“My Dear Niece”: The Life of Esther Isaacson Pissarro (Part I)

Esther Isaacson Pissarro, undated photograph

For the past several years I have been researching the life of Félix Pissarro, the third son of the artist Camille Pissarro. I wanted to learn why he died at the age of 23 and why he was buried not far from me, in southwest London. The resulting article is published on this website. In the process of untangling the story of Félix, I became fascinated by another member of the extended Pissarro family:  Esther Isaacson, Camille’s niece. While reading the family letters, not only did I discover how important Esther was to Camille and his family, but I became drawn to her as a person because her letters are so exuberant and because she prompted such lively and interesting responses from her uncle.

I also became bewildered at the treatment she received from some Pissarro biographers who virtually airbrush her from the family story. When I began my research on Félix Pissarro, I struggled at first to differentiate between Esther Isaacson and Esther Bensusan, the wife of Camille Pissarro’s eldest son, Lucien. Many books and articles, if they mention Esther Isaacson at all, make little effort to distinguish between them and they gloss over her marriage to Georges Pissarro, Camille’s second son. This is surprising since it was for Esther Isaacson that Camille created a one-of-a-kind masterpiece in 1889: the Turpitudes Sociales, a handmade book consisting of 28 illustrations. This book is unique in Camille’s œuvre since it was the only time that he used illustrations to openly present his political views, in an age in which it was dangerous to do so. In this four-part article, I will present the story of Esther Isaacson, an intelligent and passionate Jewish woman who came of age in Victorian London, and a woman to whom Camille Pissarro could confide his thoughts on art and politics, as well as some of his deepest worries.

I will begin with a brief outline of her life: Esther Clara Isaacson was born in Paris on 31 October 1857 to Emma Petit Isaacson and Phineas Isaacson. She was the fourth of five children. Her mother Emma was the elder half-sister of Camille Pissarro. Emma, Camille and their siblings were raised in a tightknit Jewish community in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, in the former Danish West Indies. Esther’s father, Phineas Isaacson was from London. He was a West India Merchant who worked with the Pissarro family in Charlotte Amalie. Camille, Emma and the extended Pissarro/Isaacson family moved to France in 1855. In 1865, the Isaacsons moved to London, where they would remain. In adulthood, Esther worked as a private teacher to young ladies. In 1892, at the age of 35, she shocked her family by marrying her cousin Georges Pissarro, who was almost fourteen years her junior. She died on 2 September 1893 of eclampsia after giving birth to a healthy son, Tommy, the first Pissarro grandchild.

To bring Esther’s story to life I am lucky to have access to the Pissarro letters, through which I first became aware of her importance. Camille Pissarro was a natural and prolific writer, who expressed himself with intelligence, wit and warmth, and we are remarkably lucky that his correspondence has been preserved since he was the only artist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions (1874-1886). His letters are published in Janine Bailly-Herzberg’s 5-volume collection Correspondance de Camille Pissarro, along withextracts of letters by certain other correspondents included in the footnotes. In the collection housed at the Ashmolean Museum, I was able to read letters written by Esther herself, her brother Alfred, and others in the Pissarro/Isaacson world. I found many answers in the letters and it would be the case, as with Félix, of trying to piece together Esther’s life from the paper trail that remains.  There are not many Pissarro letters before the 1880s, but it is still possible to see that Esther’s close connection to Camille goes back to her earliest years.

Esther’s grandmother was Rachel Manzana, Camille’s mother. Rachel was of Sephardic ancestry and had been born and raised in Charlotte Amalie. She was married to Isaac Petit when she gave birth to Esther’s mother Emma in 1821. But after Isaac died in 1824, Rachel married her husband’s nephew, Frédéric Pizzarro. Their son Camille, was born in 1830.   Emma met and married Phineas Isaacson in Charlotte Amalie and the first three of their five children were born there: Amélie (1850) and Alice (1854), and Rodolphe, whose birthdate is unknown. In 1855, the Isaacsons and the Pissarros, including Camille, left St. Thomas for France. The youngest Isaacson children were born there: Esther Clara Isaacson, born in Paris in 1857, and Alfred Isaacson, born in Passy in 1861.

