Biography of Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro was born in 1830 in St Thomas, an island in the Danish West Indies.

The son of a French shopkeeper, who had moved to St Thomas to take over the family business, Pissarro spent his formative years on St Thomas and, from the age of 12, at a boarding school outside Paris.

Pissarro was not the most talented of the impressionists, and he himself remarked that "No, like Sisley, I remain in the rear of impressionism".

But Pissarro was key to the impressionist movement. He was patient, sensible and wise. These were critical characteristics: the impressionist movement was barraged by criticism and ridicule for the best part of two decades. So it needed someone steady to hold it together. This was particularly so given that Cezanne and Degas were difficult personalities.

Cezanne in fact commented that Pissarro was "a father to me" and the American impressionist Mary Cassatt remarked that Pissarro could have "taught the stones to draw". Pissarro's centrality can be seen in another way: he was the only impressionist to exhibit in the eight independent exhibitions held between 1872 and 1886.

Pissarro could also paint. He was first accepted to the Salon in 1859, at which stage his works were fairly traditional. But his palette lightened and his style became looser after he met Monet and Cezanne at Suisse's painting academy. Pissarro's finest work is his series of paintings of Boulevard Montmartre at different times of the day, completed in spring 1897.

Pissarro dabbled with pointillism--a method of painting using small coloured dots championed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac--but gave it up after four years on the basis that it was too artificial. Pissarro died in 1903, aged 73.

1. Pissarro's early years

Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born on the Island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies on 10 July 1830.

His father ran the hardware store in St Thomas' capital, Charlotte Amalie, and his mother was a local woman previously married to Pissarro's deceased uncle.

Pissarro spent his formative years on St Thomas, being sent to a boarding school outside Paris at the age of 12 in 1842. He returned to St Thomas in 1847, whereupon he worked in his father's business as a cargo clerk.

Pissarro loved drawing and painting and applied himself to his art outside work. He was persuaded by Danish artist Fritz Melbye to become a full-time artist in 1851, and followed Melbye to Venezuela where the two men shared a studio and Melbye acted as Pissarro's mentor.

Pissarro moves to Paris

Pissarro decided to move to Paris and arrived in 1855, in time for the Universal Exhibition. It included a substantial art section, dominated by the twin-titans of French art of the time: the romantic painter Delacroix and the traditionalist Ingres. Also represented was the realist school of art, in particular the works of its standard-bearer Corot.

Pissarro was initially attracted to the realist school, and received informal mentoring from Corot. Painting en plain air (outside), he produced mainly rural scenes and was accepted by the Salon for the first time in 1859. He was to have he work accepted in the Salons of 1864-6 and 1868-70, initially describing himself as a "Pupil of Corot".

Typical of Pissarro's output over this period is the pictured The Marne at Chennevieres (1864).

Pissarro meets Monet and Cezanne

Pissarro met Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne while attending the Suisse Painting Academy in 1859. The three men were all dissatisfied with the traditional French art establishment, which encouraged religious and mythological works over almost all else and frowned upon painting en plein air and the use of loose brush-strokes.

Pissarro formed a particularly close bond with Cezanne over this period, being a source of comfort when Cezanne's works were mocked by fellow students and art critics.

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