In 1987, when I was 23, a boyfriend bought an art postcard during our visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he gave it to me and said ‘this looks like you’. It was the portrait of a child painted by the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, and indeed, we both had thick, shoulder length brown hair, similar distinctive noses, large eyes, and, matching red berets. Thinking that the child was a girl, I was surprised to find the painting entitled ‘Portrait of Félix Pissarro’ and I felt an affinity with this boy who had been brought to my attention because of our perceived resemblance. I put the card in a frame selected specially to set off the painting’s colours and have carried it with me for more than thirty years and multiple moves, including a relocation to London.
Now in the age of internet, a simple Google search of ‘Félix Pissarro’, inspired by a moment of curiosity, told me that the boy had died in London in 1897, at the age of 23, and was buried a short distance from my home. Astonished by this information, I urgently needed to know what had brought him to London and how he came to die so young. My search for answers would uncover more than I expected: a mighty bond between two brothers, Félix and his brother Georges; a passionate romance between Georges and his remarkable cousin Esther; and an exceptional family that lived by its own rules.
I could not have anticipated the close access I would have to the personal lives of the Pissarro family. They were prolific letter writers and much of the correspondence as well as private family art had been bequeathed to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where I had the pleasure of reading the letters and gradually gaining insight into the personalities and events that made up Félix’s final years. The opportunity to study the letters came to me several years after having finished my doctorate in French Literature, which equipped me to do detailed research as well as to read in French. Personal letters offer an intimate glimpse into a family’s private life and letters also have the effect of erasing time because of the immediacy of the voice in which they are written. I learned that tuberculosis was the cause of Félix’s death, a cruel process that is painfully described, but the letters also show that the 1890s were a tumultuous time for the Pissarro family, and for France.
Félix Pissarro was one of eight children of Camille Pissarro and his wife Julie. Camille was raised in a Jewish community in the cosmopolitan Danish West Indies and he was the only artist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions (1874-1886), the first taking place in the year of Félix’s birth. Julie Vellay Pissarro was from rural Burgundy—the daughter of an agricultural labourer and a seamstress. She met Camille while working as a kitchen maid for his mother, now in France, and their relationship provoked condemnation in his family because of the class and religious differences. Julie bore the brunt of the financial instability of the artist’s life, but under a veneer of bad-temper she hid an affectionate and generous nature. Félix’s brother, Lucien, was 11 years older and moved to England in 1890 to marry and establish a career as an artist. In 1870, a sister, Adèle, died age two weeks. Another sister, Jeanne (‘Minette’), had died age nine, probably of tuberculosis, just a few months before Félix was born. Félix’s younger siblings—Ludovic Rodolphe (‘Rodo’), Jeanne (‘Cocotte’) and Paul-Émile—were dear to him, but were sufficiently different in age to preclude many shared experiences outside the home. His closest bond was with Georges, just 2 ½ years older, but despite their strong rapport, they had different personalities. Georges was secretive, prickly, and fell out with people, while Félix, who was known as ‘Titi’ by his family, was offbeat and witty. Félix, along with his two older and two younger brothers, each pursued a career in art with great encouragement from their father and disapproval from their mother, who wanted the boys to have a more stable source of income.
When reading the letters, it becomes natural to view the Pissarro family with a certain romance; there was something special about them which was recognised in their lifetime. The celebrated writer Octave Mirbeau was a close family friend, and Félix’s death prompted him to compose an intimate piece entitled ‘Famille d’Artistes’ which was published on the front page of the newspaper Le Journal in December of 1897. Mirbeau was inspired by the family and his article served as an obituary for Félix, but also a lament that even the Pissarros—uncommon and self-contained—were not safe from the dangers of the outside world:
‘Such is this family, where art is at home, where each member, child and adult, cultivates the rarest flowers of beauty. All this without noise, without attention-seeking, in a proud and joyous independence. Joyous? Alas! Joy is not sustainable anywhere! […] Poor little Félix Pissarro, in whom rested so many hopes! A charming and lively rosebud, met by death before the petals had opened themselves to the sun!’
The family’s singularity evolved as a result of Camille’s strong influence and because of the sequestered rural home he created with Julie, away from fashionable Paris.
Camille was a thoughtful artist who worked continually to achieve his vision despite detractors and obstacles. For him, more than his Impressionist colleagues, art and anarchism were closely aligned passions and his children followed suit. Camille’s approach to anarchism was more instinctive than systematic; he aspired to a world without hierarchy and though he knew this might necessitate revolution, he loathed violence. He avoided producing paintings for political or didactic ends, but he wrote to Lucien: ‘I firmly believe that something of our ideas, born as they are of the anarchist philosophy, passes into our works’. Camille had a natural rapport with young people and shared his enthusiasm for discussion and reading, introducing them to key anarchist literature of the period. His relationship with young people is beautifully evoked in a letter from his nephew Alfred Isaacson to Lucien upon Camille’s death in 1903: ‘We were boys—our amusements and conversations were of our age—yet how he would go and treat us as if we were his equals’. But there was a price to be paid for openly espousing anti-establishment views: Camille’s activities earned him a place on state watchlists of known anarchists.
