Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was born on 10 July 1830 on the island of St. Thomas to Frederick and Rachel Manzano de Pissarro. His father was of Portuguese Jewish descent and held French nationality. His mother was from a French-Jewish family from the island of St. Thomas. His father was a merchant who came to the island from France to deal with the hardware store of a deceased uncle, Isaac Petit, and married his widow. The marriage caused a stir within St. Thomas' small Jewish community because she was previously married to Frederick's uncle and according to Jewish law a man is forbidden from marrying his aunt. In subsequent years his four children attended the all-black primary school. Upon his death, his will specified that his estate be split equally between the synagogue and St. Thomas' Protestant church.
When Camille was twelve his father sent him to boarding school in France. He studied at the Savary Academy in Passy near Paris. While a young student, he developed an early appreciation of the French art masters. Monsieur Savary himself gave him a strong grounding in drawing and painting and suggested he draw from nature when he returned to St. Thomas, which he did when he was seventeen. However, his father preferred he work in his business, giving him a job working as a cargo clerk. He took every opportunity during those next five years at the job to practise drawing during breaks and after work.
When Pissarro turned twenty-one, Danish artist Fritz Melbye, then living on St. Thomas, inspired him to take on painting as a full-time profession, becoming his teacher and friend. Pissarro then chose to leave his family and job and live in Venezuela, where he and Melbye spent the next two years working as artists in Caracas and La Guaira. He drew everything he could, including landscapes, village scenes, and numerous sketches, enough to fill up multiple sketchbooks. In 1855 he moved back to Paris where he began working as assistant to Anton Melbye, Fritz Melbye's brother.
His initial paintings were in accord with the standards at the time to be displayed at the Paris Salon, the official body whose academic traditions dictated the kind of art that was acceptable. The Salon's annual exhibition was essentially the only marketplace for young artists to gain exposure. As a result, Pissarro worked in the traditional and prescribed manner to satisfy the tastes of its official committee.
In 1859 his first painting was accepted and exhibited. His other paintings during that period were influenced by Camille Corot, who tutored him. He and Corot both shared a love of rural scenes painted from nature. It was by Corot that Pissarro was inspired to paint outdoors, also called "plein air" painting. Pissarro found Corot, along with the work of Gustave Courbet, to be "statements of pictorial truth," writes Rewald. He discussed their work often. Jean-François Millet was another whose work he admired, especially his "sentimental renditions of rural life".
During this period Pissarro began to understand and appreciate the importance of expressing on canvas the beauties of nature without adulteration. After a year in Paris, he therefore began to leave the city and paint scenes in the countryside to capture the daily reality of village life. He found the French countryside to be "picturesque," and worthy of being painted. It was still mostly agricultural and sometimes called the "golden age of the peasantry". Pissarro later explained the technique of painting outdoors to a student:
"Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression." Corot, however, would complete his own scenic paintings back in his studio where they would often be revised to his preconceptions. Pissarro, on the other hand, preferred to finish his paintings outdoors, often at one sitting, which gave his work a more realistic feel. As a result, his art was sometimes criticised as being "vulgar," because he painted what he saw: "rutted and edged hodgepodge of bushes, mounds of earth, and trees in various stages of development." According to one source, details such as those were equivalent to today's art showing garbage cans or beer bottles on the side of a street scene. This difference in style created disagreements between Pissarro and Corot.