I can return to studying Camille Pissarro’s work again and again. I am fascinated by the way he uses light, the way that shapes and forms emerge from shadows into light and are shaped by the contrasts between them. I study the way he paints water, how he show us the reflections off it, the objects in and on it. I look at the way he uses color to create a sense of richness or lightness or movement, and to draw us into a painting. His is an approach where the painting, the effect he wants to create, is more important than using a particular technique.
The way he worked suggests an openness to new experiences, new places and people. Perhaps it was because his parents’ marriage was frowned upon by the Jewish community in St. Thomas, and though his father was a Jew he and his siblings had to attend an all-black primary school. Perhaps it was because he was sent to boarding school in France at age 12, where he used the opportunity to explore the art of the French masters and to learn to draw and paint himself.
He spent his life as an explorer of places and styles. Some places he traveled to by choice, as he did to Venezuela when he was a young man. Other places he traveled to because he had to, as he did to England during the Franco-Prussian war. But wherever he went he did not stop exploring, learning from the ideas or work of others, and working out his own ideas while working at his art.
As an artist he helped develop impressionism before exploring pointillism and neo-impressionism – radical movements for their times – then developing his own synthesis of styles. Being in the forefront of new ideas and movements made it harder to sell his work, but that did not deter him.
Persistence, determination and the desire to follow his own path were qualities he seemed to have developed early. When, as a young man, he was working for his father he practiced drawing at every opportunity he found. When he first set out to live as an artist in Venezuela he drew constantly, observing and learning as he drew.
These qualities allowed him to pursue the study and practice of different ways of painting, even when others thought his exploration of new styles and techniques foolhardy. Much later in life you can see those qualities still: when a recurring eye infection prevented him from painting outside he sat instead by the windows of hotels and painted what he saw through them.
Pissarro – an explorer and a lover of light. That is how I think of him. And he gave us the opportunity to follow his explorations as he shared them in his work. I hope you’ll enjoy following them too:
(With thanks to starrynight003 for the video).