Back to the Artist Page

P.E. PISSARRO Biography

Paul-Emile Pissarro was born on August 22nd, 1884 in Eragny, France, the fifth and youngest son of Camille Pissarro.  With his father and four brothers being artists, he became part of an artistic household and began drawing at an early age.  A white horse drawn when he was 5 years old, received much praise from the writer Mirbeau.  Camille was so impressed that he kept it as part of his private collection.

Camille had a great gift for encouraging other artists and gave his own children special attention, guiding and teaching them how to observe and draw what they saw, without imposing his own style.  The Pissarro family home at Eragny, to which the moved in 1884, was a place of constant artistic production and discussion.  On the walls were works by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Cassatt, Sisley, Delacroix and Camille himself, but also works by Paulemile’s older brothers.  The "Eragny artists" produced a monthly magazine called Le Guignol, which included original works that were bound into a single volume each year.  The critic Gustave Kahn later remarked that "at Eragny one thought only of art".

At the age of fifteen Paulemile attended a college in Gisors, but left after a few months in order to join his father on painting trips to Le Havre, Dieppe and Rouen.  For the last few years of Camille’s life, the family lived in Paris where Paulemile attended a private art academy.

Following his father’s death in 1903, Paul-Emile returned to Eragny with his mother.  Monet, who lived only 30 kilometers away at Giverny and was one of Camille’s closest friends, became Paul-Emile’s tutor, guardian and friend.  Paul-Emile often visited Giverny, where Monet encouraged him to paint and gave him lessons in both painting and horticulture, saying "Work! Search!  Do as your father did!".  In 1905, Paulemile exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Independants, an impressionist landscape titled "Bords de ll Epte a Eragny".

The period 1908-1914 was difficult for Paul-Emile.  Whilst his father had always supported his desire to be an artist, his mother, having survived the financial struggle of trying to raise a family without a steady income, was eager for him to learn a more practical trade.  This led him in 1908 to set his artistic pursuits aside.  He worked first as an automobile mechanic and test-driver, and then later as a lace and textile designer.  This allowed him a little time to paint.

While Paul-Emile was still working at the lace factory, his brother Lucien who lived in London, asked him to send over some watercolors.  The sale of these works and the interest shown by the British collectors encouraged Paul-Emile to leave the factory and dedicate himself to painting.  With his young wife, Berthe Bennaiche, he moved to Burgundy.  He had just begun to work seriously when war broke out.

Exempt from military service due to illness, Paulemile used the war years to travel and paint.  As he strove for individuality, his confidence and passion for art grew.  In a letter to his older brother Lucien in 1916 he declared: "I have seen superb things, I am filled with enthusiasm."  With the help of Lucien, Paulemile exhibited in London at the New English Art Club, The Baillie Gallery and the Allied Artist’s Association.

Paulemile was very influenced by Cezanne.  He remembered his father telling him and his brothers repeatedly "If you want to paint, look at Cezanne", Paulemile knew his work at first hand from the landscapes and still-life paintings that hung in the family dining room at Eragny.  They also met several times in Paris.  Cézanne’s long-term influence on Paulemile’s work became evident in the green-gold palette and classical compositions used in his work from 1918 onwards, and later on in the use of a palette knife instead of paintbrushes.

By the 1920’s, Paulemile had become an established Post Impressionist artist in his own right.  With his artistic friends, Van Dongen, Vlaminck, de Segonzac and Raoul Dufy, he would travel during the summer, painting in the French countryside, returning to Paris for the winter.  In 1924 he bought a house in Lyons-La-Foret, a small town near Gisors and Eragny, where he had grown up.  This was a landscape he painted with great pleasure, returning again and again to the placid waters of the river Epte winding its way among willows, meadows and hills.

It was during the late 20’s and early 30’s that Paulemile reached the peak of his artistic
development, arriving at the individual style for which he is best known.  During this period, he abandoned the pure colors and divided brush-strokes of Impressionism for a palette of mixed tones, broader gestures, and eventually the palette knife.  His compositions became strong and clear, his application tighter and thicker.  Working from a boat equipped as a floating studio, Paulemile could focus on his favorite subject, reflections on calm water.  He also explored printmaking, producing several successful wood engravings and etchings, some of which were published by Malcolm Salaman in 1919.

In 1930 on the recommendation of Raoul Dufy, Paulemile visited for the first time an area with hills and valleys called Swiss Normandy.  He instantly fell in love with this part of the Calvados region and especially with the Orne, a river that runs through the valley adjacent to the villages of Clecy and le Vey.  The combination of the blue hills and green meadows, separated by the calm waters of the river, offered Paulemile a new setting for his work, which he exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Independants for the following thirty years.

In 1935 his marriage to Berthe ended and Paulemile moved to Swiss Normandy.  Two years later he bought a house in Clecy with his new wife Yvonne Beaupel and together they had three children: Hugues-Claude, Yvon and Vera.  Both sons grew up to become artists.

In 1967 he had his first one-man show in the United States at Wally Findlay galleries in New York.  This led to widespread recognition and a degree of professional success that few of the Pissarro artists had known during their lifetime.  Since his death in 1972, Paulemile’s paintings have been exhibited both in France and abroad. Interest in his work continues to grow.