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Camille Pissarro: a most illustrious former member

Camille Pissarro
Camille Pissarro
     Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830 on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Danish West Indies; to Abraham Gabriel Pissarro, of Sephardic (or "Morrano") Jewish ancestry, and Rachel Manzano-Pomié, a Dominican of Spanish descent.
     The Pissarros operated a dry goods store in what is now known as the Pissarro Building, 14 Dronnigens Gade in Queen's Quarter, Charlotte Amalie. Overlooking the main street, the family's upstairs residence was a spacious apartment. Large shuttered windows and high ceilings let breezes through during the hot summer months.
     It was a busy time for the little port town of Charlotte Amalie. Dozens of merchant sailing ships would come to call every week with trade goods; during the age of sail, "free port" status and favorable tradewinds made St. Thomas a major point of transshipment between the Americas, Europe and Africa. As diverse as the itineraries of these great ships was the variety of the peoples and cultures settled in the Danish West Indies. As a boy, Camille spoke French at home, English, and Spanish with the Negro population of the island.
     His parents sent him to Paris at age 12 to a small boarding school. It was there that the director, seeing his interest in art, advised him to take "advantage of his life in the tropics by drawing coconut trees." When he returned to St. Thomas in 1847, this advice had been taken to heart.
     He devoted all his spare time to making sketches, not only of coconut trees and other exotic plants, but also of the daily life surrounding him. Time and again he drew the donkeys and their carts on the sunny roads, the Negro women doing their wash on the beaches or carrying jugs, baskets, or bundles on their heads. In these studies done from life he revealed himself to be a simple and sincere observer.
     Whenever his father sent him to the port to supervise arrivals, the young man took his sketchbook with him. While entering the boxes and crates that were being unloaded, he also made drawings of the animated life of the harbor with its sailboats gliding along the blue waters, coasting large, verdure-covered rocks capped by Danish citadels. For five years the budding artist thus struggled between his daily chores and the urge of his avocation. Since he could not obtain permission to devote himself to painting, he ran away one day, leaving a note for his parents. In the company of Fritz Melbye, a Danish painter from Copenhagen whom he had met while sketching in the port, he sailed to Venezuela. As he later said, he "bolted to Caracas in order to get clear of the bondage of bourgeois life."
     Having gained this sudden independence at age 23, one can easily imagine the exhilaration felt as he eyed his new surroundings! A time to dream, to explore, grow. Under Melbye's direction he produced paintings and watercolors, and made countless drawings in pencil, ink and wash; many of these annotated in Spanish with the signature Pizzarro.
     By 1852 his parents had become resigned to his ambition and pledged their support. He returned to St. Thomas, then left his Caribbean home for Paris to further his studies and ultimately pursue a career.
     Finding no inspiration in the classes of academically acknowledged masters, Pissarro's attention was drawn towards the fringe (frontier?) of the craft, certain artists whose work did not conform to widely accepted styles.
     In their work he began to see the emergence of a distinct form, one that expresses the artist as eloquently as its subject. His eye was guided by the way scenes and objects imprinted on the mind. Every aspect of the subject was recorded faithfully, especially conditions of light: Pissarro perceived light as inseparable from the things it illuminates. Painting with delicate or bold strokes of fluid light one could reach beyond sense of sight, into the realm of emotion.
     Most art connoisseurs of the time did not grasp its significance and were distracted by this bold departure from the classic. Those of the old school often looked no further than technical execution; the granularity of the artist's hand was so unexpected, seemingly childish.
     Finding a personal expression was difficult for the young artist. He distanced himself from teachers Melbye and Corot, passing through a period of severe self-criticism. Then a break: a chance meeting with Monet, Cézanne -- and through them, a network of acquaintance; these friendships brought new insight and encouragement.
     A few years after he had arrived in Paris, his parents left their business with a caretaker and settled in Paris; they had hired a maidservant from Burgandy. Pissarro thus met his greatest admirer of all time and life long companion, Julie Vellay.
     Discouraged by their attempts to pass the critical scrutiny of the Salon juries, in 1874 Pissarro joined Monet for a project to organize independent exhibitions. Renoir, Sisley, Béliard, Guillaumin, Degas, Cézanne, Berthe Morisot were among those whose works were offered.
     Art critics sometimes fall on the new and unfamiliar as to a fell feast. And so they did; Pissarro and his fellows met with thunderous opposition. In a community that valued technical detail and photographic realism -- and expected the artist to idealize the subject, this was seen as an absurdity. Articles panning the exhibition coined the term "impressionist" as an insult. Artistic acceptance was slow to come, barely achieved in Pissarro's lifetime.
     In Rewald's book one finds a fascinating account of these years. The challenges of Pissarro's own life were as arduous as those of the Movement woven around him; here was a man who faced obstacles with strength and dignity.
     Through years of poverty and despair the impressionists labored to gain a place in the world. Carrying their banner, Pissarro remained true to his vision.
     He experimented with theories of art; studied the effects of light, climate, and the seasons; adopted new techniques; from these he fused a style that remains his own, within the larger style of Impressionism. And Pissarro was especially regarded as a teacher; he became the centre of a group of painters -- Renoir, Monet, Degas, Cézanne -- who respected his art and turned to him for inspiration. Pissarro, thanks to this generosity of spirit, did much to bring about the achievements of the Impressionists.
     In his 74th year, Camille Pissarro had finally attained the respectability that had eluded him most of his life. His paintings were starting to fetch high prices at auction and a new generation of artists admired his work.
     Pissarro never lost his capacity for enthusiasm and response, his love of nature, and the bright spectacle of life around him, which he set down on his canvas with unforgettable lightness and loveliness.
     An active, productive Master of his art until the end, Camille Pissarro succumbed to blood poisoning on 13 November, 1903 in Le Havre, France; survived by sons Lucien, Georges, Félix, Ludovic-Rodolphe, Paul Emile; and daughter, Jeanne.
     Note: This article was taken from the website created in 1995-96 for the Congregation's Bicentennial Celebration exhibit of Pissarro drawings and oil sketches. For more information on the exhibit "Camille Pissarro in the Caribbean, 1850-1855, Drawings from the Collection at Olana,"please click here.

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