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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Camille Pissarro

Self-portrait, 1903, Camille Pissarro,
shortly before his death
Think of a big teddy bear of a man, prematurely bald, prematurely gray (white, actually), long beard--okay he looked a little like a French Santa Claus, minus the red suit and allowing for the fact that he wasn't French at all but Danish. His name was Camille Pissarro. He was born in 1830 about as far from the Paris art scene as one could imagine, the (then Danish) Virgin Islands. There his father ran a small general store. He cut his artistic teeth drawing palm trees and seascapes. Wanting no part of the family business, finally, at the age of twenty-five, he convinced his Jewish father and Creole mother to send him off to study in Paris. He arrived around 1855, just at the time the Emperor Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) was showing off Paris to the rest of the world in a grand world's exhibition. He began absorbing the whirlpool of French art at the time, from academic pretension to coarse, peasant realism. He admired Millet. He saw Corot. He could hardly have missed Courbet's in-your-face Pavillion des Realisme, and he was impressed by it all. He began to study first under one, then the other. And he began to paint with the Barbizon painters, outdoors, in the forests of Fountainbleu, where he began feeling the first impulses toward Impressionism.

Entrance to the Village of Voisins, 1872,
Camille Pissarro
When we think of Impressionism, we often think first of Monet, then perhaps, Renoir and Degas, which is fine. But the quiet, guiding light for them all was the gentle, kindhearted Camille Pissarro. He struggled with them, argued with them, painted with them, and most of all gave them technical and moral support when they needed it most. He shepherded Cezanne, was one of the few friends the man had, in fact. He learned quickly and easily, and from all indications, just as freely and easily divulging what he knew. He was there at the Salon de Refuse, and every one of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions. In fact, he was the chief organizer of two of them. His work was based upon a strong understanding of Impressionist precepts involving light and color, and technically perhaps the most adept of all the impressionists. His work was never as flamboyant as some of the others, he painted almost exclusively landscapes and still-lifes, and surprisingly, for an impressionist, with a considerable amount of detail.

LaRecolte des Foins, Eragny,1887,
Camille Pissarro, displaying his brand of
As Impressionism developed, it was both centripetal and centrifugal. That means it drew some artists closer to its core and spun off others toward what would eventually become know as Post-Impressionism.  Pissarro, along with Monet and Sisley became the hard core of the movement. Artists such as Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne, flew off in their own, individual directions. Both effects were beneficial. The core group persevered to see to it that Impressionism gained the healthy respect in the art world that was its due. The others, took the best Impressionism had to offer in terms of painting technique, style, and philosophy in new directions and to new heights. This split in the group several found personally painful, but through it all, even as Pissarro espoused Pointillism and tried to make it his own style, he was the one man all the others looked up to and loved. Late in life, he enjoyed the fruits of his Impressionist persistence. He swerved away from Seurat's Pointillism, even destroying some of his own canvases while reworking others. He died in 1903 at the age of 73, financially secure, but no doubt far more important to his personal fulfillment, he was by far the most influential of all the Impressionist. It's doubtful we would today worship the work of Cezanne, Van Gogh, or Gauguin had it not been for Camille Pissarro.

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