Pontoise together with other communities to the north and west of Paris, including Auvers-sur-Oise, Conflans Sainte Honorine, Saint Germain-en-Laye, Marly-le-Roi, Louveciennes, Bougival, Chatou, Argenteuil and Asniers-sur-Seine, form a sweeping crescent shape following the course of the rivers Seine and Oise. It was here that many of the great names of the Impressionist movement chose to live and work and it falls within what some have referred to as the “Cradle of Impressionism”. Pontoise is an appropriate place to begin a survey of this area as it was here that Camille Pissarro spent much of his lifetime and he is often called the “Father of Impressionism”. Perhaps it is no accident that artists who saw themselves at the cutting edge and even revolutionaries in their field set up their easels where there was a friction between the rural, static past and the future characterised by spreading urbanisation with its industries, factory chimneys and railways and a new, dynamic social order. Add to that the riverside location with opportunities to study the play of light on water, which was so important to the Impressionists, and it is no wonder that the area became so significant in the story of French art in the nineteenth century. Corot and Daubigny in nearby Auvers were inspirational for many of the new school and their landscapes reflect those earlier, unchanging times but Pissarro and his colleagues learned from them and then pushed the boundaries of the visual arts at a pace never seen before.

Pontoise and the Impressionists

Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) was born in the West Indies on the island of St Thomas and spent his childhood there before being sent to school in Paris. He returned to the island in 1847 to work in the family business but his interests lay elsewhere and he began to make prolific sketches. At the age of 22 he ran away from his comfortable lifestyle to Caracas in Venezuela in the company of a Danish artists called Fritz Melbye who became his first real artistic influence. Finally his parents became reconciled to their son’s choice of career and he returned briefly to Saint Thomas before travelling to Paris in 1855 to start artistic studies in earnest.

In these early years his main influences were Corot, Courbet and Daubigny and at this time he started to paint landscapes along the river Seine and in outlying villages and towns such as Pontoise. The 1860s was a critical period in Pissarro’s development as an artist. He became increasingly disillusioned with the work of established painters but found renewed inspiration in the ideas of the young Monet and his circle of like-minded friends.

In 1863 he participated in the Salon des Refusés which was the breakaway exhibition organised by the new generation of artists frustrated with the art establishment and the strictures of the official Salon. In 1866 he moved to Pontoise for the first time, staying until 1868 when he moved to Louveciennes. During this time he produced canvases at a prolific rate, as he would do throughout his life. In fact he painted over 300 landscapes of Pontoise and the surrounding area.

In 1870 France was convulsed by the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War and, in common with many others, Pissarro moved with his family to London. Here again he settled in a suburb of the capital, Upper Norwood, where he continued painting. By June 1871 he felt it safe to return to Paris only to find that his home in Louveciennes had been ransacked and many of his pictures destroyed.

For the second time, Pissarro and his family moved to Pontoise in August 1872, initially staying in rented accommodation found by Dr. Paul Gachet and subsequently into a newly-built house at 26 rue de l’Hermitage where they resided until 1882. It was at this time that his painting really developed and the 1870s have been referred to as “the apex of Pissarro’s career as a landscape painter”. It was also at this time that his friendship with Cézanne developed into a mutually stimulating relationship which continued for over ten years and which resulted in a stunning collection of paintings by both artists. They often worked together, setting up their easels side-by-side and painting the same motif. It is interesting to compare these conversations in paint, for instance Pissarro’s Potager, arbres en fleurs, printemps, Pontoise and Cezanne’s Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise.

Pissarro was always generous with his time and hospitality for both old friends and colleagues but also for young and aspiring artists. Paul Gauguin was a pupil and then a close friend between 1879 and 1883. Among others who counted him as a mentor were Paul Signac, Maximilien Luce and Georges Seurat, with whom he shared a short-lived interest in Neo-Impressionism. 

His two eldest sons, Lucien and Georges, were both artists and as well as giving advice he was always open to suggestions from them and other young painters. A few years before his death, he was providing advice and guidance to Henri Matisse and Francis Picabia who were both friends of the family. In 1884 Pissarro moved to nearby Éragny-sur-Epte where he spent the remainder of his life.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) was born in Aix-en-Provence where his father ran a hat business and later established a successful bank. In his schooldays he met and became friends with Emile Zola, a friendship which would continue for many years until a serious disagreement brought the relationship to an end. Zola himself became a significant figure for the Impressionists who saw parallels between the language of his naturalistic novels and their attempts to create a new visual language.

His father’s ambitions for his son led Cézanne to study law for a short period but this was not where his interests lay. Eventually, in 1861, his father relented and allowed his son to travel to Paris to study at the Académie Suisse. It was here that he met Pissarro and Guillaumin and later Monet, Sisley, Bazille and Renoir and was thus introduced to the radical ideas which developed into Impressionism. After being refused entry to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts he returned to Provence but was back in Paris again the following year to pursue his career as an artist.

