Camille Pissarro (1830–1903): The Hermitage at Pontoise
"In my opinion, the art that is the most corrupt is sentimental art."
— Camille Pissarro (Janine Bailly-Herzberg, ed. Correspondence de Camille Pissarro, vol. 1 [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France; Pontoise: Valhermeil, 1980–91], p. 267)
About the artist
Jacob Camille Pissarro was born on July 10, 1830, on the West Indies island of St. Thomas where his father was a prosperous merchant. He received his early education at a boarding school near Paris. Returning to St. Thomas, the young man had little interest in the family business, and spent his time sketching the picturesque port. At age 25, Pissarro abandoned this comfortable bourgeois existence to live in Paris.
He arrived in time to see the great Exposition Universelle of 1855 (World's Fair) that included a large art section. There he saw the works of French landscape painter Camille Corot who would become Pissarro's most influential teacher. Within a year after his arrival in Paris, Pissarro began leaving the city in order to paint the countryside along the river Seine.
Working in close proximity with Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, Pissarro began to revise his method of landscape painting, emphasizing color in his expression of natural phenomena and employing smaller patches of paint. Pissarro produced many rural landscapes and river scenes that emphasized the play of light. By the late 1860s, his powerful realist landscapes were praised by the prominent critic Emile Zola.
During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) Pissarro lived in England and studied English art. When he returned to France he settled in Pontoise, where he received young artists seeking advice. His friendship and support provided encouragement for many younger painters. He took part in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Pissarro, along with Edgar Degas, was one of the most ardent critics of the official Paris Salon, and the only artist to show at all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions.
Always searching for fresh influences, in 1885 Pissarro met with Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, representatives of a younger generation of artists who were experimenting with Pointillism, a technique rooted in the scientific study of optics where dots of unmixed pigment were applied to the canvas to be mixed solely by the eye.
During the 1890s Pissarro gradually returned to a more supple style that better enabled him to capture his sensations of nature. While continuing to depict the landscape and peasants, he also embarked on a new adventure: cityscape painting. In his portrayals of Paris, Rouen, and Le Havre, he explored changing effects of light and weather, while expressing the dynamism of the modern city.
Pissarro lived long enough to witness the start of the Impressionists' fame and influence. He was revered by the Post-Impressionists, including Cézanne and Gauguin, who both referred to him toward the end of their own careers as their "master." He continued to work in his studio until the end of his life.
About this work
The Hermitage at Pontoise, ca. 1867
The view represented here is a winding village path at the base of a cluster of houses in Pontoise, France, known as the Hermitage. The town of Pontoise lies approximately 25 miles northwest of Paris. Camille Pissarro lived here between 1866 and 1883, choosing the rural environs for a series of large-scale landscapes that have been called his early masterpieces.
Pissarro’s setting, replete with villagers and neatly tended gardens, is more than just the naturalist painter’s attention to observed reality. This painting challenged established conventions through its use of color and expressive brushwork (Thannhauser: The Thannhauser Collection of the Guggenheim Museum [New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2001], p. 201). Pissarro stripped his painting of the historical or sentimental overtones that characterized the landscapes of his immediate predecessors. He made dramatic use of light and dark, capturing the effects of sun and shade.
Pissarro depicts ordinary, working-class people that many critics of the time considered a vulgar choice for the subject of a painting. Pissarro adopted a simple, unsentimental approach to the rugged existence of the peasants he painted in their natural surroundings. His work avoided the confines of traditional academic painting, which centered on scenes far removed from the real world Pissarro hoped to describe. Although The Hermitage may today appear to us to be an idealistic depiction of country life, for Pissarro it was a quest for a truthful manner of depiction.
- Describe the scene shown here. Be as specific as you can. Where are we? Describe the weather. What time of the day is it? How can you tell? What are the people in this scene doing?
- This work was completed in 1867. Make a list of all the “clues” that tell us that this painting was completed more than a century ago. How might this scene change if it were painted today?
- Is this a place you would like to visit? Why? Why not?
- For many years, Pissarro both lived and painted in Pontoise, the town depicted in this painting. In the final year of his life, Pissarro wrote to his son, “If I listened to myself, I’d stay in the same town or village for years, contrary to many other painters; I’d end up finding in the same place effects that I didn’t know, and that I hadn’t attempted or achieved.” Discuss this quote and its meaning in relation to this painting and to your experience of familiar places.
- Describe how Pissarro is able to create the illusion of depth in this painting. Which objects seem closest to us? Which are furthest away?
As a class, generate a list of words—nouns, verbs, adjectives—you associate with this painting. Choose several words from this list and compose a poem that is compatible with this work.English / Language Arts
In the school auditorium, project the slide onto the stage so that the image is large enough to form a stage set. Invite students to “step into” the painting and create a one-act play dramatizing the events depicted. Ask students to choose an appropriate musical overture as a prelude to their performance.English / Language Arts
Describe a day in the life of one of the people in this painting. Your response can be based on research or on a careful examination of this work.English / Language Arts
Create a drawing or painting that shows a landscape or cityscape of the place where you live. When finished compare your work with Pissarro’s depiction of his hometown.Visual Arts
Imagine that you could step inside this painting and find yourself in a specific place within it. You may find yourself inside one of the houses, perched on a tree branch or relaxing in the tall grasses. Write an essay about your experience from this unique vantage point.English / Language Arts
This painting, at approximately five by six-and-a-half feet in size, is Pissarro’s largest. Using a tape measure mark off these dimensions in order to understand the scale. Paintings from this time were usually based on a strict size hierarchy, and paintings this large were usually reserved for what was considered to be important themes, such as historical events. To challenge this convention, some artists would maintain this large scale but instead paint scenes of everyday life. How might the impact of the painting change if it were very small? Twice as large? Do you think there are more or less important themes for art works? What would your “top five” important themes be?Visual Arts