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Biographical Essay | Impressionist

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

By Jamie Micheal
March 4, 2009
The rough-hewn, unfinished quality of his paintings, which in his lifetime provoked ridicule from art them the clarity of an image faithfully recorded... 
Autumn -Camille Pissarro (1875)

As a painter, Camille Pissarro was fascinated by the interchange of light and color. He often painted the same landscape at different times of the day, to study the way changing and moving light modified the perception of color.

For Pissarro color was the living structure of light and the source of its energy, and was as essential to the painting as the subject itself, because color transformed the hidden image at the subliminal level into a comprehensible impression.

In fact, for Pissarro, color was light. When he took long walks in the country, studying how sunlight was released into color and took shape in natural form, he was looking for the essential character of light. Over many years, he developed a technique of intermingling color pigments directly on canvas, composing them as instinctual sensations, allowing colors to be moved and nuanced by visible brush strokes and palette knife marks.

By The Water
By The Water -Camille Pissarro (1881)

He usually painted outdoors –“en plein air” –rather than in a studio, to capture the natural light, working quickly and using broad strokes to experience the intensity, depth, and dispersion of sunlight. Some of his paintings appear to have been created by sunlight, wind, rain, or atmospheric pressure, rather than the human hand, giving them a textured surface, composed with eccentricities of color rather than formalized patterns.

Pissarro wanted to experience the ancient relationship of light and color. He left it to others to paint ballet dancers, boating parties, and cathedrals, and instead painted girls tending sheep or farmers working in the fields –people who, like himself, were fiercely individualistic and had a strong sense of place.

“…I have the temperament of a peasant, I am melancholy, harsh and savage in my works, it is only in the long run that I can expect to please, and then only those who have a grain of indulgence; but the eye of the passerby is too hasty and sees only the surface. Whoever is in a hurry will not stop for me.” (“Letters from Camille Pissarro to his son Lucien”,1883)

As a reaction to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Pissarro rejected commercialism, careerism, and the establishment, preferring not to exploit the subjects of his paintings by enveloping them in an unnatural atmosphere or stifling them in caricature or sentimental pretense.

Pissarro remained faithful to the country all of his life, which makes it possible for us to visualize, through his paintings, the rural landscapes and houses around Paris, and the people who lived there, in the mid to late 19th century. 

The rough-hewn, unfinished quality of his paintings, which in his lifetime provoked ridicule from art critics, and made them unpopular with the general public, gives them the clarity of an image faithfully recorded, and the very image of the fleeting character of light.

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