Known in the art world as the “Father of Impressionism,” Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was a Danish-French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter born in 1830 on the island of St Thomas. Today a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, at that time, the island was in the Danish West Indies.
The artist’s father was of Portuguese Jewish descent. His mother was from a French-Jewish family rooted on St. Thomas. His father, Frederick Abraham Gabriel Pissarro, was a merchant who came to the island from France to deal with the hardware store of a deceased uncle, Isaac Petit.
When Pissarro was twelve his father sent him to boarding school in France. He studied at the Savary Academy in Passy near Paris. While a young student, he developed an early appreciation of the French art masters. Monsieur Savary himself gave him a strong grounding in drawing and painting and suggested he draw from nature when he returned to St. Thomas.
After his schooling, Pissarro returned to St. Thomas at the age of 17 where, for the next five years, his father had him working in the family business as a port clerk. Nevertheless, Pissarro took every opportunity to practice drawing.
Visual theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff claims that the young Pissarro was inspired by the artworks of James Gay Sawkins, a British painter and geologist who lived in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas circa 1847.
When Pissarro turned twenty-one, Danish artist Fritz Melbye, then living on St. Thomas, inspired him to take on painting as a full-time profession, becoming his teacher and friend. Pissarro relocated to Venezuela, where he and Melbye spent the next two years working as artists.
In 1859, while attending the free school, the Académie Suisse, Pissarro became friends with a number of younger artists who likewise chose to paint in the more realistic style. Among them were Claude Monet, Armand Guillaumin and Paul Cézanne.
In 1873 Pissarro helped establish a collective society of fifteen aspiring artists, becoming the pivotal figure in holding the group together and encouraging other members.
Pissarro is the only artist to have shown his work at all eight Paris Impressionist exhibitions, from 1874 to 1886. He acted as a “father figure” not only to the Impressionist but to all four of the major Post-Impressionists: Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and van Gogh.
Art historian John Rewald called Pissarro the “dean of the Impressionist painters,” not only because he was the oldest of the group, but also … “by virtue of his wisdom and his balanced, kind, and warmhearted personality.”
Cézanne said of Pissarro,
“He was a father for me. A man to consult and a little like the good Lord.”
Pissarro was also one of Paul Gauguin’s masters. Pierre-Auguste Renoir referred to his work as “revolutionary” through his artistic portrayals of the “common man.”
Today, Pissarro’s vital importance is reflected in his contributions to both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
View more of Camille Pissarro’s work HERE.