Cézanne was always an awkward and temperamental character with a complex private life. This led him to keep his liason with Hortense Fiquet, and their son Paul, a secret from his father for many years. It wasn’t until after his father’s death in 1886 that they were finally married. However, he did find someone in Camille Pissarro with whom he could share both a personal friendship and a highly creative relationship.

Cézanne first lived in Pontoise in 1872 to be close to his friend and shortly afterwards he moved with his family to the nearby village of Auvers. During the 1870s Cézanne and Pissarro worked prolifically together, each influencing the other. This is regarded as Cézanne’s ‘Impressionist’ period and he exhibited with other members of the group in 1874 and 1877. The artist frequently returned to his father’s home in Aix, although he resided in Pontoise for a second time when he rented a house at 31 quai de Pothius between May and October 1881. When his father died he returned to Aix permanently and spent the rest of his life there.

Unlike Pissarro, who remained true to the ideals of Impressionism for most of his life, this was only a phase, be it a very important one, on Cézanne’s artistic journey. He went on to experiment with many ideas which would lead to radical new movements such as Fauvism and Cubism and he can be seen as a bridge between the artistic developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He had a profound influence on artists such as Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who referred to him as  “the father of us all”.

Other significant artists
Being only a short train ride from Paris and with the presence of the pivotal figure of Pissarro, many members of the Impressionist circle, including Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Caillebotte were frequent visitors. Here they would meet, exchange ideas, sketch and paint together. Details follow of three artists for whom the area was particularly significant.

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903)

By the time Gauguin met Pissarro in the early 1870s he had already had a colourful life. He was born in Paris but when he was three years old his parents decided to move to Peru and on the voyage his father died. With his mother and sister, the young Paul spent the next four years in Lima and the imagery of Peru undoubtedly influenced his later paintings. The family returned to France where they lived with Paul’s grandfather and at the age of seventeen he joined the merchant marine and later the navy for three years. In 1871 he moved to Paris and found work as a stockbroker. It was then that he met Pissarro, spending two summer vacations painting with him and Cézanne in Pontoise and the surrounding area.

From that time onwards painting became an increasingly important part of his life and eventually he devoted himself to it full-time. He became friends with Van Gogh and spent a tumultuous nine weeks with him in Arles in 1888. His painting evolved away from the ideals of the Impressionists and indeed from European civilization in general which he described as “everything that is artificial and conventional.” In 1891 he left France for the tropics in search of an environment where he could develop his ideas outside the constraints of every-day life. He had previously visited Martinique and had briefly been a labourer on the Panama Canal but this time his travels led him to Tahiti and then the Marquesas Islands. Here he spent the rest of his days, with one brief return visit to France, creating his late masterpieces and indulging in a dissipated lifestyle until he eventually died of syphilis in 1903.

Self-portrait, c.1875–77 (courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum/ www.harvardartmuseums.org)

Ludovic Piette (1826–1877)

As with so many painters in nineteenth century Paris, Piette attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and then the Académie Suisse and it was here that he met Pissarro with whom he became firm friends. The two artists shared a similar approach to their subjects and Piette participated in two of the breakaway exhibitions organised by the Impressionist group. He was a regular visitor to Pontoise and recorded the town and its people several times on canvas and some of his pictures can be seen in the Pissarro museum.

Portrait de l’artiste, 1873

(courtesy of Musée d’Orsay/ www.musee-orsay.fr)


Camille Pissarro et Paul Cézanne

(courtesy of Collection Roger Viollet)

Portrait de l’artiste, 1873–76

(courtesy of Musée d’Orsay/ www.musee-orsay.fr)

Jean-Baptiste-Armand Guillaumin (1841–1927)

Guillaumin was born in Paris and from an early age he spent his spare time drawing and sketching. In 1861 he enroled at the Académie Suisse where he met Pissarro and Cézanne and with whom he was to remain on close terms for many years. After the upheavals of the Franco-Prussian War, and in some financial difficulties, he stayed with Pissarro in Pontoise for a while. His friend wrote of him, “Guillaumin has just spent several days at our house, he works at painting in the daytime and at his ditch-digging in the evening, what courage!” He then moved to a house in Auvers with his childhood friend Eugène Murer, who again was closely associated with the Impressionists having run the Café Voltaire, a popular venue for meetings in Paris and where outstanding accounts were often settled by payment in paintings. Although Guillaumin is one of the lesser-known members of the group, he remained loyal to the ideals of the movement and exhibited with them regularly. Later he became friendly with Van Gogh and was an influence on the young Matisse.

Self-portrait with easel, 1878


Portrait of Ludovic Piette, Pissarro (courtesy of Musées de Pontoise and www.van-gogh.fr)