Camille Pissarro

Rebbe of the Impressionists.

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Most museum-goers identify Impressionism with Claude Monet's haystacks, Vincent van Gogh's starry sky, or Edgar Degas's sculptures of young dancers. Camille Pissarro's paintings are less iconic, but they ought to affect fans of Impressionism who are also interested in Jewish art

camille pissarro

Self portrait of Pissarro

Since the identification tags that hang beside his landscapes, cityscapes, and pointillist figures in museums do not usually include his full name--Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro--many people do not realize Pissarro was Jewish. His decision to use his French rather than Hebrew names reflects some of the struggles he and his family had with their faith.

Pissarro Family vs. St. Thomas Rabbinate

The Pissarro family came from a long line of Spanish and Portuguese conversos. Joseph Gabriel Pizzarro, Camille's grandfather, moved from Portugal to Bordeaux, France toward the end of the 18th century, and his son Frederic (Camille's father) relocated to the island of St. Thomas (which is now part of the Virgin Islands). As a port that was a major commercial center, St. Thomas was known as a place where people could practice their faith freely, and was home to a small Jewish community.

In 1826, Frederic married Rachel, his uncle's widow. The announcement in the St. Thomas Times declared the union "by license from His Most Gracious Majesty King Frederick VI, and according to the Israelitish ritual." But the editors had not checked their facts. The next day, the rabbis of St. Thomas sent a letter to the paper declaring that the wedding transpired "without the knowledge of the Rulers and Wardens of the synagogue, nor was the Ceremony performed according to the usual custom," since the Book of Leviticus prohibits sexual relations between a man and his aunt.

In 1830, when Camille was born to this religiously-suspect union, he was officially registered at the town's synagogue, but it took three years after Camille's birth for the rabbis to accept his parents' marriage. This might explain why Frederic and Rachel sent Camille to a school that was part of the Moravian Church. When Frederic died, his will granted large and equal parts of his fortune to the local synagogue and church, no doubt a slap in the face of the rabbis.

More Than an Impressionist

In his early 20s Camille traveled with a friend to Venezuela, where he started painting. There he produced representational works--more or less attempts at photo-realism.

Pissarro returned to St. Thomas in 1854 and moved to France the following year. He painted there until his death in 1903. In France, Pissarro developed his Impressionistic style. Responding in part to discoveries in the field of optics in the late-19th century, the so-called Impressionists (an originally derogatory name applied to the group of painters based on Claude Monet's "Impression Sunrise") placed special emphasis on the ways varying light affected landscapes and objects.

The Impressionists applied their paint thickly, and used a process called optical color mixing, in which contrasting colors, when viewed from a distance, appear to blend together. The French art establishment, which at the time believed that painting ought to be "realistic," like a photograph, criticized the Impressionists' out-of-focus techniques and also decried their departure from artistic traditions of depicting only important subjects (such as royalty and renowned historical figures, or characters from mythology and the Bible).

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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