Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born to Abraham Gabriel Pissarro and Rachel Pissarro (née Manzano-Pomié ) in 1830 on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies, now known as the US Virgin Islands. His father, a Sephardic Jew, held French nationality, but was of Portuguese descent. He originally came to the Caribbean to sort out the business affairs of his uncle who had recently died. He ended up staying in St Thomas, took over the running of the dry store business and married his late uncle’s widow, Rachel. This found no favour with the small local Jewish community, maybe because he had married his late uncle’s wife or maybe because his new wife and Camille’s mother, was a native Creole, a Dominican of Spanish descent, and not of the Jewish faith. Camille and his siblings because of this were excluded from the Jewish school on the island and had to attend the all-black primary school.
Pissarro’s father and mother went on to have four children. Camille was the third son and he and his parents and siblings lived a comfortable existence in a large and spacious apartment over the family shop on Dronnigens Gade, the main street, of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St Thomas. At the age of twelve, so as to ensure he had a good education, Camille was sent to France to attend a boarding school in Passy, a small town in a district of Paris , on the right bank of the Seine. It was whilst studying in Paris that the young Camille developed a love for art and would often visit the Louvre. After five years studying in France, Camille Pissarro returned home to Saint Thomas where his father was hoping he would enter the family business. However the young Pissarro was unimpressed at having to act as a cargo clerk at the harbour and had other ideas for his future. During his time at the harbour he would spend most of his time sketching. It was whilst sketching one day that he met Fritz Melbye, a Danish marine painter who was also living on St Thomas. He liked the enthusiasm Pissarro had for sketching and painting and he began to mentor him and eventually persuaded him that he should become a full time artist. Pissarro was delighted and much to his father’s chagrin in 1852 gave up the family job and went off with Melbye to Venezuela where the two of them based themselves in Caracas and stayed for two years sketching and painting landscapes and village scenes. Pissarro once reflected on his decision to leave his comfortable home and his position in the family business saying:
“…I abandoned all I had and bolted to Caracas to get clear of the bondage of bourgeois life…”
In 1854, he returned home to Saint Thomas and his parents realised that any attempt to persuade the son to settle down would be fruitless and so they gave him their blessing to seek his fortune as an artist and the following year he left Saint Thomas for the last time and went to live in Paris. He went initially to stay with the French branch of his family who gave him financial support, in order to have him follow a more serious artistic training.
His first position was to act as an assistant to his friend Fritz Melbye’s brother and Danish artist, Anton. In 1856 he attended private art classes at the École des Beaux-Arts and at the age of thirty-one registered as a copyist at the Louvre. He was influenced in his early days in Paris by the likes of Courbet, Corot, Millet and Daubigny. He also attended the prestigious Académie Suisse which was an art establishment in Paris. The Swiss Academy did not offer courses, but provided the aspiring young artists with models made it possible for them to study nudes together, and in this way helped the usually poverty-stricken young painters who found the price of a model being too high for a sole artist. It was also a great meeting place for the young artists to discuss their work and their personal ideas. It was here that he met the future Impressionists Claude Monet, Armand Guillaumin and Paul Cézanne and through them was introduced to the likes of Renoir and Sisley.
Even though now living in Paris his early paintings were of the Caribbean and he was still influenced by Anton Melbye to such an extent his early exhibits at the Paris Salon bore the signature “Pupil of A. Melbye” a moniker he used until 1866. Studying at the Academies was not all together to Pissarro’s liking and he railed against having to work in the traditional and prescribed manner set down by these institutions and having to follow the official line when it came down to getting works exhibited in their official exhibitions. He felt that their official standards were subduing his creativity and he decided to look elsewhere for help and inspiration which he eventually found when he was being tutored by Camille Corot. It was their mutual love of rural scenes which endeared Corot to Pissarro and it was Corot that first introduced Pissarro to the technique of outdoor painting, en plein air. Pissarro would spend much time around the countryside on the outskirts of Paris. He would make many painting trips around Montmorency and Pontoise building up his landscape portfolio.
A few years after he had arrived in Paris his parents left their business in Saint Thomas leaving the running of it to their manager and moved to Paris. They hired a maidservant by the name of Julie Vellay, the daughter of a Burgundian wine producer. Camille struck up a relationship with Julie in 1860 and she was to become the love of his life and his constant companion. In 1863, following a miscarriage the previous year, they had their first child, Lucien. Just over a year later their daughter Jeanne was born.
The style of Pissarro’s works with their natural settings did not now find favour with the Salon juries and the pretence of grandeur the Salon jurists required in works if they were to be allowed into the Salon exhibitions. A turning point came in 1863 when all the works by Pissarro and his like-minded contemporaries such as Monet, Cézanne and Guillaumin where rejected for the forthcoming exhibition by the Salon jury. According to the author, Ross King, in his book, The Judgement of Paris, only 2217 out of 5000 paintings were accepted into the Paris Salon exhibition by the Salon jury. The French ruler at the time Emperor Napoleon III voiced concern at the time for this wholesale refusal to allow so many works enter the official Salon exhibition and decreed that the rejected painters could have their works hung in an annex the regular Salon, the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects). He wanted the public to judge the works which had been rebuffed by the Salon jurists. Artists who had their works hung in the 1863 Salon des Refusés exhibition included Pissarro, Manet, Whistler and Cézanne.
The Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 and Pissarro moved his family to Norwood on the outskirts of London and it was here he met the Paris art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, a man who would, from then on, organise the sale of Pissarro’s works. It was also the art dealer that reacquainted Pissarro with Monet and the two French artists spent their time in London studying the work of the great landscape painters, Turner and Constable. It was in 1871 whilst still in London that Pissarro married his lover Julie Vellay who was expecting their third child. That year, after the war had ended, he and his family returned to their home in Louveciennes and much to his horror most of the works in his studio, which he had completed in the previous twenty years, had been destroyed by the invading Prussian soldiers.
I will leave Pissarro’s life story at this point and conclude it in my next blog but for today I want to end by looking at one of Pissarro’s early paintings. My Daily Art Display featured oil on canvas painting is entitled Two Women Chatting by the Sea which he completed in 1856 around the time he left his homeland for the final time. The painting had been owned by Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, the late American philanthropist and his wife and was given to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1985. Unfortunately, according to their website it is not currently on view. It is amazing the high percentage of paintings that all large museums have in their vaults, waiting their turn to go on display. It is just a shame that there is not more wall space available for us to see these hidden gems.