Camille Pissarro

On this date in 1830, impressionist painter Jacob Camille Pissarro was born on the island of St. Thomas in the West Indies to Frederic Pissarro and Rachel Petit. Their ancestors were Sephardic Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. They preserved their Jewish faith in secret, revealing it only in the 20th century. These Sephardim were easily assimilated into French culture because of their connection over the years to the Catholic Church. This Jewish--but nontraditional, open-minded and rational--infrastructure was the one into which Camille's father, Frederic, was raised in Bordeaux. Moving to St. Thomas after his uncle died, Frederic married his widowed aunt-by-marriage, Rachel, scandalizing the Jewish community on the island. It took seven years and three children before their marriage was accepted by that community. In his biography, Camille Pissarro, Pissarro's great-grandson, Joachim Pissarro, writes: "Knowing what had happened to their parents, it is not surprising that none of the children was very enthusiastic about the religion of their ancestors. Pissarro decided to turn his back on religion altogether and immersed himself in authors who fortified his oppositional stance." Pissarro was sent to a boarding school outside of Paris at age 11. At 17, he returned to St. Thomas to work in the family business. Deciding at age 20 that the life of a clerk was not for him, he left for Venezuela to paint, eventually returning to France, where he lived the rest of his life. Pissarro married a nonJewish woman, whom his mother never accepted, providing more reinforcement for Pissarro of the problems caused by religion. By the late 1870s, Pissarro was known as "Pere Pissarro," and was respected for his kindness and support of colleagues and upcoming artists. Often compared to the painter Millet, Pissarro was quick to point out that "[the critics] all throw Millet at me, but Millet's art was biblical. For the Hebrew that I am, there is very little of that in me; isn't that funny?" (Stephanie Rachum, Exhibition catalogue. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1994) Confronting the art-world establishment, forcing it to make room for his revolutionary style of painting, expressing his belief in the need for new and modern art, he believed "our time is a birth and a transition to a new period." Most of Pissarro's paintings are landscapes, focusing on the forms and colors of nature. He developed a new technique of brushwork "to capture the play of light and create a sense of movement, producing images with a soft and welcoming aesthetic [and] when figures are included they function as elements of light and air." When asked what makes a true painter, Pissarro replied, "He is one who can put two tones of color in harmony" (Camille Pissarro by Joachim Pissarro).

Pissarro was an atheist and self-defined freethinker, both philosophically and in his art. While never denying his Jewish heritage, Pissarro felt that it made him an outsider. In 1894, the famed Dreyfus Affair was on everyone's tongue and sides were drawn. Among those against Dreyfus were some of Pissarro's oldest friends: Cezanne, Renoir and Degas. Pissarro's support of Dreyfus was linked not only to the overt anti-Semitism in the case, but also to his dislike of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. Paul Signac observed in his diary: "Pissarro tells me that since the anti-Semitic incidents, Degas and Renoir shun him and no longer greet him. What can be taking place in the minds of such intelligent men that leads them to become so stupid?" (Stephanie Rachum, Exhibition catalogue. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1994) Though Jewish in origin, Pissarro desired to be judged solely by universal art standards, and in this, paved the way for many of the artists of Jewish origin who came to Paris in the early 20th century. D.1903.

"He didn't turn his back to Judaism, but was against the idea of God or organized religion."


—Great-grandson Joachim Pissarro, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and biographer, Camille Pissarro (1993)

(Compiled by Jane Esbenben)

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

Contribute to Nonbelief Relief

FFRF privacy statement