In the early years in France, Camille was busy establishing his art career. He lived sometimes with the extended Isaacson/Pissarro family, and sometimes elsewhere, but the ties to his family were deep. Camille evoked a memory of his sister Emma from this period in a letter to Lucien written in 1893:

‘Back in the day, my sister had an astonishing flair [for finding homes]; she was continually suffering the discomforts of pregnancy, but she found places all the same, without even budging; it was she who found the homes in Passy, rue de la Pompe and the one in La Muette; so sought after; what a master stroke!  But she took care of it; she summoned her friends and acquaintances; once on the track [of a promising property], my father would send me [to look at it] or go himself. Then time to go!’

This anecdote shows that Camille was involved with helping Emma to find homes for the extended family, homes which he remembered with fondness. Esther’s brother, Alfred Isaacson, also remembered this shared period in France in a letter to Lucien from 1903: ‘those happy days when our enthusiasms & friendships were young—Passy—where [Camille] was ever the most welcome of uncles’. Rachel Pizzarro was an imposing matriarch, and she let her unhappiness be known when Camille began a relationship with her former kitchen maid, Julie Vellay. In these years, Camille and Julie began a family of their own, with son Lucien born in 1863 and daughter Jeanne (‘Minette’) in 1865.

In August of 1865, the Isaacson family moved to London, where Phineas continued to work as a West India merchant. I find it surprising that they chose this time to leave Paris because Frédéric Pizzarro (Camille’s father and Emma’s stepfather) had died in January, leaving Rachel to grieve without her daughter’s comfort.  There is no mention in the letters of what prompted the decision. Phineas was British, and perhaps there were calls from his family to come home. Could the Isaacsons have been drawn to London at a time when barriers to Jews participating fully in British society seemed to be breaking down? In 1858, the Jews Relief Act permitted Jews to accept political offices and in the same year Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jewish member of Parliament. The Reform Act of 1867 granted every adult male householder the right to vote, including Jews. And in 1871, the Universities Test Act removed the obstacles preventing Jews from studying or teaching at English universities. These decades might have given British Jews a certain optimism. But the letters show that Emma was concerned about her mother and made regular trips between London and Paris with the children. In a letter from Emma to Camille, she asks him about Rachel and wonders whether he and his brother Alfred Pissarro took it in turns to dine with or stay overnight with her.

With the Isaacsons now in England, both London and Paris became significant cities in the lives of the two families. The Isaacsons and Pissarros spent time in each city and developed a good working knowledge of the geography and the way of life. Camille and the Isaacson family were bilingual, and the elder Pissarro sons—Lucien, Georges and Félix—became proficient in English in early adulthood. In terms of culture, politics, and manners, it is interesting to take account of the similarities and differences between London and Paris since Esther was almost 8-years-old when she changed country and began the process of becoming British. When the Isaacsons left France, the country was still under the Second Empire, ruled by Napoleon III who had charged Baron Haussmann with modernising Paris. The sweeping changes brought about by Haussmann prompted Charles Baudelaire to write Les Fleurs du Mal, which was published in Esther’s year of birth. It was also Napoleon III who ordained the Salon des Refusés exhibition in 1863 to appease the many artists who had been refused a place in the official Salon. Camille Pissarro exhibited in this event, with artists such as Manet and Whistler. The Second Empire collapsed during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and the Third Republic (1870-1940) would emerge as a parliamentary republic. Camille wrote about the country’s struggles in his letters, while his own politics moved from socialism toward anarchism. The class conditions and social injustices of France were depicted in brute detail in the novels of Émile Zola. The Eiffel Tower, which features prominently in Camille’s book, the Turpitudes Sociales, was constructed for the World Fair of 1889.

When the Isaacsons arrived in Britain in 1865, it was the middle of Queen Victoria’s 63-year reign and the year that Lewis Carrol published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Queen’s ninth (and last) child, Beatrice, was the same age as Esther. Victoria’s reign was marked by the move toward Victorian morality and the expansion of the British Empire, culminating in her new title Empress of India in 1876. Her reign was also marked by the push for Irish home rule, which brought violent attacks on the capital. Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the first World’s Fair), and would be the subject of a painting by Camille. The Royal Albert Hall, where the Isaacson and Pissarro cousins attended concerts, opened in 1871. Britain’s great chronicler of social injustice, Charles Dickens, died in 1870 at the age of 58.

