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

Lucien Pissarro left England in March of 1884, in time to help his family move into their new home in rural Eragny-sur-Epte. Camille described the advantages of the new home to Lucien, noting that there were attractions that ‘will interest the English: the churches, the markets, the farms, the countryside, the stations, coaches, the boutiques, the landscape’. And indeed, Esther came to love spending time in Eragny. In a letter she wrote to Esther Bensusan, while she was visiting Eragny in September 1890, she said: ‘there is such a lot to be done in this heavenly place that the day goes by and one doesn’t know how exactly’.

The five years between Lucien’s departure and Georges’ arrival in June 1889, took Esther from the age of 26 to 31; very important years in the life of a young woman of marriageable age. Judging by her letters, she seemed to lead a rich life, full of activity, culture and artistic pursuits. Of course, it is impossible to know if she was happy or to know how deeply she felt the lack of romantic relationship. Might she have met young men in these years, but acquaintance did not lead to marriage? There is no mention of these matters in the existing letters, nor why Amélie and Alice never married.

Esther’s primary occupation in these years was her teaching, and though she might have taught French or other subjects, the only topic about which she speaks in her letters is art instruction. We learn more about Esther’s students in a letter she wrote to Orovida Bensusan in the 1880s. Esther was recovering from illness and she pretended to be writing from the ‘Botticelli Ward’ of the ‘Pokee Hospital’. ‘Pokee’ was the name the Isaacsons gave to their homes, wherever they lived. Esther wrote that Nurse Alice was bothersome because she wouldn’t let Esther ‘have more than half a dozen volumes of Morris’ on her bed, and another ‘fidgety old patient’ patient (Phineas) troubled her by keeping the room too hot and making noise with his crumpling newspaper. In this letter, Esther told Orovida that she was quite surprised to have had a letter from Lady Coventry, who she had never met, expressing the hope that Esther would recover quickly, and signed ‘your sincere friend’. Esther quipped: ‘Don’t you think I have a right to expect hot-house grapes after that!’ Esther told Orovida that she was going to have a class of 6 girls: ‘Lady Anne [Coventry], Vera Grey, 2 Van de Weyers, a Willoughby, and Lady Sophie Cadogan; I think it splendid and hope they’ll get on’.  On the back of the letter is a message from either Alice or Phineas saying: ‘I didn’t want to send this till we had seen the Dr.; he finds her getting on very well and if she continues like she is now she may go to her class Tuesday’.  Lady Coventry’s letter indicates that Esther was a valued teacher who was missed. How had Esther attracted students from such elite British families?  Where were her classes held?  Esther’s pupil, Lady Anne Coventry (1874-1956), caused a sensation by marrying Prince Victor Duleep Singh in 1898, the first time a member of the British gentry married an Indian Prince. Esther became friends with some of her students and their families, as seen in a letter to Lucien from September of 1884, when she wrote: ‘I have been staying at Walton-on-Thames, with some old pupils, the Halfords, & I enjoyed it very much, we were boating all day & the River looked lovely! One morning we went out to sketch & I did a little thing in coloured chalks’. And, as discussed in Part 1 of this article, one of these gentry families tried to convert Esther to Christianity. I will discuss Esther’s art teaching in more detail in Part 4 of this article, when I examine a conversation between she and Camille on the subject.

After Lucien’s stay in London, Esther maintained her connection to him, though distance and time constraints made it difficult, since Lucien became focused on establishing his career. In September of 1884, she wrote to him: ‘Why do you never write to me now? […] I should so much like to know how you are getting on. I suppose you are enjoying the perfect weather at Eragny’. Her letters to Lucien in this period shed light on her life outside teaching. In September 1884, she told him that Jacques Hadamard was staying with them: ‘He is a very nice boy and we all like him very much’. She also told Camille about Hadamard and that she was making a bust of him. Camille encouraged her, and wrote: ‘When will I see the bust of Hadamard, and when will you make me something of yourself?’ Jacques Hadamard was nearly 19 years old at the time of his visit to London and would begin his studies at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris that autumn. He went on to become a world-renowned mathematician. Hadamard was personally connected to the Dreyfus Affair through his cousin Lucie Hadamard, who was the wife of Alfred Dreyfus. I have not been able to uncover how Hadamard knew the Isaacsons, or why he was in London at that time. 

