Art, Anarchy and Other Dangers: The Premature Death of Félix Pissarro (Part II)

London had provided a place of refuge and possibility for the Pissarro family for decades.  Camille’s older half-sister Emma Petit and her husband Phineas Isaacson lived in London with their five children, Alfred, Rodolphe, Esther, Alice and Amélie. Emma had died in 1868, but during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Camille, Julie and their children Lucien and Minette fled to London and took shelter in the lodgings found for them by the Isaacsons. Camille enjoyed the time spent in London and produced some well-known paintings of Norwood and Sydenham. Julie, however, did not speak English and never felt at ease in London, yet just before returning to France in 1871 she and Camille were married at the Croydon Registry Office.

Though Phineas Isaacson was referred to disparagingly as ‘bourgeois’ by Camille and his sons, there was a natural affinity between the Pissarro children and their Isaacson cousins. Esther, especially, was a dynamic presence in the Pissarro family—she was bright and lively, fully bi-lingual, and able to hold her own in conversation with Camille. She introduced Lucien to her close friend Esther Bensusan, who would later become his wife. Alfred Isaacson wrote to Esther Bensusan after her visit to Éragny in 1890, saying: ‘I can imagine the walks with the Pissarros—Esther I., Lucien & Camille theorizing on art, and Georges & you listening, open-mouthed. All the sauce I wish I had been part of’. Esther’s strong rapport with Camille and the family would dictate the course of her life. She wrote to Esther Bensusan: ‘Isn’t he everything that is good & noble, & are they not a charming family altogether, people doing away with all the stupid conventionalities which we dull people think so important, and leading such a pure, simple & intelligent life!’

Esther Isaacson

In 1883-4, Lucien lived with the Isaacsons while he got his first taste of life in London and attempted to make art full time. He moved there permanently in 1890, and in 1892 he married Esther Bensusan. In 1889, it was Georges’ turn to live with the Isaacsons when he came to London to attend Toynbee Hall, The Guild and School of Handicraft in Whitechapel. The programme was run by Charles Robert Ashbee, a disciple of John Ruskin and William Morris, and it offered the training in applied arts that Camille felt would ensure a more regular income than fine art alone. During this year, the relationship between Georges and his cousin Esther, fourteen years his senior, turned to romance. This was a quiet development that was not openly acknowledged, but it would have a significant impact on the family. When Georges was in London, his dark moods lifted, and Esther’s letters describe busy days spent together enjoying the city, or at home, working side by side.

Toynbee Hall, 2019

In June 1890, after finishing his studies, Georges was no longer funded by Camille and so returned home where he was miserable and lacking in direction. Esther, too, was heartsick without Georges and visited Éragny in September at which point they continued to keep their relationship secret. Esther’s feelings were not only for Georges, but for the family as a whole: ‘The other day all the family was sitting in a row, some on the sofa and some on either side of it, & from the white head to the little yellow one they were a remarkable looking lot! Each one having his characteristic look, & every one nice looking.’ When they were apart, Georges’ darkness returned and in March 1891, Julie wrote to ask for Lucien’s help to remove Georges from the house because she could no longer cope with the agitation he caused. She favoured a move to Paris because she opposed the relationship that she suspected was developing between Georges and Esther: ‘I am almost certain that all of his rages and nastiness comes from thinking of her, he doesn’t work, he doesn’t do anything unless it’s for her.’ Despite Julie’s pleas, Georges returned to London in October of 1891, ostensibly to teach art to private pupils and paint portraits, and he and Esther married in secret on 17 December 1892.

Georges Pissarro

The marriage provoked dissent in the family—Julie forbade it to be spoken of and Esther’s sisters were hurt by having been excluded, while Camille was characteristically philosophical as seen in his words to Lucien: ‘I’m very surprised and yet I expected it, is it not so?’ Family relations become more harmonious thanks to the intervention of Octave Mirbeau who hired Georges to undertake some redecoration at his new residence in Carrières-sous-Poissy. By February 1893, the newlyweds were installed in lodgings in nearby Grésillons, and work was underway, and by May, Félix was living with them, helping Georges to make paintings and decorated panels. It was an easy train journey between them and Éragny and there were regular visits and joint outings, such as a trip to the influential exhibition of the Japanese artists Utamaro and Hiroshige in Paris. Mirbeau seemed content with Georges and Félix’s work and wrote to Camille: ‘I believe you will have a moment of joy when you see the progress of your sons!’ But this happy scene of creativity did not last. Soon after this letter, a misunderstanding between Mirbeau and Camille caused a rupture in the friendship and the resulting embarrassment brought Georges and Félix’s work to an end. At the same time, Georges had injured a local farmer’s dog while defending himself against its attack and the owner pressed charges. Because Georges was not registered with the French military, he and Esther, who was now pregnant, left the country with some haste on 5 July 1893.

