Though strongly identified with the French Impressionists, Pissarro was a man apart in several ways. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas, which was then a Danish colony, Pissarro came from a Sephardic Jewish family with relatives in North and South America, England, and France. He was secular in his daily life, yet his Jewish background formed an important part of his identity and affected his relationships with his extended family. He had numerous French relatives (including his father), married a French woman, and spent nearly his entire adulthood in France, yet he retained his Danish nationality until his death. Pissarro’s atypical background, together with his intellectual sophistication, made him particularly open-minded and a natural leader among his artistic peers.

"Two Women Chatting by the Sea, Saint Thomas," 1856. Oil on canvas, 10 7/8 x 16 1/8 in. (27.7 x 41 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.30 [Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington]


Painted a year after the artist settled in France, and signed with the original Sephardic spelling of his surname, “Pizarro,” this beautiful though conventional landscape is set in Saint Thomas. Two young Afro-Caribbean women meet on a path by the sea, one carrying laundry on her head, the other with a basket under her arm. Pissarro often painted working people in landscape settings with sympathy and understanding, giving the figures a prominent place in the composition.

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