This Day in Jewish History / A Rebellious Artist Who Would Become the 'Father of Impressionism' Is Born

Camille Pisarro rebelled against establishment art, bursting beyond the convention of biblical and other 'important' scenes.

David Green
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Camille Pissarro's 1903 painting "Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps."Credit: Christies via Bloomberg News
David Green

On November 13, 1903, the French painter Camille Pissarro — in many ways the father of Impressionism, and then of post-Impressionism, too — died, at the age of 73.

Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830, in Charlotte Amalie, the capital city of St. Thomas, then part of the Danish West Indies (today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands). His father, Abraham Gabriel Pizarro, was the son of converso Jews who had emigrated from Braganza, Portugal, to Bordeaux, France.

Abraham had come to St. Thomas in 1826 to take care of the affairs of a deceased uncle — and ended up marrying the uncle’s widow, the Dominican-born Rachel Manzano Pomie. An item about the marriage appeared in the St. Thomas Times, declaring that it had taken place “by license from His Most Gracious Majesty King Frederick VI, and according to the Israelitish ritual.” A correction was not long in coming from the “rulers and wardens” of the island’s synagogue, who wrote to the paper explaining that they had not approved the marriage, as Jewish law does not allow for the union of a man and his aunt.

Only after repeated entreaties by Abraham and Rachel was their marriage registered by the local rabbis, who based their reversal on the fact that the husband and wife were not blood relations, and on the advice of the Amsterdam rabbinate.

No aptitude for business

Their son — Camille, as he would call himself — studied at a local church school. At age 12, his parents sent Camille to France to continue his schooling, and when he returned to St. Thomas five years later, he had learned to draw. Although he followed his father’s wishes to work with him in his dry-goods business, he was unable to concentrate on his job as a cargo clerk, using whatever time he could for artwork.

When he was 21, Pissarro (he changed the spelling so as not to have the same name as the Spanish conquistador) was convinced by his friend Fritz Melbye to devote himself full-time to painting. The pair traveled to Venezuela, where they spent two years painting, and shortly after coming back to St. Thomas, Pissarro left again for Paris. There he became an assistant to Fritz’s artist brother, Anton Melbye.

Painting normal people

Throughout his life, Pissarro had a questioning, even revolutionary, attitude, and his career as an artist is characterized by his constant rejection of the current style. In Paris, he studied at several leading schools, but felt stifled by them all. He asked Camille Corot, who painted from nature, to become his teacher, but later tired of Corot’s style too. And though he was accepted to show at the Paris Salon, in 1859 and in successive years, Pissarro became the leader of the group whose members were derisively referred to as the Impressionists. They were entranced by the effect that natural light had on colors, and painted normal people, rather than only biblical characters or other “important” subjects.

He showed his work at all eight of the Impressionists’ exhibitions, but the vast majority of his early works were destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War.

Even if Pissarro’s paintings today are not regarded as the most important of the Impressionists and their successors, his gentleness and his skill as a teacher meant that he alone maintained ties with all members of the group. Paul Cezanne spoke for many when he said that Pissarro was “a father to me, a man to consult and something like the good Lord.” (For her part, Mary Cassatt said that Pissarro “could have taught the stones to draw correctly.”)

In 1871, Pissarro married Julie Vellay, a Roman Catholic and his mother’s maid. They would have seven children.

Camille Pissarro died in Paris, of blood poisoning, on this date in 1903.