When reading the Pissarro letters, it comes as a blow to discover the tragic events that followed the couple’s return to London. Esther, whose letters overflow with enthusiasm for life, died of eclampsia on September 2nd, two days after giving birth to a son. The baby was named Tommy, and Julie offered to care for him at Éragny but Georges preferred that he stay with Esther’s sister, Alice. Georges was utterly disconsolate so Félix was sent to England to be with him, and the two moved into accommodation near Lucien and Esther Bensusan Pissarro’s home in Epping. This was an anxious time for Lucien and Esther who were also expecting their first baby, but their daughter, Orovida, was born safely on October 8th. Camille advised Lucien that the three brothers should lift one another’s spirits by making art together: ‘I know that it’s quite repugnant after a crisis like this, everything seems void of interest, but it’s essential to engage oneself to work with a frenzy.’ Lucien agreed: ‘I think it will be very good that Titi spends some time here, because he is someone who animates everyone and his gaiety has the best effect on Georges. As soon as Georges is moved into his lodgings, we will all work together.’

Georges and Félix did manage a sustained period of work while living near Lucien and the brothers were included in the French Decorative Artists exhibition which opened at the Grafton Galleries in London in late 1893. The Grafton was run by Paul Durand-Ruel, Camille’s art dealer and the key figure in promoting the work of the Impressionists, but this exhibition focussed on the influence of the British Arts & Crafts movement on French artists. In a review of the exhibition in The Studio, the author noted that this show ran concurrently with the Arts & Crafts exhibition taking place in nearby Regent Street at the New Gallery, so for the cost of a shilling each, one could observe the similarities and differences in parallel. The author remarked of the French exhibition: ‘Paris has been to the land of the chrysanthemum and caught its charm with a dainty ease quite distinct from our painful attempts to be Anglo-Japanese; but all the same the decoration of William Morris and his school is in its way a native style to be prized all the more after a visit to the Grafton.’ Georges and Félix returned to Éragny by the end of the year, and exhibited again in January 1894 at the opening of Lucien Moline’s Neo-Impressionist Gallery in Paris.

The Grafton Galleries
Announcement card for exhibition of the ‘Groupe Néo-Impressionniste’ at 20, rue Laffitte, Paris, 1893-1894. Catalogues 1891-1893, Pissarro Collection

Participation in these important exhibitions would suggest progress in their art careers, but Georges’ ongoing malaise continued to have an impact on work and family life. ‘Les gars’ were once again a pair, with Georges falling into a second adolescence, and taking Félix with him. They amused themselves by taking long walks or wearing fancy dress about which Camille wrote to Lucien in February of 1894: ‘I suppose youth is claiming its rights.’ In May, Julie complained of Georges’ treatment of her and told Lucien that she hoped for him to return to London as soon as Alice found him a place to live, and she was keen for Félix to leave too: ‘Georges is going to leave, so much the better, there is no way to live with him, and Master Titi […] it is absolutely necessary that he also leave as soon as possible; they haven’t worked since you left, they take bicycle rides and pass their time at that.’ Georges returned to London in early June, leaving Félix behind in Éragny.

While the Pissarro family coped with these difficulties, France had entered a period of political and social unrest which intensified throughout the 1890s. Between March 1892 and June 1894 anarchists killed nine people in eleven dynamite explosions in Paris. This resulted in governmental crackdowns such as the ‘lois scélérates’ [‘villainous laws’] with which the French state gave itself powers to repress political movements and free speech. These laws were further hardened after the assassination of the French president Marie François Sadi-Carnot by an Italian anarchist on 24 June 1894. Anarchist newspapers were shut down, lists were made of people who had contributed to or subscribed to these publications, and suspects were rounded up.