Esther partook of London’s cultural life, indulging in her passion for music, discussed in Part 1 of this article, but also the art world.  In a letter from June of 1886, for example, she told Lucien that she had been to the Fine Art Society to see the exhibition of Ernest Hart’s collection of ancient Japanese objects. Interest in Japanese art was a fashion that had taken hold in both London and Paris in the late-19th century, and Camille was also an admirer. She told Lucien that there were marvels in the Hart collection, and, she added approvingly, ‘It’s astonishing that at that time, no one was afraid of making the ‘ugly’!’  She was delighted to see an aesthetic that she hadn’t encountered in contemporary art and, generally, she enjoyed trying to articulate her thoughts about art and she knew this was a subject she could discuss with Lucien and Camille.

In the biography of Camille Pissarro by Shikes and Harper, they wrote: ‘Georges [Pissarro] had met the Isaacson sisters during his first visit to England 1891’. This is incorrect, first of all, because of the dates: Georges lived with the Isaacsons from 1889 to 1890, and then returned again in 1891. Secondly, Georges and Esther certainly spent time together during the Isaacson’s earlier visits to France. Over the five years between Lucien’s departure from London and Georges’ arrival, Esther (usually, but not always with Alice) visited France three times: in the summer of 1885, in September of 1886, and in September of 1888. During these visits, Esther and Alice would visit Paris to see their sister Amélie and the Paris Pissarros (Camille’s brother Alfred, his wife Marie and their two sons), and to see their grandmother Rachel, who lived until 30 May 1889. They would also spend time with Camille in Paris and with he and the family in Eragny.

‘La Leçon de danse’, from Grandville’s Les Metamorphoses du jour (1829)

In the summer of 1885, Camille’s brother Alfred rented a house on the Normandy coast, in Villerville, and invited all the family for a seaside holiday. Camille and Julie did not go, but Lucien, and later Georges, joined the extended family there—including Esther and Alice Isaacson. Esther announced her desire to visit Eragny after Villerville, and Camille wrote to Esther full of excitement and whimsy, saying: ‘play the Ant and come back to us with your gaiety! We will be so happy to receive the Cicada and to make her sing and dance, long live the Metamorphoses !!! […] Goodbye beautiful Cicada, my niece’. Camille was making reference to one of his favourite books, Les Metamorphoses du jour (1829) by Grandville, a collection of fantastical illustrations in which characters with human bodies and animal faces played out scenes from contemporary life and exposed human foibles. Implied in Camille’s message to Esther was her knowledge of the book, and even the illustrations to which he referred.

William Morris, by Frederick Hollyer, 1887.

The Pissarro family endured difficult financial circumstances in these years, which Esther must have known of; she and Alice often sent them little presents, such as books, children’s clothing and parcels of English tea and food that they knew the Pissarros liked. Esther sent fifty francs to Julie on the pretext that she wanted to get gifts for the children but did not know what they would like. She sent a Walter Crane print, Commune de Paris, to Lucien. For Camille, she bought a special hat to protect his face while he painted outdoors. As early as 1887, there was discussion of Georges Pissarro coming to London, perhaps to help the family through their tough straits. Also, tensions had emerged in the Pissarro household because Georges could be moody, and Julie found it difficult to have him at home, where he was undecided about his future, fractious and unhelpful. Julie wanted Camille to find a place for Georges in Paris—as an assistant in a sculpture studio, or even office work—but Camille wanted to wait for the right opportunity to present itself, and he saw that Georges’ interests were leaning toward sculpture and woodwork.  Esther, who was a huge admirer of William Morris, wrote to Camille on 26 May 1887 with a proposal:

‘I have an idea in mind, and I can’t wait to tell you about it. It seems to me that your plan with regard to Georges, that he works with the goal of making furniture, it might be possible to achieve it by placing Georges at [William] Morris’s; this is my big proposal! I’ll tell you the pros. —Morris is an honest man, in principle and in work, and, as far as I can judge him (which I do by his writings, lectures and drawings, furniture, etc.) a gentleman. I mean a serious, educated, and kind man. I know that he himself works on his furniture, stains, etc. and I am sure that a young man placed under his direction, would be under an intelligent and skilful master […] I’m completely ignorant of Morris’s terms, but I thought I’d write to you first, so I can get your thoughts on it. If you want to write to him yourself and propose this idea, you can judge him by his answer. If you want me to ask him about it, I am not at all afraid to approach him and would undertake to ask him if this arrangement is possible’.

