Camille Pissarro: Biography, Paintings & Style

Instructor: Holly Hunt

Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.

In this lesson, we take a closer look at Camille Pissarro, an Impressionist painter whose work reflects four decades of artistic change. He also embraced the Neo-Impressionism of Seurat, and was a mentor to the Post-Impressionists Cezanne and Gauguin.

Camille Pissarro, the Father-Figure of Impressionism

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) may not be the best known of the Impressionists, but no artist participated more fully in every phase of the movement. He was the only painter to exhibit work at each of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. From his early work in the 1850s as a follower of the Realist painter Corot, to his later experimentation with color theory alongside the Neo-Impressionists (also called Pointillists) Seurat and Signac in the 1880s, he was always willing to embrace and explore new ways of seeing. Pissarro acted as a father-figure to both Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. He was also a generous teacher; American-born Impressionist Mary Cassatt said of him that 'he was such a professor that he could have taught stones to draw correctly.'

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, Spring, 1897.
Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, Spring, 1897


Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro was born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas on July 10, 1830, to a Jewish family of French origin. Because St. Thomas was ruled by Denmark, Pissarro was a Danish citizen, but he was educated in France and would spend almost all of his adult life there. Pissarro's first artistic mentor was Fritz Melbye, a Danish painter he met in St. Thomas. In 1855, after traveling and studying with Melbye in Venezuela, Pissarro left to study art in Paris. He worked in the studio of Anton Melbye, Fritz's brother and also a painter, while taking classes at Paris's art academies.

Pissarro was frustrated by the conventional approach to painting that he encountered in the academies. A few artists were rebelling; painters such as Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot were painting landscapes on the spot, outdoors (en plein air), in a freer and softer style. Pissarro became Corot's pupil, and the work he exhibited in the 1860s reflects Corot's influence.

Camille Pissarro, Landscape Painted on Palette, c.1878.
Camille Pissarro, landscape painted on the artists palette, c.1878.

In 1863, Pissarro participated in the Salon des Refusés, an exhibition of work rejected by the annual Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, along with Claude Monet , Edouard Manet, and other artists experimenting with a more spontaneous approach. The group exhibited together again in 1874; critics dubbed them the Impressionists, after the title of one of Monet's works, Impression: Sunrise. The name was not meant to flatter. Critics meant that the group's paintings were mere 'impressions', or sketches, not finished works of art.

Pissarro became a mentor to the younger artists, including Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin, two of the most important Post-Impressionist artists. Pissarro befriended them, painted with them, and promoted their work when they were still outsiders in the Paris art world. He was also open to learning from younger artists. In 1885, he began to work with the Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, helping them develop their color theories and adopting their distinctive brushstrokes. But in the last decade of his life he returned to the Impressionist style. Pissarro continued to paint until his death on November 13, 1903.

Camille Pissarro,The Apple Harvest, 1888.
Camillle Pissarro, Apple Harvest, 1888

Paintings & Style

As critics often point out, it's hard for us today to see what was so scandalous and offensive about Impressionism. But at the time, their paintings looked very improvisational next to the polished works produced by academic artists imitating the Old Masters. Like other members of the Impressionist group, Pissarro wanted to recreate the experience of seeing, to reproduce the interplay of light and color that forms our impressions of the world around us. He often took as his subject matter everyday sights, such as a street full of traffic, a hillside lit by the sun, or a neighborhood transformed by snowfall.

Camille Pissarro, Snow at Louveciennes, 1872.
Camille Pissarro, Snow at Louveciennes, 1872

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