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 forced to convert to Catholicism by the Catholic Inquisition. 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 non-Jewish woman, whom his mother never accepted, providing more reinforcement for Pissarro of the problems caused by religion. 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?” (Exhibition catalogue, Jerusalem Museum, 1994.)

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.”

Pissarro was an atheist and self-defined freethinker, both philosophically and in his art. While never denying his Jewish heritage, he 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?” (D.1903)

Freedom From Religion Foundation