When Félix was born, the Pissarros lived in Pontoise, thirty kilometres northwest of central Paris. But as the size of the family increased, the need for a bigger home was pressing and Camille was forced by limited financial means to look further afield. In 1884, just ahead of his tenth birthday, they moved to the rural village of Éragny-sur-Epte, to a large house that came with outbuildings and expansive gardens, fruit and chestnut trees, and proximity to the river. While delighted with the house and the space and views it afforded, Éragny was more provincial than Pontoise—the family were now eighty kilometres from Paris and the town of Gisors, four kilometres away, was the nearest centre of activity. But Gisors did offer rail service and visitors who would make the journey to Éragny included Monet, Gaugin, and Cézanne.
The creative and political hothouse at Éragny shaped the Pissarro children, and had more impact than the formal education they received in local schools. The children began making art from an early age and the family, including Camille, regularly created bound albums of their drawings. Félix showed little academic inclination, so when he was twelve Julie placed him in an apprenticeship with a cabinet maker in Gisors. Mirbeau recounted this anecdote in Félix’s obituary: each day Julie sent him off to work with a packed lunch and when he returned home in the evening, she would ask him if he was beginning to learn his metier. Félix would respond briefly, ‘but of course!’, eat his dinner and shut himself in his bedroom for the night. Eventually, however, a neighbour reported that the boy had been seen wandering all day through the meadows of Éragny, amusing himself by making the horses gallop, which angered a local farmer. When Félix came home that evening, Julie reprimanded him sharply, and when the boy raised his arms to avoid a slap, a box of watercolour paints and some papers fell from beneath his jacket to the floor. The sheets were covered with sketches and paintings of horses, and as Camille examined them, he exclaimed with joy that Félix need not return to the cabinetmaker: ‘he will be a painter… but this is extraordinary!’ The clash between Julie and Camille’s divergent hopes for the boys would be repeated again and again.
As Félix reached adolescence, he and Georges became a firm twosome, and letters between Camille and Lucien made frequent reference to ‘les gars’ [‘the boys’]. It was a difficult time for family relations because Éragny and Gisors became too limited for them and they did not fit in with local boys. In June of 1891, Camille wrote: ‘we had a lot of trouble with Georges and Titi a few days ago. It was not their fault—this time. They just missed being murdered—literally!’ The two had been enjoying a night out in Gisors when they were badly beaten up by a gang of local youth—members of ‘La Société de Gymnastique’. Georges was carrying a pistol and a knife, which the aggressors took off him as they pinned him to the ground, and Camille reported that the assailants had been egged on by a young man from Éragny, but added that these things were ‘always happening to the two boys’. There was a certain danger to being distinctive in a provincial backwater where Félix and Georges could be viewed as easy targets. Camille was also conscious of his outsider status, and in 1894 when new laws were introduced to crack down on anarchist activity, he wrote to Lucien about his fears of being denounced to the police by villagers: ‘I distrust certain personalities in Éragny who have taken against us’. Although it would be his home for almost twenty years, he begrudged the cost of maintaining what he called, in English, ‘Éragny Castle’, and thought of moving elsewhere, but Julie resisted change. To compensate, he made increasingly regular and extended trips in search of new, inspiring ‘motifs’ for his paintings.
Despite frustrations with Éragny and Gisors, these locations were the setting for Félix’s first romantic encounters. He was charming and took care over his appearance, and though he annoyed local boys, he was popular with girls. Ahead of a trip to Belgium in 1894, Lucien wrote to Camille: ‘I hope that Félix will enjoy himself in Brussels and that he’ll make masses of superb works of art! I hope that he’ll behave well—it’s difficult when one is so handsome and above all so elegant! Mama says that he chases after all the girls, but it could well be that it is the girls who run after him!!’ Indeed, while in Belgium, Félix received a letter from his younger brother, Rodo, who wrote to deliver messages from the Éragny girls who were bored after his departure and ‘were still hoping to amuse themselves a little’. Rodo wrote: ‘if you write, they would be very happy if you include some messages for them’. In a family journal from early 1889, there is a remarkable illustration by Félix titled ‘A Poet’s Day’. With subtle whimsy, he sketched the daily routine of an arty young man in a feathered cap, and the final drawing, captioned ‘Fine Art № 2’, shows him in a romantic clinch with a pretty young woman. Félix, not yet 15 years old, showed precocity in his art, his playful humour and in his interest in women. In 1897, when he was gravely ill, Félix wrote to express delight that Rodo had been invited to a ball and would learn to dance. He reminisced about his own dancing apprenticeship: ‘me, what I learned, it was in Éragny with the Princesses of la rue Gagny’.
Julie continually hoped for Félix and Georges to learn a profession, partly because she wanted them to lead less precarious lives, but also, quite bluntly, to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Much of the burden of managing the household fell to her, so when the boys came of age, she lost patience when they were underfoot and expressing ambiguous aims of becoming artists. In December of 1890, when Félix was sixteen, Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘Your mother made me take Titi with me [to Paris] so that I could find a job for him; I took him along but I brought him back to Éragny. For after all, what is the point of putting a boy, Titi or Georges, in a factory where he will be exploited and either acquire no skill or learn it badly?’ To add to Julie’s frustration, Georges was subject to mood swings which frightened her and the younger children. What Camille and Julie agreed upon was the need for the boys to leave Éragny, and perhaps even France, to establish careers. Camille favoured London as a destination, and Lucien and Georges would pave the way for Félix.