Camille expressed some interest in this plan, but nothing came of it, and soon after this exchange there was a family dispute that interfered with normal contact between the Pissarros and Isaacsons. Camille had been angered by a disparaging comment his sister-in-law Marie Pissarro made to Georges about Lucien; this resulted in a rupture between Camille and his brother Alfred. The Isaacsons, though trying to observe a certain distance, were forced to take sides, with Amélie sympathetic to the Paris Pissarros while Esther supported Camille’s view.

In early 1889, there was again talk of Georges coming to London, this time to attend The Guild and School of Handicraft, founded in 1888 by Charles Robert Ashbee, a disciple of Ruskin and Morris. Classes were held at Toynbee Hall, in the east end of London, in Whitechapel. This time the plans advanced and by the end of June 1889, Georges was living with the Isaacsons in their home in Bayswater. Georges settled in happily to the programme at Toynbee and to life in London. On 7 July, Camille wrote to Esther: ‘Georges is truly enchanted with London’, and to Georges he wrote: ‘I am very happy to learn through Esther’s letter that you feel at ease in your new existence’. Camille and Julie were grateful to the Isaacson sisters for the care they gave Georges, and Camille began a special painting for Esther—something so colourful and bright that it would function as an alarm clock [‘réveil matin’]. On 4 September Camille wrote to Esther: ‘I hope that you spoil my Georges!’

In October of that year, Esther went to France with her brother Alfred, who was visiting from America. She brought some samples of Georges’ schoolwork to show Camille, and he was pleased with what he saw, saying to Georges: ‘I am happy to report that you have made great progress’. Camille gave Esther ‘the Guignol’ to carry back with her to London. The Guignol was the family art album that the Pissarros made each year, and it was too precious to be posted. Starting in 1889, Esther and Georges created a continuation of the Guignol which was called Le Journal d’Eragny, to which Esther also contributed.  Camille took pleasure from Esther and Alfred’s visit and told Georges: ‘We came up with some theories!’, giving us an image of Camille, Lucien, Esther and Alfred engaged in lively philosophical discussions. Esther’s 32nd birthday was on 31 October of that year, and Lucien created a handmade book for her called La Marseillaise des Épiciers (The Grocers’ Marseillaise) a delightfully illustrated and amusing story of a group of village grocers rallying to take a stand against a new merchant in town who sold substandard goods at low prices. Lucien also included a beautiful frontispiece combing Esther’s initials.

In November of that year, Camille wrote to Georges to criticize him for not accompanying Esther and Alice to a soirée at the Bensusan home. He wrote: ‘Alice gives you a mother’s care, and Esther supervises your education with so much devotion’. To thank the sisters, Camille created a handmade book that he called the Turpitudes Sociales. The book is dated 1890, but he made the drawings in late 1889 and sent it to London at the very end of December. Though it was sent to both sisters, the intended recipient was really Esther, given the political and philosophical subject matter. Camille would even say to Georges on 29 December, ‘I was very busy finishing Esther’s book’. The Turpitudes Sociales consists of 28 pen and ink over graphite drawings bound in a book with a cover and a table of contents. The book is now in a private collection in Geneva, but it can be seen on this website: https://www.clarkart.edu/microsites/pissarro-s-people/turpitudes-sociales-highlights. Also, in 2009 Presses Universitaires de France published a beautiful copy of the book in facsimile. This edition is still available and is presented in the exact dimensions of the original and retains all the details such as smudges and water marks.

The book is unique in Camille Pissarro’s oeuvre and deserves its own article; here, I will simply describe it, and pose the question of what inspired him to create it for Esther. The subject matter of the book is the human misery caused by capitalism and the illustrations present dark images of greed, exploitation, poverty, desperation, suicide, and various forms of violence. One feels the contempt Camille held for the bankers, stock brokers and factory bosses, and the sympathy and affection he felt for the victims: abandoned children, poor families, factory workers, the precariously employed, the starving. On the title page the word ‘anarchie’ floats like a rising sun above the Eiffel Tower. The final illustration, titled ‘insurrection’, portrays the people of Paris rising up in rebellion in the manner of 1789 and 1848, barricading the streets. Each image is supplemented by a caption on its facing page, such as a short descriptive title, an excerpt from Baudelaire, or an item from current events. Eight of the drawings are accompanied by quotes from the anarchist newspaper La Révolté (The Rebel).  

