Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was a Danish-French painter who was a leading figure in the Impressionist movement. He is best known for his landscape paintings, but also produced excellent works depicting urban areas, such as the industrialised waterfront in Rouen and the new boulevards in Paris. Although his artistic career was largely dominated by Impressionism, Pissarro also experimented with other styles, including Pointillism.
He began to receive critical appreciation towards the end of his career, and continued to be recognised as a highly influential artist throughout the 20th century.
Here’s our pick of ten of his best works.
Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St. Thomas (1856)
This painting depicts a scene on the island of St. Thomas in the Carribean, which is now part of the US Virgin Islands, but was then in the Danish West Indies. It was the birthplace of the artist, whose mother was from a French-Jewish family that lived there.
The painting was completed in 1856, the year after Pissarro moved back to Paris (he had previously attended a boarding school in the capital). In the city, Pissarro received instruction from the French artist Jean-Baptise-Camille Corot, whose tutelage he requested after finding the teaching at various art schools to be too restrictive for him.
In Two Women Chatting, Pissarro has favoured an ordinary and everyday subject matter, as did Corot in his landscape paintings. He depicts two African women on the island who have crossed paths: one (in white) is carrying a large load on her head whilst the other (in blue) has a basket on her left arm that is presumably empty, suggesting that she is travelling to the nearby market. In the background, Pissarro has also painted in five figures on a raft by the water’s edge. Although not specified in the title, the exact setting appears to be just outside of the city of Charlotte Amalie.
Jalais Hill, Pontoise (1867)
This painting was shown at the 1868 Salon and helped Pissarro win himself a reputation as an innovative landscapist. The author and critic, Émile Zola, praised the work, stating, “… And this little valley, this hill have a heroic simplicity and forthrightness. Nothing would be more banal were it not so grand. From ordinary reality the painter’s temperament has drawn a rare poem of life and strength.”
In the painting, Pissarro provides a view of a small village, with two women walking away from it. The sky is partially covered by clouds with the sun shinning through, allowing the artist to experiment with the shadows cast on the hill below. As shown in Jalais Hill, Pissarro recognised that shadows were a combination of the surrounding colours rather than just black, echoing the work of Jan Vermeer, a Dutch artist who used purple and blue tones for the shadows in his work.
Road to Versailles at Louveciennes (1869)
In 1869, Pissarro was living in Louveciennes, a commune in the western suburbs of Paris. The artist painted many scenes of Louveciennes in different seasons, including twenty-two canvases of the main road in the commune, the Route de Versailles (Road to Versailles).
In this particular painting, Pissarro seems to have subtlety referenced the different stages of life. On the road, there is three children with their mother, as well as an elderly lady, whose age is indicated by her walking stick and posture. Towards the other end of the road, there is a carriage resembling a hearse approaching the lone woman, hinting at life’s inevitable conclusion. Pissarro’s Impressionist technique is evidenced here with his use of thick and short brushstrokes that suggest at the forms and textures of the figures and their surroundings without providing intricate detail.
During this period, Claude Monet often visited Pissarro and also painted scenes of Louveciennes, including this particular road. Both artists then left France in 1870 and lived in London for a while to escape the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. Sadly, during the war, the Prussian army set up their garrison in Pissarro’s house, and destroyed much of his the artwork from this period.
The Crystal Palace (1871)
This painting was completed during Pissarro’s stay in London. He and his family had left France after Prussian forces invaded Paris in September 1870 and seized control of his house in Louveciennes. In December they arrived in the English capital, where Pissarro’s brother and mother where already staying. They lived for a short while in Lower Norwood, a village in the south of the city, before relocating to Upper Norwood.
This particular painting is set in the nearby town of Sydenham, and on the left of the canvas is the Crystal Palace, a huge glass-and-iron exhibition hall that was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. Between 1852 and 1854, it was taken down and reassembled in Sydenham.
Interestingly, this giant construction, which was thought to be the largest building in the world, doesn’t dominate the canvas. Instead, Pissarro has integrated it into this scene of modern life, or la vie moderne, which was of course a principal interest of the Impressionists. The carriages and families travelling along the road and pavements are just as important to the overall composition as the Crystal Palace. From this period in London, there are twelve surviving Pissarro canvases. The others include The Avenue, Sydenham and Fox Hill, Upper Norwood.
The Hoar Frost (1873)
This painting was one of five that Pissarro displayed at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. The event was held by “The Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers”, a group that included Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and others. These artists only later became known as the “Impressionists” after Louis Leroy coined the term in his satirical review of their first exhibition, in reference to Claude Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise. Leroy labelled the event the “Exhibition of the Impressionists”, and ridiculed the paintings displayed.
Of The Hoar Frost, he wrote “What is that? – You see, white frost on deep ridges. – Ridges, that? That, frost?… But those are sheer scratches of paint uniformly put on a dirty canvas. It has neither head or tail, neither top or bottom, neither front or back.”
Nevertheless, some critics were more sympathetic, with Philippe Burty comparing The Hoar Frost to the best work of the rural genre painter Jean-François Millet.
