During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s he abandoned the pure colours and divided brush stroked 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, he could focus on his favourite subject, reflections on calm water.
Paul-Emile – which is how he preferred to spell his name – was born on 22 August 1884 in Eragny, the fifth and youngest son of Camille Pissarro. Brought up in an artistic household, inevitably he began drawing at an early age. A white horse drawn when he was just five years old received much praise from the writer Octave Mirbeau. Camille was so impressed that he kept it as part of his private collection.
At the age of fifteen Paulémile 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 Paulémile attended a private art academy.
Following his father’s death in 1903, Paulémile returned to Eragny with his mother. Monet, who lived only twenty miles away at Giverny and who was one of Camille’s closest friends, became his tutor, guardian and friend. He often visited Giverny, where Monet encouraged him to paint and gave him lessons in painting and in horticulture, saying “Work! Search! Do as your father did.” In 1905 he exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants, showing an Impressionist landscape, Bords de l’Epte ý Eragny.
The years 1908-14 were difficult for Paulémile. While 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 textiles designer, which allowed him very little time in which to paint. While Paulémile was still working at the lace factory, his brother Lucien, who lived in London, asked him to send over some watercolours. The sales of these woks, and the interest shown by British collectors, encouraged Paulémile to leave the factory and dedicate himself to painting. With his young wife, Berthe BennaichÎ, he moved to Burgundy, and had just begun to work seriously when war broke out in 1914.
Since he was exempt from military service due to his poor health, Paulémile used the war years to travel and paint, and as he strove for individuality, his confidence and passion for art grew. In a letter to Lucien in 1916 he declared that “I have seen superb things, I am filled with enthusiasm”. With Lucien’s help, he exhibited in London at the New English Art Club, the Baillie Gallery and the Allied Artists Association.
Paulémile was very influenced by Cézanne. He remembered his father telling him and his brothers repeatedly that “If you want to paint, look at Cézanne”, and he knew Cézanne’s 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 Paulémile’s work became evident in the green-gold palette and classical compositions he employed in his work from 1918 onwards, and later in his use of a palette knife instead of paintbrushes.
By the 1920’s Paulémile had become an established Post-Impressionist artist in his own right. With his artist friends van Dongen, de Vlaminck, de Segonzac and Raoul Dufy he would travel during the summer, painting in the French countryside and returning to Paris or the winter. In 1924 he bought a house in Lyons-la-Fort, a small town near Gisors and Eragny where he had grown up. Here was a landscape he painted with great pleasure, returning again and again to the placid waters of the river Epte, which round its way among willows meadows and hills.
It was during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s that Paulémile 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 colours and divided brush stroked 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, he could focus on his favourite subject, reflections on calm water. He also explored printmaking producing several wood-engravings and etchings, some of which were first published by Malcolm Salaman in 1919.
In 1930, on Dufy’s recommendation, Paulémile visited for the first time the are of hills and valleys known as Swiss Normandy. He instantly fell in love with this part of the Calvados region, and especially with the Orne, a river that runs adjacent to the villages of Clécy and LeVey. The combination of the blue hills and green meadows, separated by the calm waters of the river, offered him a new setting for his work, which he exhibited at the Salon des IndÎpendants for the following thirty years.
In 1935 Paulémile’s marriage to Berthe ended and he moved to Swiss Normandy. Two years later he bought a house in Clécy with his second wife, Yvonne Beaupel, with whom he had three children – Hugues Claude, Yvon and Véra. Both sons grew up to be artists. In 1967 Paulémile 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 artists in the Pissarro family had enjoyed in their lifetime. Since his death in 1972, his painting have been exhibited in France and elsewhere, and interest in his work continues to grow.