Camille sent the book with two letters—one to Alice and Esther, and another to Esther only. In the first, he explained: ‘I had to choose, given your education and your gender, the most honest turpitudes of the bourgeoisie. I do not think I have gone beyond the expression of the truth’. In this letter, he added a list of short comments about the drawings. To Esther he wrote: ‘Finally, your collection of Turpitudes, I hope you will be satisfied when you find that I have chosen the most honest scenes of turpitude so as not to offend your delicacy, and that you will find that I did not go beyond the limits of the plausibility! I had written a series of comments about each drawing for you about it, then I thought it was better to let you do them yourself’. Unfortunately, we do not have the letter in which Esther responds to the book, but we know she was delayed in writing. On 9 January, Camille wrote to Georges expressing happiness that the Turpitudes had been well-received by Esther, though on 12 January he wrote, saying ‘Reproaches to Esther who hasn’t deigned to respond to me’. But by 15 January he told Georges that he’d received an affectionate letter from Esther and that the delay had been caused by a bereavement. Though it is unfortunate not to have Esther’s response, we do know that her close friend, the concert pianist Ida Henry, introduced in Part I of this article, did not approve of the book. Georges must have reported this to Camille, who replied:

‘She is very funny, this young lady Henry, it cannot be Miss Ida, it is not her, in that case she deserves to go to the conservatory! One can only have a deep disdain for these poor deformed beings, I mean morally deformed.’

Camille knew Ida Henry, and was obviously shocked and disappointed at her reactionary response to his book, though the content was very dark. What did he mean when he described the subject matter as ‘the most honest turpitudes of the bourgeoisie’? The word ‘turpitudes’ has the same meaning in French and English, ‘depraved or wicked behaviour or character’, and in both languages it is usually expressed as ‘moral turpitudes’ (‘turpitudes morales’). By changing the expression to ‘Turpitudes Sociales’, Camille made a play on words—shifting the blame for the supposed moral failings of the poor to society and its power structure. In one drawing, for example, a pair of drunken men hold one another up as they shuffle down the street, and the caption reads: ‘The poor demand wine to forget their suffering’. Camille often lamented the bourgeois tendency to turn a blind eye to suffering, their complicity angered him, and Ida Henry’s response to his book would have smacked of bourgeois status-quoism. But Ida Henry should not have been overly shocked, since these were the kind of subjects that were broached in popular novels of the day, such as Zola’s Germinal (1884) and Margaret Harkness’s In Darkest London (1889), and before them, in works by Dickens and Hugo. For Camille, it was an opportunity to take on subject matter that he never tackled in his paintings, and it must be remembered that this book was only seen by a limited number of family and close friends. He wrote to Georges about the content: ‘It’s new for me […] it’s an essay in the field of the tragi-comic which does not fit into my previous research. Never mind, there’s something to be done with it’. It is exciting to see how Camille approached the material, and his comment to Georges suggests that he wanted to continue in this vein, but I’m unaware of any further work of this type in his oeuvre.

An image from Camille Pissarro’s handmade book, Turpitudes Sociales, 1889.

The letters exchanged between Georges, Camille and Esther during Georges’ year in London show him to be happy—a contrast to his state of mind before leaving home. He fared well with the programme at Toynbee and persisted in his studies. All of this must have been a relief to Camille and Julie, since Georges could be volatile. But there was nothing in the letters to suggest that a romance was brewing between Georges and Esther, only indications that they spent a lot of time together and enjoyed one another’s company. This can be seen in the letters between Esther Isaacson, Esther Bensusan and Lucien Pissarro. Esther Bensusan wrote to Lucien on 5 September 1889: ‘Esther & Georges are coming on Saturday to stay till Wednesday with us. We hope to go for several excursions to the country’. The Bensusans now lived in Mowbray Road in Upper Norwood. On 22 September, Esther Bensusan wrote to Lucien: ‘It was most delightful having Esther & Georges with us for that week, we had some splendid excursions in the country. We used to go out for the whole day provided with lunch etc. I hope to go to ‘Pokee’ tomorrow to see them all’. Georges wrote to Camille about a visit to Box Hill, where he made some sketches. Esther Bensusan wrote to Lucien on 4 November 1889: ‘Last week […]  I went with Esther, Fred & Georges to hear the Berlioz ‘Faust’ at Albert Hall. It was most splendidly done & I need not tell you we enjoyed it.’ The performance was on 31 October, Esther Isaacson’s 32nd birthday. For whatever reason, Alice did not join in these activities.

‘Being a Train’; a family photograph from the late 1880s, probably taken by Esther Isaacson. From left to right: Esther Bensusan, Alice Isaacson, Lucien Pissarro and Georges Pissarro.

A particular letter written by Esther Isaacson (to Esther Bensusan) in 1889 sheds light on the type of existence that she and Georges led during his stay—it also exudes enthusiasm and energy. The letter is undated, but mentions the glorious autumn weather. She highlights the fact that they are up and working by 8 in the morning, with underline and exclamation points.