The painting depicts a single peasant worker carrying a heavy load, and was painted near Pontoise, where Pissarro lived between 1873 and 1882. The Hoar Frost is often noted for its use of impasto, which gives the landscape a raw and compact intensity.
The Poultry Market at Pontoise (1882)
This painting is one of numerous artworks by Pissarro that depict a market scene, a subject that he began to paint and draw in the early 1880s. These works are often noted for their contrast to earlier representations of peasants by other French artists. Pissarro’s predecessors had tended to paint these workers in idyllic rural scenes, portraying them as individuals in a separate world with an almost mystical connection to the land.
However, in his market scenes, Pissarro chose to represent peasants as neighbours, earning a living in the modern, everyday world. He also depicted peasants from a much closer viewpoint than earlier artists.
In The Poultry Market, three peasants dominate the composition, and their proximity to the viewer serves to immerse us in the scene. However, their backs are also turned to us, which creates a contrasting yet simultaneous detachment from the scene. The woman closest to us is selling eggs, looking out for her next customer. Her stance, with her hand on her hip, suggests her confidence in the market setting, which also interested Pissarro as a place where the working and upper classes mixed. His use of rapid brushwork and bright colours in this painting is typical of his late Impressionist style.
Apple Harvest at Éragny (1888)
This painting was executed by Pissarro using the technique of Pointillism, which was pioneered by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, both of whom Pissarro met in 1885. This new technique involved painting using tiny adjacent dots of pure colour that blend in the human eye to create a luminous effect. Pissarro experimented with this style for several years, and first exhibited Pointillist paintings at the final Impressionst exhibtion in 1886. These canvases were shown in a separate section alongside the works of Seruat, Signac and Lucien Pissarro, his son.
In this particular painting, Pissarro depicts a scene nearby his residence in Érangy, where he purchased a house in 1884. One male labourer is shown trying to remove the apples that have yet to fall from their branches, whilst two female labourers collect the apples that have fallen. A third woman is stood watching the spectacle, apparently fascinated, as suggested by her placing her hands over her mouth. In the background, a farmer works the land with a horse-drawn cart.
Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather (1896)
This piece forms part of a series depicting the Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, the capital of Normandy, where Pissarro undertook two painting campaigns in 1896. The first was between January and March, and the second was in November. He had previously taken one trip there in 1883 on the advice of Claude Monet, and had painted eighteen works. He later returned in 1895 and completed several watercolours. His decision to go back again in 1896 was brought about after he saw, for the first time, Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series in Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris. He was impressed by the unity of Monet’s series, and went back to Rouen with the aim of painting his own coherent set of paintings.
Across these Rouen campaigns, Pissarro concentrated mainly on the industrialised waterfront, in particular the quays, docks, bridges, and the train station (la gare d’Orléans) that had recently been built on the Left Bank. He painted such views in 1896 from rooms that he rented at the Hôtel de Paris, as a recurring eye infection meant that he could only paint outdoors during the warm weather. The other Pont Boieldieu paintings represent the bridge in different weather and light conditions, and demonstrate Pissarro’s return to Impressionism after his experimentation with neo-Impressionism and Pointillism.
The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897)
This painting is another Pissarro piece that forms part of a series. It is one of fourteen views of the Boulevard Montmarte in Paris that Pissarro painted between Feburary and April 1897. Again, he explored the effects of changing light and weather conditions in his series, painting the motif in the morning, afternoon, evening and night, and in the mist, fog, snow, and sunlight. He also painted from an upper-story hotel room again, staying in a spacious lodging at the Grand Hôtel de Russie.
From his window, he could see the Boulevard Montmarte to his left, and the Boulevard des Italiens to his right, which he depicted in two other canvases. These wide boulevards were introduced to Paris in the 19th century during Baron Haussmann’s transformation of the French capital, which replaced the chaotic mass of medieval streets with modern urban spaces.
This new Parisian urban landscape and the new commerce and leisure that came with it had greatly interested other Impressionists. However, by the time Pissarro came to paint it, his colleagues had largely abandoned it. This particular painting in the series is the only Pissarro canvas depicting a night-time scene, and is used by the artist to explore the different types of artificial lighting that illuminated the boulevard after sunset. He contrasts the warmer light provided by the gas lights in the shop windows and the oil-lamps of the taxis with the cooler light emitted by the electric street lamps that run through the centre of the boulevard.
This painting was the fourth and final self-portrait that Pissarro completed in his lifetime. Pissarro painted this portrait at his apartment in the Place Dauphine, located on the Île-de-la-Cité in Paris, which he had rented from the summer of 1900.
The artist seems have portrayed himself as wise and mature, with a slight air of personal authority as he peers at the viewer over the tops of his half-moon spectacles. We further gain this impression of sagiousness with Pissarro’s iconic long grey bread, his dark clothing, and his wearing a formal hat, despite being indoors.
Pissarro employed a typical Impressionist style for this painting, using short and thick brushstrokes.
He died in November 1903, but fortunately he had lived to see the Louvre purchase two of his paintings earlier that year. He had also achieved financial security in the late stages of his career, his first real taste of it coming in 1892, when Joseph Durand-Ruel held a successful retrospective of his work.