The corner of Norfolk Street and The Strand

The Isaacsons first settled near the river Thames in Norfolk Street, off The Strand, a street which no longer exists. But only two and a half years later, the family endured a shocking tragedy when Emma died of a stroke on 19 January 1868, at the age of 47. Esther was only 10 years old; her brother Alfred was 7, her older siblings Amélie, Alice and Rodolphe were in their teens. After Emma’s death, Camille came to London to stay with the family, leaving Julie in France with two young children. When Camille wrote to Julie on 24 January, he spoke of attending synagogue with Rodolphe Isaacson. He asked Julie to have patience with his absence and said: ‘I will have to wait until the first eight days of mourning are over to come back to you because the [Isaacson] children might return with me, it’s not sure yet’. The idea of Camille bringing the Isaacson children to Paris, probably to live with Rachel, does not seem to have happened and Phineas must have found a way of coping with the running of the household and the care of the children. I am frustrated not to have been able to locate Emma’s burial place, and I worry that she may have been one of the thousands whose remains were moved from the Novo Cemetery when two-thirds of it was ‘cleared’ in 1972.

Sometime after Emma’s death, the Isaacson family moved to Norwood in southeast London. In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War erupted and Prussian troops were advancing on Paris, the extended Pissarro family took refuge in London, near the Isaacsons. By October, Camille’s brother Alfred Pissarro was in London with his wife Marie and their toddler son Frédéric. Followed by Rachel in November 1870, at which point the Isaacson children (except Rodolphe) lived with her, presumably to keep her company or to free Phineas to attend more freely to his business. Camille, Julie and their two children came to London in early December of 1870. Thus, the entire Pissarro/Isaacson clan were living within a short distance of one another, all centred around West Norwood rail station. This station was part of a new rail line constructed to bring visitors to Crystal Palace after it was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham in 1854. This, in turn, had encouraged new development in the region. Camille’s paintings of Norwood, Sydenham and Crystal Palace from 1871 give us the feeling of the environment, with clusters of Victorian homes dotted in a landscape that is greener and more expansive than central London, with wide-open lanes and pavements.

During the year that the Pissarros took refuge in Norwood, Esther was 13, Alfred was 10 and Lucien and Minette (who would die at the age of 10) Pissarro were 8 and 6 years old. Camille was certainly not an isolated refugee and the proximity to family offered an occasion for the Isaacsons and Pissarros to spend time together and for the cousins to forge bonds. Camille was also able to making some important paintings of London and he met his future art agent, Paul Durand-Ruel, who was also fleeing the war. Camille and Julie married while in England, with the ceremony taking place in June of 1871 at the Croydon Registry office. They returned to France soon after, and their son, and Esther’s future husband, Georges Henri, was born on 22 November 1871.

The Isaacsons remained in Norwood until 1879, by which time Esther was 22 years old. I have been able to build a general idea of her life in the Norwood years—her formative years—but important gaps remain. In terms of her family life, Phineas Isaacson is often described as a difficult character and there is a suggestion that Esther’s brothers Rodolphe and Alfred settled in America to escape him.  Phineas was frequently disparaged by Camille, Lucien and Georges, who described him as bourgeois and unfeeling. But, when reading the letters as a whole, one cannot help feel that Phineas was simply a typical man of his class, profession and religious orthodoxy. Camille Pissarro was an uncommon man, and the Pissarro boys were accustomed to a father who was supportive and non-conformist. Phineas did not bear comparison to Camille, but he was not an ogre. In the existing letters, Esther herself does not complain about her father and a feeling of affection can be seen in a letter from the mid-1880s, in which she wrote to Lucien Pissarro asking him to thank Georges for the ‘beautiful allegorical drawing’ he had sent her, but she added: ‘I don’t think I’ll show it to Papa, Georges having forgotten to put clothes on the figure; not even for an empire would I want to make this modest old man blush!’ Phineas was a practicing Jew and seems to have been fairly strict, though Esther’s letters do not discuss the family’s religious practice. As a widower, it would have been his role to ensure the religious upbringing of his children.

