Resilient and Calm : Notes on Camille Pissarro
July 10 marks the birthday of a painter who remained enthusiastic about his craft through a long career. He also inspired other artists.
There’s much to admire in the paintings below, even beyond their beauty.
Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) gives us the vibe of busy Boulevard Montmartre. These cityscapes, including the night scene, are lively.
Pissarro’s paintings of Boulevard Montmartre are optimistic celebrations of urban life. Yet, he completed them at a time of great turmoil for both him and for France, the nation where he lived most of his life.
Well into his 60s by the late 1890s, Pissarro suffer from a chronic eye ailment. At the same time, France was in the midst of a particularly ugly bout of anti-Semitism. By 1896, evidence had surfaced about the framing of an innocent French military officer, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, accused of selling secrets to the Germans. Instead of moving quickly to aid Dreyfus, who was Jewish, though, French society split over the question of his guilt. The divide fueled a rise of anti-Semitic mobs, such as one Pissarro encountered in 1898 on his way to visit his art dealer.
In a letter to his son Lucien, Pissarro wrote about passing unnoticed by a band of ruffians, who didn’t realize he was Jewish. (Note: There is a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography of works used in my research on Pissarro, including an English translation of his letters to Lucien.)
“France is really sick, will she recover?” Pissarro wrote. ”Despite the grave turn of affairs in Paris, despite all these anxieties, I must work at my window as if nothing happened. Let us hope it will end happily.”
Dreyfus would not be exonerated until July 1906. Pissarro did not live to see that. He died in 1903.
But Pissarro kept painting until nearly his final days. In his later years, Pissarro rented rooms that allowed him to watch street life in the town of Rouen as well as in Paris.
The website of the National Gallery of Art in Washington notes how Pissarro’s “quick brushwork” works to enliven the painting below.
“Notice the wheels of the carriages and buggies, where scoured circles of paint trace motion,” the NGA website suggests.
“With the movement of his brush, Pissarro does not simply paint but reenacts the wheels’ rolling progress,” the NGA website says. “This painting, done more than a quarter century after the first impressionist exhibition, still has the same fresh energy of those early impressionist works.
“Father of Impressionism”
Sometimes called the Father of Impressionism, Pissarro was the oldest of the group of artists that pioneered this style of painting.
In 1874, Pissarro, Claude Monet (1840–1926) and other like-minded painters marked an important break with the approach to painting in France. They held a salon that marks the first major showing of what we now call Impressionist art.
It’s easy in 2020 to underestimate what rebels the Impressionists were, what with Monet’s work used to decorate notecards and umbrellas.
But Europe’s artistic training grounds, particularly France’s Académie des Beaux-Arts, long had favored somber colors and a polished finished look to paintings. Scenes from the Bible, history and classical books were considered proper subjects.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, for example, won a top French art award, the Prix de Rome, in 1801 for his painting of a scene from Homer’s “Iliad,” shown here.
I couldn’t find a picture of the painting that took the Prix de Rome in 1874, the year of the first major show of what’s now called Impressionist art. Paul Albert Besnard won the big prize that year for a retelling of an obscure classic story, the death of the ancient Corinthian Timophanes c. 365 BC. I’d guess Besnard’s painting looked something like the Ingres one. (Besnard would go on to experiment with Impressionism and other techniques in his career, but that’s a story for a future Medium post.)
Here’s a painting Pissarro completed around 1874. It is one of many of his works that will feature a road.
The Impressionists had followed the lead of painters like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875). Corot is part of what art historians call the Barbizon School.
Inspired in part by the work of English landscape painter John Constable, French artists around 1830 began to work more often in nature. Increased industrialization meant more people had enough money and leisure to make train trips from Paris to the village of Barbizon, near the the forest of Fontainebleau.
Artists in the Barbizon School paid attention to the quality of light and so painted often outdoors, or en plein air as the French say. Nature takes center stage instead of serving as a backdrop.
In the painting below, Corot gave French viewers the requisite recognizable religious figure. Tucked in the lower left of the canvas we see a long-haired woman reading. For viewers of art in Corot’s time, a long-haired woman in the wilderness signified Mary Magdalene.
But the landscape is the star of this Corot painting, not the saint.
Pissarro also had an affinity with another artist of the Barbizon School, Jean-François Millet (1814–1875). Both of them painted many sympathetic portraits of poor people working on farms.
In the painting below, Pissarro experiments with a style of painting called pointillism, developed by Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Paul Signac (1863–1935). In this technique, painters used dots of pure colors that came together as images when viewed in the distance. Pissarro was in his mid 50s when he fell in with these younger painters and partially incorporated this more time-consuming approach to this work.
While ultimately returning to a freer Impressionist style, Pissarro dabbled with the pointillist approach for a few years.
“He was interested in all the experiments which at the time were exciting the artists. He was curious about every art form,” recalled art dealer Ambroise Vollard in his memoir, titled in English “Recollections of a Picture Dealer.”
