Pissarro came from interesting beginnings and led a life with even more interesting twists and turns. A major force in the art world who helped shape Impressionism as we know it today, here are four intriguing facts about the prolific painter.
1. Pissarro was born on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean
St. Thomas is a beautiful island in the southern Caribbean and is now a constituent of the United States. At the time of Pissarro’s birth on July 10, 1830, St. Thomas was a Dutch territory.
His father was French of Portuguese Jewish descent and was on the island to settle affairs for his late uncle. In a strange turn of events, Pissarro’s father ended up marrying his uncle’s widow and, with the marriage being understandably controversial, Pissarro’s early life was lived as an outsider with his family estranged from most of the St. Thomas community.
Pissarro was sent to a boarding school in France at the age of 12 where he gained a deep appreciation for French art. He returned to St. Thomas at 17, sketching and painting the gorgeous natural landscapes the island had to offer every chance he got.
At 21, Pissarro met the Danish artist Fritz Melbye who was living on St. Thomas at the time and became Pissarro’s teacher, mentor, and friend. They moved to Venezuela together for two years, working as artists.
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In 1855, Pissarro moved back to Paris to work as an assistant to Melbye’s brother, Anton Melbye.
His interesting upbringing and the landscapes of the Caribbean surely shaped Pissarro into the Impressionist landscape painter he would come to be.
2. Part of Pissarro’s early work was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War
The Franco-Prussian War which lasted from 1870 to 1871 caused Pissarro and his family to flee in September 1870. By December, they had settled in southwest London.
It was during this time that Pissarro would paint areas in Sydenham and Norwood, the largest of which is a painting commonly called The Avenue, Sydenham which is now housed in the National Gallery in London.
It was also during his years in London that Pissarro met Paul Durand-Ruel, an art dealer who would go on to become the most important art dealer of the new school of French Impressionism. Durand-Ruel bought two of Pissarro’s London-era paintings.
When the family returned to France in June 1871, it was devastating. Their house had been destroyed by Prussian soldiers and with it, many of his early paintings were lost. Only 40 out of 1,500 had survived.
3. Pissarro was the only artist to exhibit work in both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism shows
Not only that, but Pissarro was also the only artist to exhibit at all eight Paris Impressionist exhibitions. So, let’s start there.
Once the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, et Graveurs got started in 1873, which we’ll talk more about later, a year later the first Impressionist Exhibition was presented. It gave artists who weren’t “welcome” at the Paris Salon a place to show their stuff.
Then, as Impressionism started to fade and Post-Impressionism made its way onto the scene, Pissarro also made his mark there. But he didn’t stop. He took on the Neo-impressionist style at age 54.
For clarification, Impressionism sprung from realism and naturalism with a focus on landscapes and creating “impressions.” Post-impressionism was more short-lived but took cues from Impressionism and either made it more extreme like Cezanne or more emotional like Van Gogh. Neo-Impressionism, however, took a more nuanced approach to color theory and optical illusions.
His Neo-Impressionist work seemed to go back to his roots in the Caribbean as he worked with Seurat and Signac. He started to work using dots of pure color and painted peasant subjects. In many ways, Pissarro’s exit from Impressionism marked the end of the era.
4. Pissarro was the father figure to other artists of his time.
To fully explore Pissarro’s role as a father figure to many influential artists of the late 19th century, we first must explore those who inspired Pissarro himself.
As we know, Pissarro worked as an assistant to Anton Melbye when he first arrived back in Paris but he also studied Gustave Courbet, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jean-Francois Millet, and Camille Corot.
He also enrolled in courses at Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Académie Suisse but ultimately found these traditional methods to be stifling. The Paris Salon had strict standards that forced young artists to comply if they wanted to be seen, so Pissarro’s first major works embodied some of these traditional aspects and he was included in the Salon for the first time in 1859. But, it still wasn’t what sparked his passion.
To get out of the world of academics, he received private instruction from Corot who became a huge influence on Pissarro’s work. It was with Corot’s tutoring that he began to paint “plein air” or in the outdoors with nature but, with this technique came disagreements between the two artists. Corot would sketch in nature and finish the composition in his studio, whereas Pissarro would complete a painting from start to finish outdoors.
In 1873, he helped to establish the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, et Graveurs complete with 15 aspiring artists and as its father figure, he was not only the oldest in the group but was incredibly encouraging and paternal.
The following year, the group held the first Impressionist Exhibition and impressionism was born. Later, as the post-impressionist movement took hold, he was also considered the father figure to all four of its major artists: Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin.
Father figure, impressionist leader, and major influencer, Pissarro is a household name in the art world. The next time you see a stunning piece of Impressionist work, you can thank Pissarro for his part in encouraging the movement.