During the Norwood years the Isaacsons established a close friendship with the Bensusan family, who lived nearby in Anerley. The two families would play an important part in one another’s lives for a half century or more, and the friendship offers more insight into the Isaacson’s religious convictions. Jacob Samuel Levy Bensusan, a successful ostrich feather merchant, and Miriam Levy Bensusan were orthodox Sephardic Jews and strict parents and must have found Phineas Isaacson to hold compatible beliefs.  The Bensusans had four children, but it was their daughter Esther (1870) and son Samuel (1872) who became particularly close to the Isaacson children, despite the difference in their ages. Sam Bensusan would go on to become the editor of Jewish World in 1897. The family friendship also included Mr. Bensusan’s unmarried sister Orovida (‘Oro’), to whom Esther became very close. In the 1901 census, Oro was living with the Isaacsons. I do not know how the two families met, perhaps through the business dealings of the two fathers, or through a synagogue, though I have not been able to locate mention of a synagogue in the greater Norwood area and find it interesting that these two Jewish families had settled there. Perhaps they held services in private homes, or travelled to synagogues in central London. On a visit to the Novo Cemetery in late 2019, I was surprised to happen upon the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Bensusan and Orovida Bensusan, next to the path running along Queen Mary University’s law building.

All that is known about Esther’s elder brother Rodolphe is that he left Britain for the Americas at a young age, and he did not return. While there, he was itinerant, with a letter from 1884 placing him in Mexico, working in gold and silver mines, and in another from 1885 he worked as a shepherd in New Mexico.  After this, he seems to drop out of the family’s life, or at least out of the letters. Amélie, who was 17 when the family moved to London, returned to Paris sometime in her twenties. She lived with her grandmother Rachel, who lived until 1889, and she worked for her Aunt Marie Pissarro (wife of Camille’s brother Alfred), making children’s clothing. Amélie did make frequent visits to London, and, in the letters, comes across as more sharp-tongued than her sisters. Esther was very close to her sister Alice, who was continually described as ‘good’, ‘kind’, and ‘generous’. When Esther and Georges eloped, Camille was shocked to learn that Esther had not confided in Alice: ‘but Alice, the ideal confidante, that’s too much! Alice must be dismayed, she’s probably sick about it’. When Esther died from complications of childbirth, it was Alice (along with Phineas) who raised the baby, Tommy, becoming a mother to him. The youngest Isaacson, Alfred, received an elite British education, attending Dulwich College from 1871-76. He left for America in January 1886, where he would live for many years. He took a much more certain path than his brother Rodolphe, and worked as an insurance agent while living in small cities such as St Paul, Minnesota and West Superior, Wisconsin, before moving into publishing and living in New York City.

While it is known that Alfred Isaacson received a good education, I have learned no details about Esther’s education, or that of her sisters. There is no reference to her schooling except for a fleeting remark from Camille that her education, being English, had been imperfect because it was based in a certain English Christianity [‘that pompous English education, that absurd fetishism at its base’). But one particular piece of misinformation found in Pissarro biographies became clear to me: where Esther is mentioned, she is usually described as running a pensione out of the family home, with her sister Alice. While the family did take in paid guests, it is more accurate to say that Esther was a teacher. Reference to her teaching runs clearly throughout the letters. She must have been educated to a standard that permitted her to attain work teaching young ladies, since her pupils were girls from middle-class or gentry families. She may have taught French, but her main focus was art instruction, which made her an ideal correspondent for Camille since she was keenly interested in how art was taught, learned and made.

The Holloway Road in the late 19th century.

By 1879, for reasons unknown, the Isaacsons made a drastic change—moving from leafy Norwood to Holloway, in bustling north London. They lived at 46 Hartham Road, where they would remain until 1887. They are listed in the Islington Census of 1881, by which time Phineas was 61, Alice 27, Esther 24, Alfred 20. Also listed is a guest resident: Esther Bensusan, age 10, described as a ‘scholar from Dulwich’. Esther Isaacson is listed as ‘Governess’ and, was probably teaching Esther Bensusan. The relationship between the two Esthers began via their parents’ friendship, then became that of teacher and student, but eventually developed into a friendship, despite the 13-year age difference. Possibly to avoid the awkwardness of having the same name, Esther Bensusan came to be known as ‘Sterbee’, derived from combining the second syllable of her first name with the first letter of her surname. Esther Bensusan became romantically involved with Lucien Pissarro, who she met when he lived with the Isaacsons in Holloway for a year. The letters show that there was a certain imbalance in the women’s friendship because, in addition to being older, Esther Isaacson tended to dominate with her intelligence and intensity. This can be seen in a letter from Alfred Isaacson to Esther Bensusan, after she’d visited the Pissarro family home: ‘I can imagine the walks with the Pissarros—Esther I, Lucien and Camille theorizing on art and Georges & you listening open mouthed. All the sauce I wish I had been part of’. Amélie Isaacson, who could be very blunt, told Camille that Esther Bensusan was in thrall to her sister Esther: ‘She is insufferable, she copies Esther, she has nothing of herself’. Both Esthers would marry a Pissarro brother in 1892, and both would have a child in 1893.  

