Camille Pissarro: The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, 1897
After spending six years painting in the rural setting of Éragny, Pissarro returned to Paris, where he produced several series of the "grands boulevards." As Pissarro surveyed the view from his lodgings at the Grand Hôtel de Russie in early 1897, he marveled that not only could he "see down the whole length of the boulevards" but he had "almost a bird's-eye view of carriages, omnibuses, people, between big trees, big houses that have to be set straight." From February through April, he set out to record—in two views of the boulevard des Italiens to the right, and fourteen of the boulevard Montmartre to the left—the spectacle of urban life as it unfolded below his window.
Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro was born at Charlotte Amalie in the Danish West Indies (since 1917 the US Virgin Islands), a colony in the Danish Colonial Empire. His parents were Abraham Gabriel Pissarro, a Portuguese Sephardic Jew, and Rachel Manzano-PomiÃ©, from the Dominican Republic. Pissarro lived in St. Thomas until age 12, when he went to a boarding school in Paris. He returned to St. Thomas, where he drew in his free time. Pissarro was attracted to anarchism, an attraction that may have originated during his years in St. Thomas.
In 1849 he met Fritz Melbye a Danish painter who had recently arrived on the islands from Copenhagen where he had trained to become a marine artist under his brother Anton Melbye. Melbye inspired the young Pissarro to take on painting as a full-time profession, and also became his teacher and close friend. In 1852 the two painters travled to Venezuela where they stayed together until 1855 when Pissarro returned to St. Thomas and, the same year, continued to Paris.
In Paris he studied at various academic institutions (including the Ã‰cole des Beaux-Arts and AcadÃ©mie Suisse) and under a succession of masters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, and Charles-FranÃ§ois Daubigny. Corot is sometimes considered Pissarro's most important early influence; Pissarro listed himself as Corotâ€™s pupil in the catalogues to the 1864 and 1865 Paris Salons.
Pissarro married Julie Vellay, a maid in his mother's household. Of their eight children, one died at birth and one daughter died aged nine. The surviving children all painted, and Lucien, the oldest son, became a follower of William Morris.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870â€“71 compelled Pissarro to flee his home in Louveciennes in September 1870; he returned in June 1871 to find that the house, and along with it many of his early oil paintings, had been destroyed by Prussian soldiers. Initially his family was taken in by a fellow artist in Montfoucault, but by December 1870 they had taken refuge in London and settled at Westow Hill in Upper Norwood (today better known as Crystal Palace). A Blue Plaque now marks the site of the house on the building at 77a Westow Hill.
Through the oil paintings Pissarro completed at this time, he records Sydenham and the Norwoods at a time when they were just recently connected by railways, but prior to the expansion of suburbia. One of the largest of these oil paintings is a view of St. Bartholomew's Church at Lawrie Park Avenue, commonly known as The Avenue, Sydenham, in the collection of the London National Gallery. Twelve oil paintings date from his stay in Upper Norwood and are listed and illustrated in the catalogue raisonnÃ© prepared jointly by his fifth child Ludovic-Rodolphe Pissarro and Lionello Venturi and published in 1939. These oil paintings include Norwood Under the Snow, and Lordship Lane Station, views of The Crystal Palace relocated from Hyde Park, Dulwich College, Sydenham Hill, All Saints Church, and a lost painting of St. Stephen's Church.
Whilst in Upper Norwood Pissarro was introduced to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who bought two of his 'London' oil paintings. Durand-Ruel subsequently became the most important art dealer of the new school of French Impressionism.
Returning to France, in 1890 Pissarro again visited England and painted some ten scenes of central London. He came back again in 1892, painting in Kew Gardens and Kew Green, and also in 1897, when he produced several oils of Bedford Park, Chiswick. For more details of his British visits, see Nicholas Reed, "Camille Pissarro at Crystal Palace" and "Pissarro in West London", published by Lilburne Press.
Pissarro painted rural and urban French life, particularly landscapes in and around Pontoise, as well as scenes from Montmartre. His mature work displays an empathy for peasants and laborers, and sometimes evidences his radical political leanings. He was a mentor to Paul CÃ©zanne and Paul Gauguin and his example inspired many younger artists, including Californian Impressionist Lucy Bacon.
Pissarro's influence on his fellow Impressionists is probably still underestimated; not only did he offer substantial contributions to Impressionist theory, but he also managed to remain on friendly, mutually respectful terms with such difficult personalities as Edgar Degas, CÃ©zanne and Gauguin. Pissarro exhibited at all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions. Moreover, whereas Claude Monet was the most prolific and emblematic practitioner of the Impressionist style, Pissarro was nonetheless a primary developer of Impressionist technique.