Vollard also comments on Pissarro’s nature, offering a description that echoes through other writings about the artist.
“The first thing that struck one in Pissarro was his air of kindness, of sensitiveness, and at the same time of serenity, a serenity born of work accomplished with joy,” Vollard wrote.
“Against the Storm”
In an 1885 letter to his son Lucien, Pissarro wrote: “Calm and reflection, coupled with a passion for one’s subject, are necessary for good work.”
Lucien also was an artist. Pissarro touches often on the topic of art in his letters to Lucien. But on a quick skim of them in their English translation, I first was surprised by how much of Pissarro’s correspondence with Lucien is about the minutia of everyday family life.
Unlike many painters of his time, Pissarro spent his adult life soaked in domesticity. He did not live with a series of mistresses. Instead, Pissarro and his wife, Julie Vellay, had seven children, of whom Lucien was the eldest.
Many of Pissarro’s letters to Lucien recall the text messages families today exchange. Pissarro needs Lucien to send a list of paintings sent to him. Pissarro tells Lucien how his younger sister is adapting well to boarding school. Pissarro reminds Lucien that he has to settle a financial debt for the family.
“Your mother wants you not to forget to go to the pawnshop to pay what we owe. Since you said nothing about this in your letter she is very much afraid that you will overlook this matter and it is urgent,” Pissarro wrote in 1889.
Financial woes are a continual theme in Pissarro’s letters. Julie appears to have championed her husband’s work. On a quick skim of Pissarro’s letters in their English translation, I have the impression of a couple so close that they bicker — a lot — while pursuing their common cause.
“Your mother believes that business deals can be carried off in style, but does she think I enjoy running in the rain and mud, from morning till night, without a penny in my pocket, often economizing on bus fare when I am weak with fatigue, counting every penny for lunch or dinner?” Pissarro wrote Lucien in 1886.
Pissarro’s dabbling with pointillism slowed the pace of his work and seems to have put off many buyers. By 1887, the Pissarro family was in dire financial trouble. In a letter to Lucien that year, Pissarro writes of Julie traveling to Paris to find buyers for his paintings. Pissarro originally intended to make this trip, seeking either sales of his work or a loan to tide the family over. But instead he now will stay at the family’s country home in Eragny to finish canvases.
“This is the state we are in: darkness, doubt, quarrels, and with all that one must produce works that will stand up to those of one’s contemporaries. One must create art, without which all is lost. So, my dear Lucien, I stiffen myself against the storm and try not to founder. Your mother accuses me of egoism, indifference, nonchalance. I make heroic efforts to preserve my calm as not to lose the fruit of so much thought and labor,” Pissarro wrote.
Cézanne’s “Kind God”
It’s interesting to read about Pissarro’s concern about how his paintings stood against those of his contemporaries.
He was widely admired in his time by artists like Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), who famously said Pissarro could have taught stones to paint. Pissarro’s letters to Lucien make repeated references to Cassatt urging him to send his paintings for sale in American markets. She also urges would-be artists to see him.
“We were visited yesterday by three American ladies sent by Miss Cassatt; they wanted to find lodging at Eragny so as to be near me and receive my advice,” Pissarro told Lucien in an 1891 letter. “This makes four, with the one who came last time with Miss Cassatt. You see, there will be a colony soon.”
And Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) paid Pissarro many compliments. The artist often seen as the founder of modern art, Cézanne often painted with Pissarro in the 1870s, joining him in working outdoors in Pontoise, north of Paris.
Cézanne later is famously said to have recalled Pissarro, only about nine years his senior, as having been like a father to him : “He was a man to consult and something like a kind God. (Ce fut un père pour moi. C’était un homme à consulter et quelque chose comme le Bon Dieu).”
Cézanne and Pissarro both saw themselves as outsiders in Parisian art circles.
Cézanne was from Provence in the south of France. Pissarro had been born on St. Thomas, in what was then Danish West Indies and now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Pissarro’s father was a Frenchman of Portuguese descent, Frederick Pissarro. Frederick had arrived in St. Thomas to attend to the business of a deceased uncle and shocked the island’s small Jewish community by marrying his uncle’s widow. Frederick’s son, Camille, attended boarding school in France for several years in his teens and then returned to St. Thomas.
In his 20s, Camille Pissarro decided to become a full-time painter, training with Danish artist Fritz Melbye. Pissarro spent a few years working in Venezuela before settling in Paris in 1855.
Pissarro spent the rest of his life in Europe, but poet Derek Walcott (1930–2017), saw a lasting and important influence of the painter’s Caribbean youth on modern art. In his 2000 poem, “Tiepolo’s Hound,” Walcott wrote:
“Cézanne stayed close to two years in Pontoise,
attentive to his older friend’s advice
to change his dingy palette to colours
brightened by his tutor’s tropical eyes,
a different language for a different light,
more crystalline, more broken like the sea
on island afternoons, scorchingly bright
and built in prisms. He should learn to see.”
Click here for the bibliography of works used in writing Medium posts on Pissarro and other European artists.