Esther Isaacson and her uncle Camille established a regular correspondence when she was young, and art was their most frequent topic of discussion. Esther witnessed the rise of the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain and was a great admirer of William Morris. In Paris, it was Impressionism that was causing a stir, and Camille could discuss it from the inside. Esther’s enthusiastic reports and her questions interested Camille and he never made her feel like a young person whose ideas did not matter. In 1880, when she was 23, Esther had expressed the desire to try selling Camille’s paintings in London, so, in a show of faith, he sent her some of his watercolours. Nothing came of this because soon after, Durand-Ruel requested the paintings and Esther had to return them. In a letter from 20 March 1882, Camille responded to a question posed by Esther: ‘You asked me if I know Ruskin’s ideas on the art of our times’. He tells her that he’s never read anything by Ruskin, so cannot judge. But when he got a chance to apprise his writings, he would let Esther know his thoughts. But, he added, ‘I do know that he has a poor opinion of Whistler, which is serious, very serious, because that American artist is a great artist and the only one which America can truly glory in. Moreover, I distrust the theories that men of letters make about painting and drawing. It’s rare that they truly show sense’.

It was Lucien’s presence in the Isaacson home from February of 1883 to March of 1884 that brought the two families in closer contact since he gained a vantage point for observing family life and reporting what he saw. In Camille’s first letter to Lucien in London, he wrote: ‘Give me news about the Isaacson cousins, give them my compliments, and above all try to be with them like a son and well-brought-up brother. Have tact and keep high the honour of your name!’ There were conflicting reasons for Lucien’s year in London: Julie hoped the English influence would steer him toward a job in business, whereas Camille thought it was an opportunity for him to develop as an artist. This was a source of friction between the couple. In a letter to Lucien dated 9 December 1883, Camille wrote that he’d just seen Phineas in Paris, where they had lunched with Rachel. Phineas spoke glowingly of Lucien, and Camille was flattered, adding: ‘I am happy that you knew to keep yourself in your place, that you understood that it does not befit a young man to display his ideas too bluntly with a man who, in short, has the right to make observations to you being older than you and, what is more, receives you with all the kindness of a father; the contrary would have hurt me deeply’.

A regular topic of conversation between Camille and Lucien was whether the Isaacson family were bourgeois. Phineas had been irredeemably labelled as such, but what about the children? Were they bourgeois, and if so, to what degree and how did it manifest itself? This subject stemmed from Camille’s deep political convictions and his optimism that the future would bring an end to capitalism. By studying people and their behaviour, he was able to evaluate whether society was moving in that direction. He considered the Isaacsons to be English, especially Esther and Alfred, who’d had the majority of their upbringing in London. His interactions with them gave Camille the opportunity to compare the differences between the French and British way of thinking, seeing, behaving. He would test them by sending them things to read and observing their response. On 22 July 1883, he wrote to Lucien: ‘I don’t have Abbe Mouret’s Transgression; I will buy it and send it to Esther; but she won’t like the book, she’s lived in England too long to appreciate it. Its naturalism is a bit strong’. This was an 1875 novel by Émile Zola that many people—French or English—would have found provocative. Camille initially had hopes of converting Alfred Isaacson toward a more radical form of politics, and sent him publications, hoping to engage him in conversation. But this exchange reached a limit and Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘Why doesn’t Alfred read the two little volumes on socialism that I lent him? It’s very easy and would give him a general idea of the movement that leads our modern society toward new ideas; I think that for an Englishman my Alfred lacks a bit of perseverance’. When he judged the Isaacsons for possible bourgeois leanings, Camille was occupying a complex position. He had come from a bourgeois family whose financial contributions had enabled him to launch a career as an artist. He was forced to operate in the bourgeois world—selling his paintings to collectors and hoping for the best prices; he became a homeowner; and he wanted his children to attain a certain kind of success—but for him, ‘bourgeois’ was a mentality that spoke of materialism, small-mindedness and indifference to the suffering of others.

