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Camille Pissarro: Biography

   Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830 on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Danish West Indies. He was the third of four children. His parents Abraham Gabriel Pissarro (of Sephardic Jewish ancestry) and Rachel Manzano-Pomié (a Dominican of Spanish descent) ran a dry goods store at 12 Dronnigens Gade in Queen's Quarter, Charlotte Amalie, a building now known today as the Pissarro Building. His mother was also his great aunt, as his father had married his uncle's widow. The small Jewish community considered this marriage illegitimate, and Pissarro grew up as an outsider, attending a Protestant elementary school despite his Jewish heritage.

   Pissarro grew up in an apartment above his parents' shop, overlooking the main street of Charlotte Amalie. Many trading ships frequented Charlotte Amalie weekly, bringing with them the influence of different cultures. Pissarro spoke French at home and Spanish and English with the native population of the island.

   When Pissarro was 12, his parents sent him to Paris to attend a small boarding school. The director of the school noticed his interest in the arts and encouraged him to explore drawing. In 1846 when he returned to St. Thomas and the director's advice truly had stuck with him. Pissarro carried a sketchbook everywhere with him sketching all scenes of everyday life for every socioeconomic class. His father wanted him to check arrivals in the port, yet he struggled to do his daily chores. It was during this period he became very attracted to political anarchy and remained an anarchist for the rest of his life. Since his parents did not give him permission to devote himself to painting, he ran away with Fritz Melbye (a Danish painter from Copenhagen) and sailed to Venezuela “in order to get clear of the bondage of bourgeois life.” After ensuring his own total independence he had time to dream, to explore and to grow and Melbye helped him to develop his interests in producing paintings, watercolors and drawings many of which were signed in Spanish Pizzarro.

   In 1852 his parents finally supported Pissaro's artistic career and he returned to St. Thomas. Pissaro returned to Paris in 1855 to further his studies and to pursue a career as a painter. Pissarro attended the Paris Exposition and was taken by the work of Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. He met Corot shortly after seeing his work and followed his advice to paint from his natural surroundings, resulting in a variety of dark, natural landscapes strongly influenced by Corot. In 1859 Pissarro's work was shown for the first time in the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Acadé des Beaux-Arts, a renowned event of the Western world.

   With his career as a painter taking off, Pissarro's parents left their business in St. Thomsa with a caretaker and moved to Paris and about this time Pissarro met his long-life companion Julie Vellay.

Pissarro soon began turning his attention to artists whose work did not conform to any accepted style. He saw in these revolutionary artists' work the emergence of a distinct new form in which the subject and artist are both expressed. He wanted to investigate the way scenes and objects imprinted themselves to memory. He recorded every aspect of the subject especially the conditions of the light since he perceived light as inseperable from the things it illuminates. This was not received very well by the art connoisseurs of the time because they did not grasp the significance of this bold departure from the classic. Those of the old school were only concerned with technical execution. He distanced himself from his teachers Melbye and Corot and began severely criticizing his own work. Pissarro's work was also shown at the Académie Suisse where he met artists Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne, thus entering a new network of acquaintences which gave Pissarro new insight and encouragement.

Monet and Pissarro were discouraged by the critical scrutiny of the French Salons and in 1874 they organized independent exhibitions (featuring such artists Renior, Sisley, Beliard, Guillaumin, Degas, Cezanne, and Berthe Morisot).  The new artists were met with much criticism and the term “impressionst” became an insult since the art world of the time valued only photographic realism and the idealization of the subject.  He was met with much criticism for his anarchist beliefs since he was supporting anarchy in a period when anarchists were supposedly bombing public buildings.  Although he would not suffer his personal political principle for market share, Pissarro was determined to make their new approach to art stay and he became the center of the group of painters keeping them together and encouraging them.  He became known as the “Father of Impressionism” showing all sides of rural and urban French life contributing to Impressionist theory.

   He finally got the respectability he deserved when he turned 74 and his works became expensive and a new generation of artists admired his work. He died of blood poisioning on November 13, 1903 in France leaving behind eight children who all also painted.


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