Pisarro was born on July 10, 1830 on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas; to Abraham Gabriel Pissarro, of Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and Rachel Manzano-Pomié, a Dominican of Spanish descent. As a boy, Camille spoke French at home, English, and Spanish.
His parents sent him to Paris at age 12 to a small boarding school. It was there that the director, seeing his interest in art, advised him to take "advantage of his life in the tropics by drawing coconut trees". When he returned to St. Thomas in 1847, this advice had been taken to heart. He devoted all his spare time to making sketches of the daily life surrounding him.
Since the young Pisarro could not obtain permission to devote himself to painting, he ran away one day, leaving a note for his parents. In the company of Fritz Melbye, a Danish painter from Copenhagen whom he had met while sketching in the port, he sailed to Venezuela. Under Melbye's direction he produced paintings and watercolors, and made countless drawings in pencil, ink and wash; many of these annotated in Spanish with the signature Pizzarro.
By 1852 his parents had become resigned to his ambition and pledged their support. He returned to St. Thomas, then left his Caribbean home for Paris to further his studies and ultimately pursue a career.
His eye was guided by the way scenes and objects imprinted on the mind. Every aspect of the subject was recorded faithfully, especially conditions of light: Pissarro perceived light as inseparable from the things it illuminates. Painting with delicate or bold strokes of fluid light one could reach beyond sense of sight, into the realm of emotion. Finding a personal expression was difficult for the young artist. He distanced himself from teachers Melbye and Corot, passing through a period of severe self-criticism. Then a break: a chance meeting with Monet and Cézanne.
Discouraged by their attempts to pass the critical scrutiny of the Salon juries, in 1874 Pissarro joined Monet for a project to organize independent exhibitions. Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Cézanne, Berthe Morisot were among those whose works were offered. Articles panning the exhibition coined the term "impressionist" as an insult. Artistic acceptance was slow to come, barely achieved in Pissarro's lifetime.
In his 74th year, Camille Pissarro had finally attained the respectability that had eluded him most of his life. His paintings were starting to fetch high prices at auction and a new generation of artists admired his work. Impressionism historian John Rewald called Pissarro the "dean of the Impressionist painters", not only because he was the oldest of the group, but also "by virtue of his wisdom and his balanced, kind, and warmhearted personality". Cézanne said "he was a father for me. A man to consult and a little like the good Lord", and he was also one of Gauguin's masters. Renoir referred to his work as revolutionary, through his artistic portrayals of the common man, as Pissarro insisted on painting individuals in natural settings without artifice or grandeur.
An active, productive Master of his art until the end, Camille Pissarro succumbed to blood poisoning on 13 November, 1903 in Le Havre, France.