The Isaacson children must have sensed that they were being appraised for bourgeois leanings. While he was in the United States working as an insurance agent, Alfred wrote to Lucien somewhat defensively: ‘Please don’t suppose I am getting bourgeois, I suffer too much by the damned system to love it, but wherever I look I see nothing but wickedness, brutality, selfishness, stupidity, and, like Bouvard and Pécuchet, set myself down to being a copyist again’. Alfred was making reference to the Flaubert novel Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881) in which two young copy-clerks leave work to pursue idealistic endeavours, but become disillusioned by humanity and return to copying. In a letter to Esther from December of 1885, Camille explained which country—France or England—he found to be closer to shrugging off the constraints of bourgeois capitalism:

‘England is absolutely at the same degree of cretinism as we are, except that as a result of its idiotic Protestant education, it finds itself blinded by a semblance of false respect, false morality and false freedom; France, or at least the Latin race, is certainly more disengaged from that confusion; obviously it will be more apt to advance in the new path!’

Ultimately, it would be Esther with whom Camille was able to establish a satisfying intellectual connection. Esther showed a willingness to think outside the limits of her education and milieu.

Learning the English language was one priority for Lucien’s year in London that Camille and Julie could agree upon. He arrived speaking little English, but the Isaacsons were bilingual so could act as translators and teachers and assist him until he became functional in English. Lucien must have expressed happiness at the welcome he’d received because by mid-March Camille wrote: ‘I was certain that you would be very happy in the family; thank dear Alice for me for all the trouble that you give them. As for Esther, tell her that painting must be taught by oneself; I’m astonished that she feels the need for a false direction!’ Esther had expressed the desire to take painting lessons, but Camille is consistently adamant (to her and to all his children) that drawing and painting are learned by doing. Esther would also suggest that Lucien take figure drawing classes with the French painter Alphonse Legros at the Slade School of Fine Art. Camille knew Legros personally and had some specific thoughts about this idea. He told Lucien that he could take classes, and would even write him a letter of introduction, but there were dangers: ‘don’t seek a formula, don’t let yourself be influenced by ‘gifted students’, don’t have the proportions all worked out ahead of time, in a word, learn to see by yourself and execute your drawings without a preconceived system’. Camille wrote directly to Esther on 13 June, explaining that the delay in replying was because he wanted to write her a good, serious letter which took time and consideration. He spoke to her about Lucien’s education, saying that he wasn’t against the idea of lessons with Legros, but he explained:

‘It’s necessary to be on guard with his teaching, it’s better, if Lucien has the courage and the will, for him to develop by himself. To learn to draw, one can draw anything—the goal is just to learn to see forms, but with one’s own eyes. Tell him to make a portrait of Alice, of you, voilà, models that one doesn’t find every day, and Alfred and your father, and the friends of friends, portraits would do him much good. He can send them to me and I’ll tell him what I think. To encourage him, tell him that I was looking at the portrait that he did of his little brother [Félix]; it’s not bad’.

While Lucien was in London, an Impressionist exhibition was held at the Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell Gallery at 133 New Bond Street between 20 April and July 1883. Lucien and Esther attended the show and she spoke of it to Camille because he responded: ‘You were very enthusiastic about it’, adding that he was happy that her enthusiasm was without prejudice since she admitted to disliking Manet’s La Femme en bleu [what we know as The Railway (1873)]. Unfortunately, her letter no longer exists so we do not know what Esther said about the exhibition, nor why she didn’t like the Manet. Camille replied that perhaps it was not Manet’s best but pointed out the painting’s strong qualities: ‘the woman in blue with the little dog is quite remarkable’. Manet was a great friend of Camille’s and had recently died, a loss he felt deeply. Camille wrote that he’d love to see Esther, but things were difficult that year, ‘we have so many artistic difficulties to overcome, although we’re very well-known and praised by many!’ Public attention had not brought relief to the financial strain under which he suffered, and he told Esther of his hope for better times ahead. 

A mention of Ida Henry’s concert at the Royal Academy of Music, 1877.