Le Petit Journal, 2 July 1894

Camille had subscribed and contributed to Jean Grave’s La Révolte and Émile Pouget’s Le Père Peinard and had worked with Maximilien Luce and Félix Fénéon to support anarchist causes. The Pissarro boys had artwork included in these publications, such as Félix’s cartoon in the Père Peinard of 31 July 1892 titled ‘Gras et Maigres!’ [‘Fat and Skinny!’] in which a well-fed couple ride past a destitute man in their horse-drawn carriage. The caption reads: ‘These two butterballs have minions, carriages and castles and enough grub to eat like pigs.  If they are so fat, it’s because they have stolen from the poor of the world and there are starving people filling the streets.’ There was never subtlety in this message, but the new climate gave it an air of threat.

‘Gras et maigres’, caricature after a drawing by Felix Pissarro, printed in Le Pere Peinard, 31 July 1892, no. 176. Pissarro Collection

The day after the assassination, Camille, Julie and Félix left for Belgium on a trip that had been planned in advance. But the timing was fortuitous because Camille was worried that his links to anarchism would have consequences and he was relieved to be leaving France. Indeed, his friends and colleagues Maximilien Luce, Félix Fénéon, Jean Grave and Émile Pouget, among others, were arrested and imprisoned on 8 July 1894. Julie went home after enjoying a short holiday, but Camille, who was afraid to return, stayed in Belgium until September by which time his friends had been tried and acquitted in the celebrated Procès des trente (the Trial of the Thirty). The same year also brought the start of a lengthy and deeply polarising political scandal when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested on charges of treason. Camille began to experience the more overt anti-Semitism exposed by the Dreyfus Affair despite his well-known atheism. For all these reasons Camille considered leaving France permanently when, in the midst of these troubles, the previous owner of the Éragny house expressed the desire to re-purchase it. Camille was keen to accept the offer and move to London since Lucien, Georges and two grandchildren were already there. He argued, ‘the whole family will inevitably be there’, but Julie would not be persuaded to move.

During the Belgian trip, Camille and Félix were hosted by Théo van Rysselberghe, a Belgian Neo-Impressionist painter who was, like Lucien, in his early 30s and married with a young child. He was a serious and disciplined painter and one of the founding members of ‘Les XX’, an association of radical artists who, like the Impressionists, were frustrated by the conservative policies of the official salons. In 1893, the group reformed under the name ‘La Libre Esthétique’. Van Rysselberghe was a generous host and took Camille and Félix around Belgium and into Holland on excursions to paint and visit galleries and museums, with Lucien and Rodo joining them at certain points. Félix benefitted from the contact with Van Rysselberghe and wrote to Georges about sketching and painting every day, even in bad weather: ‘never mind, we work all the same.’ After Camille’s return to France, Félix was to stay in Belgium indefinitely and continue working with Van Rysselberghe.

WA1951.225.9. Felix Pissarro, View at Hemiksem, 1894, oil on canvas. Presented by Esther Pissarro, 1951

This plan was turned on its head by the arrival of Georges, who suddenly left London to join Félix in Belgium in October. Julie wrote to Lucien to complain about ‘Master Georges who amuses himself by going off to Belgium rather than staying in London where he could have found work doing portraits or lessons.’ Camille adapted to the new state of affairs, remarking to Lucien: ‘the boys are settled in Brussels, it costs much less to live there than in London.’ Félix and Georges exhibited in Brussels at the Libre Esthétique show in February of 1895 but then departed abruptly for London in March, offering the excuse that they feared the repercussions of not having declared their residency to the Belgian authorities. Théo Van Rysselberghe doubted this explanation, saying this was a mere formality which could easily have been resolved. The actual cause might have been an accumulation of debt which they found themselves unable to pay. They received a letter from Camille later that year urging them to ‘be thrifty’ and ‘don’t acquire debts like in Belgium where you had more than sufficient.’  He criticised their skewed priorities: ‘put it into your head that it’s better to take care of your stomach than to have chic hats and jackets.’ 

