Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830, on St. Thomas, in the Danish West Indies. Pissarro’s father was a French citizen of Portuguese Jewish descent who traveled to St. Thomas to help settle the estate of his late uncle and wound up marrying his uncle’s widow. The controversial marriage was not immediately recognized by the small local Jewish community resulting in the Pissarro children grew up as outsiders.
At the age of 12, Pissarro was sent by his parents to a boarding school in France where he developed an early appreciation of the French art masters. After completing his education, Pissarro returned to St. Thomas, and although he initially became involved in his family’s mercantile business, he never stopped drawing and painting.
In 1849 Pissarro met Danish artist Fritz Melbye, who encouraged his artistic endeavors. In 1852 Pissarro and Melbye left St. Thomas for Venezuela, where they lived and worked for the next few years.
In 1855 Pissarro went to Paris where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Suisse. Pissarro worked closely with artists Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet where he developed his approach and techniques.
Pissarro became involved with a group of young artists including Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne who shared his interests and questions. This groups’ work was not accepted by the French artistic establishment, which excluded non-traditional painting from the official Salon exhibitions.
Pissarro became involved with his mother’s maid, Julie Vellay, with whom he would have eight children and eventually marry in 1871. However, their budding family life was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, which forced them to flee to London. Returning to his home in France at the end of the conflict, Pissarro discovered that the majority of his existing body of work had been destroyed.
Pissarro reconnected with his artist friends, including Cézanne, Monet, Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas and in 1873 established a collective of 15 artists with the goal of offering an alternative to the Salon. The following year, the group held their first exhibition. The unconventional content and style represented in the show shocked critics and helped to define Impressionism as an artistic movement.
By the 1880s, Pissarro moved into a Post-Impressionist period, returning to some of his earlier themes and exploring new techniques such as pointillism (a technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image) . He also forged new friendships with artists including Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and was an early admirer of Vincent van Gogh.
Continual innovation led to Pissarro turning away from Impressionism which contributed to the general decline of the movement that he had significantly influenced.
Later in life, Pissarro suffered from an eye infection that prevented him from working outdoors during much of the year. As a result, Pissarro often painted while looking out the window of a hotel room. Pissarro died in 1903.