Through Lucien’s letters to Camille, we get a picture of a household in which Esther, highly creative and energetic, enjoyed her cousin’s companionship because they shared similar interests. Lucien reported that Esther wrote a play and had performed it for the household. Camille replied: ‘I would very much like to read the little play that Esther wrote, since I can’t see her act it; it’s a start, and she must continue’. Lucien’s point of view shed light on key aspects of Esther’s life at this time. One was the Isaacsons close friendship with the Henry family, which consisted of a widow, Mathilde Henry, and her children. Two of her daughters—Ida and Louise—became very close to Esther and Alice. The Henrys were also French Jews and had come to London sometime before 1861: they are in the 1861 census, when Madame Henry’s husband was still alive, where he was listed as ‘agent for French Manufacturer’. At some point in the 1880s, the Henrys moved to 39 Aldridge Road Villas in Bayswater. The two families were so close that the Isaacsons left Holloway in March 1887 to be near the Henrys in Bayswater. They found a house just around the corner, 6 Cornwall Road, in what is now Westbourne Park Road. Camille knew the Henrys and they are mentioned multiple times in all 5 volumes of the Correspondance, with the Henrys even making trips to Paris and Éragny and spending time with Camille and the Pissarros. In a letter to Lucien dated 13 March 1887, Camille wrote: ‘Amélie just received a letter from Esther: they found a house near Mme Henry; they are all well’.

Anton Rubinstein

The Isaacson and Henry daughters shared a passion for music. Ida was a concert pianist and was listed in the census of 1881 and 1891 as a ‘Professor of Music’, and I have found many references to her performances, including one from 1 June 1877 at the Royal Academy of Music and from 6 May 1890 at the Princes’ Hall in Piccadilly, billed as ‘Mademoiselle Ida Henry’s Evening Concert’. Their mutual love of music comes up in a spirited letter from Esther to Lucien in which she describes her obsession with the pianist Anton Rubinstein. In the months of May and June 1886, Rubinstein gave a series of seven Concerts at the St. James’s Hall in which he covered the entire history of European piano music from the English virginalists to contemporary Russian composers. It is worth including this long citation from Esther’s letter because as well as describing an important cultural and historical event, the letter shows Esther’s natural enthusiasm and energy:

‘My dear Lucien, You know that I am crazy, don’t you? Well! I challenge you to comprehend the scope of my craziness! […] I haven’t told you the magic word that explains why I no longer hide my condition! Rubinstein!! Voilà! He is ugly, and I find him handsome, he is badly dressed, uncombed, unwashed, and I find him preferable to the most perfect *masher! [*a fashionable Victorian gentleman], he has that which all the mashers of the United Kingdom can’t even suspect! Genius. I am not going to, of course, try to tell you how he plays! At the same time that he plays the piano he plays on your heart & your head and your all! He plays too fast–, he adds sometimes, or indeed he lets drop some notes, but it doesn’t matter, it’s him, and it’s good. One thing—one must not get caught up in trying to imitate him, because it is only he who can be permitted such things, because he doesn’t do them on purpose, because he has ascended and can’t hold himself back. He has said it himself, that one could make a symphony from all the notes he’s dropped.  That is going to be the fashion now to play like a hurricane […]! After returning home, I try to draw him but I make only abominations and stupid drawings, I can’t reproduce his calm and inspired air. How can an idiot represent his genius? I have included a few of these stupid productions, which will give you no idea of him. Ida Henry gave a concert, she played very well, and she has the good taste not to try to imitate Rubinstein! She is even more crazy on this subject than me! Alice and I are going to all of his concerts, he’s giving 8 of them. The last one is to raise funds for the blind, isn’t that very touching! We take our seats at half 2 and we wait 3 hours before it starts! Happily, I don’t have any lessons in the afternoon!’

Letter from Esther Isaacson to Lucien Pissarro, June 1886, Pissarro Collection, selected letters Isaacson 1884-1904,
Western Art Print Room, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In the 1891 census, Louise Henry is listed as ‘Professor at French School’. Might she and Esther have been colleagues or collaborated in some way in giving French lessons? Though I do not know how the two families met, it is clear that they became firmly imbricated in each other’s lives. Madame Henry was a widow and Phineas Isaacson a widower, and both were Jewish, French speakers and of a similar age; they may have come to rely on one another for support in raising their children alone.