Back in London, Georges and Félix lived together in Twickenham until November of 1895, after which they began to live apart in various lodgings in west London—never far from Kew or from the Isaacson family in Bayswater.  Now, little by little, began a more structured approach to making art.  The events of the previous few years had been painful and challenging, but both were still young; Félix turned 21 in July, and Georges, despite marriage and fatherhood, would only be 24 in November. Their slow journey to a more disciplined existence had been difficult for the family because finances were so delicate, but Camille was sympathetic to the need to explore boundaries in youth. When he was 22, he left his home in the West Indies despite his parents’ displeasure, and spent two formative years travelling, painting and drawing in Venezuela with the Danish artist Fritz Melbye. He also understood that becoming an artist was a lengthy process. After Belgium had proved a failure, he wrote to Lucien: ‘nothing has been lost, someday I hope to see the boys working in one of the applied arts.’

In keeping with Camille’s advice, Félix and Georges became focussed on making decorated wooden boxes. The boxes themselves were obtained ready-made and then individually painted with unique designs. In December of 1895, the brothers exhibited work in Paris at the debut show of Siegfried Bing’s Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Félix sold a box, which prompted Lucien to respond: ‘lucky devil, this is going to give you a kick up the backside to produce!’ During this period, Félix and Georges took pseudonyms after Julie suggested that the family name might be as much a hindrance as a help to their art careers. Georges adopted the alias ‘Manzana’, the maiden name of Camille’s Creole mother, and Félix chose ‘Jean Roche’. After this, Félix sold a painting, Vue de l’Escaut, for 200 francs and Lucien remarked to Camille: ‘It’s good that Titi has sold a painting, that will give him courage; all the same it’s curious that the pseudonym was enough to help with sales.’

Painted box by Felix Pissarro, August 1895

In his third son, Camille saw an artist who was a painter by instinct, something he had noted when Félix was age twelve and spent his days drawing horses and again in September of 1893, when he wrote, ‘Titi has begun several studies—he has a really good eye, he will be a painter.’ Like Camille, Félix was drawn to themes from nature for inspiration, especially his continuing preoccupation with horses, a penchant that Mirbeau had noted: ‘this passion for horses, he kept it always.’ Even in urban London, Félix continued to pursue this motif. Lucien wrote: ‘Titi reckons on going to work at the zoo and painting the donkeys and mules in the horse genre that he does.’ Mirbeau found a connection between Félix’s fascination with horses and another of his adolescent passions, Flaubert’s dramatic short story The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, which Félix, ‘with his beautiful youthful enthusiasm’, read and re-read. In the tale, Julian, a tormented hero, rides out on horseback to hunt by moonlight. Mirbeau wrote: ‘I see again, one after the other, all the paintings, all the etchings, all the drawings, strange, animated, mysterious, that his imagination took, without end, from his favourite tale.’

WA.PA.77.2971A. Felix Pissarro, Two horses standing beneath a tree, etching. Pissarro Family Gift, 1952
WA.PA.77.2998. Felix Pissarro, Hunting with a wolf, etching. Pissarro Family Gift, 1952

In the Ashmolean collection, the majority of Félix’s work features horses: rural, working horses with expressions of noble resignation, pulling ploughs or carts laden with hay; the same horses enjoying the respite after a day’s labour, lying down, bathing in a river, resting their heads on one another, finding shade among trees. There are horses with riders, gentlemen in riding silks galloping through the countryside and over hedges. Others depict scenes seemingly inspired by the Flaubert tale—costumed men on decorated horses, parading or in hunting parties, wild scenes of a hunt in action, with horse, rider and beast in mid-air and the weapon finding its target. 

In the summer of 1896 Georges and Félix travelled along the south coast of England, painting and drawing, making their way to the Isle of Wight, a trip that passed without incident. Then in December of that year, the pair embarked on what would be their last trip together when they left for Spain in search of new subject matter. This was despite a warning from Camille that foreigners would be especially conspicuous because the activities of Spanish revolutionaries had put the authorities on alert. He was proven correct. In January they were in Barcelona making sketches near the harbour fortifications, which attracted the attention of the police, who invaded their hotel room in the middle of the night, seizing certain items. They were nearly arrested except for the intervention of one sympathetic policeman who advised them to leave the country on the first train in the morning, which they did. Camille wrote to Lucien that the boys ‘will soon be on their way to England, which they never should have left’.

Part I and Part III

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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