welcoming their son Camille in 1830.
Although the synagogue in St. Thomas did eventually recognize the marriage, because of the scandalous nature of his parents’ union, Pissarro, although Jewish, was sent to the local Protestant school. There he was educated alongside the children of former slaves. While his family was wealthy, growing up among the children of slaves affected Pissarro’s outlook. He painted black figures in is early work and in his later paintings depicted the non-bourgeois: rural peasants and urban poor in France. Perhaps most importantly it engendered a lifelong interest in workers’ rights and human dignity.
But when Pissarro first told his parents his desire to become a painter, their response was not positive. They had planned for him to take over the family business. His reaction to their response was to run away from home. He first went to Venezuela and then, at the age of 25, moved to Paris in 1855. Pissarro remained in France for the rest of his life, where in time his family followed him. Eventually his parents reconciled themselves to the idea of his painting. They would support him only if he received formal training at the École des Beaux-Arts, which he grudgingly did.
Pissarro showed at the Salon in Paris, which as the greatest annual or biannual art event in the Western world was an important forum for artists to show and sell their work. But Pissarro did not much care for the stylistic strictures of the Salon and broke off from it alongside the other Impressionists. Once he left, Pissarro never showed his work at another Salon again.
Like many Impressionists, Pissarro left Paris for the French countryside, where depictions of paths became a recurring motif in his work. The use of the path may demonstrate his preoccupation with the division of society between workers and the wealthy—in some paintings he shows peasants carrying their workload along a path, while in others the wealthy stroll along a path for leisure—and it may also show Pissarro’s interest in the divisions and journeys between town and country. At the time, France was going through its industrial revolution and a great number of the country’s rural citizens were moving to its cities.
Pissarro was perhaps the most politically conscious of all the Impressionists. In his 1898 cityscape titled “View of Rouen” he captures the effervescence and smog of the city at the heart of the industrial revolution. As a social progressive Pissarro was very interested in how workers related to the city and the land. He saw peasants working the soil as integral to the land, depicting them as such, and viewing the fields and the people who worked them as integrated. He also saw his work as connected to the land and those who toiled it. While one critic said, “Monsieur Pissarro’s brush is like a spade painfully turning the earth,” most likely in a sniffy tone, Pissarro may have taken that as praise.
The Impressionists were split politically—some, such as Renoir and Cézanne were conservative while others like Monet were progressive. None, however, was as politically leftist as Pissarro, who was interested in anarchism but whose primary political concern was creating a more humanitarian and egalitarian society. This political division among Impressionists was most visible at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, which dragged on from 1894 to 1906, and split France. While Pissarro and Monet supported the wrongly accused Jewish army officer, some of Pissarro’s oldest friends including Cézanne and Renoir did not, refusing to sign the pro-Dreyfus “Manifesto of the Intellectuals.”
By the time of the Dreyfus Affair, Pissarro had already been in France for 40 years and was well established as a leading artist. Yet the anti-Semitism of the time, which both fuelled and was fuelled by the affair, still affected him. Pissarro wrote that he believed sales of his work suffered as a result of the anti-Jewish feeling. In a letter to his son Lucien he described the scene in Paris at the time of the affair, writing:
“Yesterday, at about five o’clock, while on my way to Durand-Ruel [the famous art dealer], I found myself in the middle of a gang of young scamps seconded by ruffians. They shouted: ‘Death to the Jews! Down with Zola!’ I calmly passed through them and reached the rue Lafitte…they had not even taken me for a Jew.”
Pissarro also wrote that he felt alienated from some colleagues and friends, most notably Cézanne with whom he had painted side by side for 10 years but who became a prominent anti-Dreyfusard. This must have been especially painful for Pissarro, a man and artist who engaged and collaborated so fruitfully with others. He had mentored Cézanne and Gauguin and inspired Van Gogh, encouraging the Dutch post-Impressionist to move to the French countryside.
But while other artists looked up to him, Pissarro did not always sell and struggled financially into his 40s, relying on the support of his parents and causing his wife Julie Vellay considerable concern. He exacerbated the situation and added to Julie’s dismay by encouraging his sons also to become artists. By his 50s, however, Pissarro was financially secure and established as the father of Impressionism.
When Camille Pissarro died at the age of 73 in 1903, he was far from his place of birth. Yet he had taken with him from the Caribbean to France both the emotional baggage of his parents’ scandalous marriage and a passion for justice, which drove his work and revolutionary spirit. And in the course of almost 50 years of progressive painting in France, Père Pissarro spawned his own family, which in turn changed the history of art.