Lady Constance Eliot, Duchess of St Germans (1844-1916)

Lucien was living with the Isaacsons when Madame Henry had to intervene in a family crisis to which Camille Pissarro was also party. In late 1883, when she was 26, Esther came under the influence of Lady Constance Eliot, Duchess of St Germans (1844-1916), wife of the Earl of St Germans, who had homes in London and the family seat in Port-Eliot in Cornwall.  It is likely that Esther met Lady Eliot while teaching her children. Lucien must have mentioned Esther’s subjugation to Lady Eliot, because Camille wrote to him on 25 December 1883: ‘I pity Esther for being so blind and so weak for people who have nothing but disdain for this poor little world!’ He is upset that Esther is in awe of a member of the gentry, but worse is to come: it becomes clear to Lucien and to Madame Henry that Lady Eliot is trying to convert Esther to Christianity, and they are worried that Esther is unaware of or even receptive to the plan, especially since her return from a trip to the Eliot estate in Cornwall and their discovery of a Christian Bible in the house. During this crisis, in January of 1884, Esther and Alice make a family visit to France and spend time with Camille, who wrote to Lucien on 14 January:

‘I found a little change in her that surprised me. […] She seemed to me by her actions, by a certain way of understanding things, by certain ideas, she seemed to me launched towards mysticism. This is a curious development. I teased her about the Salvation Army; we laughed, but it doesn’t matter, her mind is confused, ah! Albion! Albion! here are your blows. They’ll never get out of this fog, this fanatical throwback to the Middle Ages’.

As an atheist, Camille is less upset that Esther might abandon her Jewish faith than by the idea that she’s taking a backwards step toward outdated religion. Camille also reported to Lucien that Esther wanted to leave France early in order to return to Port-Eliot, which was out of character for Esther who normally cherished her moments with the Pissarros.

On 16 January, Lucien informed Camille of the extreme turn of events that had taken place in the Isaacson household:

‘Esther is at home, her father went to meet her at the station and prevented her from leaving for Port-Eliot, almost by force. You weren’t mistaken in your observations and you’re not the only one who has noticed these changes in her behaviour. Esther has been caught up in an unseasonable friendship with the Honourable Mrs. Eliot, who is one of those women like Catherine de Medici, with great will and capable of anything — and no doubt wants to be able to say in the salons of the English Faubourg Saint-Germain: “I converted a Jewess”’.

It took Madame Henry’s intervention to stop Lady Eliot’s plan from going any further. Lucien wrote: ‘So, everyone was in a panic and Mme Henry (who is very diplomatic) conveyed the danger to Isaacson, who stopped everything. He would never have seen anything because I tell you frankly, the more I know him, the more I see that he is a complete nullity’. Camille replied on 21 January 1884: ‘I deeply regret the turn that Esther has taken. It’s too bad because she’s intelligent’. And he added: ‘Her reasoning that you describe — helping others first, etc., etc., —is much broader among the socialists; she would have done much better to follow the great ideas of justice than to shut herself up in a stupid, absurd, narrow pietism’. Camille received a letter from Esther in mid-February, explaining that she had emerged from the episode and was no longer under Lady Eliot’s influence, to which Camille responded: ‘I thought that you were still under the feudal yoke, but finally you reassure me, I’m beginning to believe that you are more ‘keensighted’ [Camille’s word] than I imagined. My sincere compliments’.  Throughout this episode, Camille was disappointed that Esther was not of the level that he had thought her to be, and he is greatly relieved when this episode is over. Lucien returned home shortly after, bringing his close observation of the family to an end.

Important questions from this period of Esther’s life remain unanswered: why was she contemplating leaving her Jewish faith? Had she thought through the ramifications this would have on her family life? How assimilated did she feel, as a middle-class Jewish woman in Victorian London? Though Esther does marry her cousin Georges at the age of 35, this was an unexpected turn of events at an age at which society would have already considered her to be a spinster. Neither of her sisters married. Why? Was there a financial imperative for Esther to work or did she choose to for her own satisfaction? Would Esther have been influenced by the late Victorian move toward the ‘New Woman’ who was educated and independent?

Author’s note: all of Camille Pissarro’s letters were originally in French, as were many of Esther Isaacson’s; all of the translations into English are my own.

Part II, Part III and Part IV

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

3 thoughts on ““My Dear Niece”: The Life of Esther Isaacson Pissarro (Part I)

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