The Musée Marmottan Monet’s current exhibition is devoted to the artist Camille Pissarro billing him as ‘the first of the Impressionists’. Yet, despite the fact that Impressionism is one of the most popular art movements ever, the name Camille Pissarro does not spring to mind when talking about Impressionism in the way the likes of Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir do. So who was Camille Pissarro and what was his contribution to Impressionism?
Pissarro, who has been described as the unexplored impressionist, was born in 1830 in the Danish West Indes and moved to Paris in 1855 to study and work as an artist. His initial works followed the academic traditions acceptable to the Paris Art Salons of the time as these Salons were the only way to obtain recognition as an artist. However, Pissarro was a lover of nature and eventually began to paint outdoor rural scenes and when in 1859 he met a group of younger artists including Monet and Paul Cezanne, he realised he had much in common with them such as their dislike of the Salons and their preference for painting in natural settings. Pissarro who was about ten years older than this group, would paint alongside Monet and he became teacher to Cezanne and later to Paul Gauguin, both of whom held him in high esteem. In fact, Cezanne referred to himself as ‘a pupil of Pissarro’ and it was Cezanne who called Pissarro ‘the first of the impressionists’.
The three paintings above follow Pissarro’s development starting with a work from 1864 entitled ‘The Banks of the Marne’ and on loan from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery Museum, Glasgow. Although technically very well executed and accepted by the Salon of 1864, it lacks the light and vitality of the following two paintings, the first of which was painted in 1870 and entitled ‘Route de Versailles, Louveciennes, Winter Sun and Snow’ on loan from Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Madrid. The third painting above, ‘White Frost’, Musée D’Orsay, was painted in 1873 and was one of the five paintings entered by Pissarro in the first Impressionist Exhibition of 1874.
However, during the 1860s Pissarro continued to exhibit in the established Salons until he left for London in 1870 with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. On his return to Paris after the war he reconnected with his impressionists friends and he advocated an alternative to the Salons .He was instrumental in setting up the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874 in which he entered five paintings.
In fact, Pissarro would go on to be the only artist to exhibit in all eight impressionist’s exhibitions. Following this period Pissarro, in the years between 1886-1890, was drawn to Neo-Impressionism thereby aligning himself with the painters George Seurat and Paul Signac.
‘Apple Picking ‘, above, is one of the masterpieces of this period and it is a beautiful vivid canvas which Pissarro started in the Impressionist style and finished using the techniques of neo-Impressionist. He ultimately abandoned the neo-Impressionism style of painting, finding its techniques, which involved using dots and blocks of colour, too restrictive. Pissarro continued to evolve and when later in life an eye problem prevented him from working outdoors, and with the encouragement of his art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, he began painting urban scenes from the window of hotel rooms and later from an apartment he rented in Paris.
The exhibition brings together over 75 works from major museums and private collections worldwide eight of which are being exhibited in France for the first time. The exhibition includes paintings from the various periods of Pissarro’s life with works from his youth, his years spent in
Louveciennes, Pontoise and Éragny-sur-Epte, to works following the traditional academic style, onto Impressionism and then neo-Impressionism. The exhibition demonstrates that Pissarro was not afraid to embrace change not just in terms of artistic style but also in terms of subject matter which ranged from rural scenes, figures, the ports of Normandy and to his series of urban scenes. The exhibition succeeds not just in showing Pissarro’s influence on impressionism but also his influence on the many artists he encountered in his lifetime. Finally, a word of warning, the exhibition space at the Musée Marmottan Monet is not big but the crowds, at times, were overwhelming so if you get the opportunity to visit the exhibition plan your visit to coincide with the less popular times.