Anarchy and Art: Exploring the Art and Political Views of Camille Pissarro
Anarchy and Artwork
Camille Pissarro’s artwork is best known for the influence it had on Impressionism. He is lesser known for his anarchist beliefs, which permeated his artwork. Nevertheless, Pissarro’s artwork did not overtly call for a violent revolution as one might expect. His paintings featured bright colors, detailed figures, and pleasant settings. Without understanding Pissarro’s background and belief system, it is likely that one will not understand what he hoped to convey through his pieces. It is unlikely that an observer unfamiliar with Pissarro would ever gather from his artwork that Pissarro was an anarchist; however, Pissarro’s anarchism motivated him to paint as he did. A cursory examination of his pieces may not reveal anarchistic themes, but a careful study of Pissarro’s paintings demonstrates that he subtly integrated his anarchistic political beliefs into his artwork.
How Pissarro Became an Anarchist
From his youth, Pissarro was sympathetic to the anarchist cause. He grew up on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where he studied and played with children of African descent. Pissarro was known for treating all members of his own household equally because he believed that women and children were just as valuable as men. During the 1880s, Pissarro became very influenced by anarchist authors. He voraciously consumed any piece of anarchist literature that he could acquire. He subscribed to anarchist newspapers—his favorite was La Révolte— and bought as many books written by anarchists as he could afford, a habit that continued even when his financial situation became extremely dire (Adler, 1977, p. 124-5).
Watch This Lecture to Learn More About the Context of Pissarro's Political Beliefs
However, Pissarro was not a revolutionary. He was nonviolent by nature and did not favor the radical form of anarchism that argued that a violent revolution was necessary to implement anarchism. Instead, Pissarro believed that anarchism could be “built.” He did not view anarchism as the destruction of government but as the creation of an egalitarian society. He believed that an anarchist society could be built by carefully educating future generations and inspiring them to craft a society where everyone was equal. He applied these principles in his family life; he encouraged his own children to study political theory—particularly anarchism—and he regularly engaged his family in political discussions at the dinner table (Adler, 1977, p. 126-7).
Anarchism in Pissarro's Artwork
Pissarro’s political beliefs were not isolated to his personal life—they infiltrated his artwork as well. He was convinced that for true artistic freedom to exist, artists must liberate themselves from the patronage of wealthy capitalists. However, Pissarro did not overtly demonstrate his beliefs in his artwork. Instead, he subtly tried to build sympathy toward an anarchistic mindset (Adler, 1977, p. 126).
Despite his subtly, his paintings still created much controversy. Pissarro’s paintings were controversial not because of the subject matter but because of how it was presented on the canvas. Pissarro’s paintings did not cater to the social context or preconceived ideologies of his patrons. Rather, he focused his works primarily on peasants and their daily lives. He did not depict them as destitute and subhuman, as his wealthy patrons may have considered them to be. Pissarro also did not depict the peasants as oppressed by the wealthy—unable to live up to their full potential because of their economic bondage.
Instead, Pissarro—the only Impressionist painter to center his paintings on domestic workers—sought to portray the peasants and their works as dignified. Essentially, by painting these subjects Pissarro encouraged his wealthy patrons to publicly display artwork that made peasant life appear dignified and important. For instance, In the Garden at Pontoise: A Young Woman Washing Dishes, depicted a servant girl washing dishes. As in all Pissarro’s paintings featuring servants, the girl is “attractive, well-fed, and seemingly contented” (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2011, p. 9). Pissarro often also used his own family members as models for his pieces, which further demonstrates that he did not view domestic work as a lesser profession.
Pissarro employed beautiful combinations of light and color to convey a sense of the utopia that he believed could be achieved in an anarchist society. His paintings Apple-Picking and Apple-Harvest, which depict workers in Pissarro’s future anarchistic utopia, feature a bright hue created by thousands of carefully placed dots of colorful paint. The sun radiates across the rural landscape, and the workers appear happy and peaceful as they harvest apples from the trees.
The influence of Pissarro’s anarchist beliefs can also be seen by examining the precision and detail afforded to the figures in his paintings. He painted his subjects laboriously and painstakingly—oftentimes spending years revising and reworking his pieces—a work ethic that was conventionally only afforded to wealthy, important patrons. In The Gardener—Old Peasant with Cabbage, Pissarro painted a rural worker harvesting cabbages with immense precision. He used thousands of brushstrokes to paint the cabbages that fill the background.
Pissarro's More Overtly Anarchistic Works
Pissarro’s most overtly anarchistic works were those never intended to be displayed publicly. He sent a collection of drawings entitled Turpitudes sociales—“social disgraces”—to several of his nieces. While his published works never focused on the exploitation of the working class, this unpublished collection bluntly depicts Pissarro’s view of capitalism and its effects on the lower classes. Each of the drawings in Turpitudes sociales portrays Pissarro’s interpretation of a common scene from capitalist society. He depicted such evils as people marrying for money, financial corruption, and the exploitation of workers. Each drawing is also accompanied by a quote from a socialistic publication. Departing from the utopian beauty displayed in his paintings, Pissarro sketched this collection in pen and brown ink on graphite paper. The sketches are grisly. One particularly shocking piece, entitled Suicide of an Abandoned Woman—depicts a hopeless woman in freefall after jumping off a bridge. Pissarro clearly intended his artwork to be used as a teaching tool (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2011, p. 7).
Human beliefs never remain isolated inside a person’s head; they manifest themselves in every aspect of life. One’s worldview and belief system inform his or her every action, including his or her artwork. Artwork is a physical representation of the artist’s inward psyche. Studying the religious, political, and social beliefs of artists enables us to better understand their worldview and their motivations for crafting their artwork. Camille Pissarro’s inward motivation was constructive anarchism. Subtle though he may have been, Pissarro sought to use his artwork to communicate the ideal of an anarchistic utopia. This was displayed through the subjects he chose to depict—domestic workers—and the dignity with which he portrayed them. In some small way, Pissarro believed that his paintings and influence could serve as building blocks for the anarchistic society he hoped future generations would build. Though his dream was never realized, his beliefs and convictions continue to live on through the artwork that he left behind.
Adler, Kathleen. (1977). Camille Pissarro: A biography. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (2011). Pissarro’s People. Retrieved from