Letter from Esther Isaacson to Esther Bensusan, Autumn 1889, Pissarro Collection, selected letters Isaacson 1884-1904, Western Art Print Room, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

‘Georges is working wonders in the Poke! Both he & I are in the drawing room, he painting, & I writing to the most interesting creature in the World! Yesterday we started in quest for a “School of Design” supposed to be existing in Somerset House, but it has vanished, so instead of hunting for it, we simply pottered about in the Strand. We dived into all kinds of little side streets, went into the Savoy Chapel & listened to the organ, went in & out of all the Courts of the Temple, saw the round church with the curious porch, in full a regular ramble, such as I love. On Friday we started from Westminster Pier & went down by water to Hampton Ct. You can have no idea of the rich beauty of the River. In London with the mass of traffic, then gradually the banks getting wooded, the stream getting narrower, & fuller of tiny boats. We had glorious autumn weather, a good wind, & the air as clear & fresh as possible. If you haven’t done that journey, I advise you to do so. What I think so interesting in the Thames is its History, I mean the History connected with it. Almost every spot has some fact connected with it. We are waiting for Tickets of admission to sketch in Westminster Abbey. We have discovered such marvels there that we thought we would like to work at them’.

This letter coincided with Esther Bensusan’s return from Eragny, where she had met Camille and Julie for the first time, and Esther Isaacson’s closing comments make reference to this visit: ‘Isn’t he [Camille] 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!’

Georges was expected to return to France when his programme at Toynbee Hall was completed in summer of 1890, but even before the year was out, he was trying to devise a way to extend his stay in London. Camille and Lucien were due to come to London to stay with Georges and the Isaacsons in the summer, and as plans for that visit took shape, Georges wrote to Camille to ask about giving art lessons in London. In April 1890, Camille replied that they could discuss that when they were all together in London, but he suggested that it was Lucien who should be the first to embark on that career since he was older and more experienced. Camille and Lucien were in London from the end of May and stayed for about a month. The key letter writers—Camille, Esther, Georges and Lucien—were all together, so there are few extant letters from this visit—except for a brief note to Julie from Camille, from 27 May: ‘One doesn’t have a minute to oneself. Museum upon museum to visit […] In summer the parks are superb, one can work there without being disturbed, the areas around London are also superb […] this morning, worked in Chelsea’. When Camille and Lucien returned to France, they brought Georges home with them.

Letter from Esther Isaacson to Lucien Pissarro, 1890, Pissarro Collection, selected letters Isaacson 1884-1904, Western Art Print Room, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Esther missed Georges; she wrote to Lucien after their departure:

‘I can’t tell you how much we miss Georges! In the evening it’s so sad to go downstairs and turn off the gas! Tell him that I hung his little green piece in the salon, between the fireplace and the window, and it looks very good there. We are still counting on coming to Eragny for the month of September: me, to take lessons!’

And Esther did visit Eragny that month, without Alice. She wrote to Esther Bensusan while there, and her letter emanates happiness, and love for the family and for Eragny.  She wrote of getting caught out in heavy showers while out walking with Georges and Felix and getting back to the house soaked-through but laughing; of teaching Cocotte to do embroidery; of the pretty spectacle of Julie and the local women washing their laundry in the river, and finally she wrote: ‘The other day all the family was sitting in a row, some on the sofa & some on either side of it, & from the white head to the little yellow one they were a most remarkable looking lot! Each one having his characteristic look, & every one nice looking.’

After this visit, with Esther gone, and stuck in rural Eragny, Georges became miserable and difficult, which brought aggravation for Camille and Julie. Though the focus was on getting Lucien established in London, it became urgent to get Georges settled outside of the family home where his disruptive presence was interfering with Camille’s work. On 24 October 1890, Camille wrote to Julie:

‘Lucien received a letter from Esther who told him that she’d found a little apartment in their Cornwall Road neighbourhood with a room off the street that could be used as a studio, a little office and hot water, and a bedroom on the second floor that could serve Georges and Lucien; that good Esther also wrote that she could offer to advance five hundred francs to Lucien to get him started. Lucien wrote that he would accept all except the five hundred francs, which I will advance him. Thus, you can prepare his belongings, he will leave soon’. 

They could not afford to send both boys at this time, so Lucien went alone to London in November 1890. Camille urgently wanted Lucien to succeed, partly so that Georges could follow. He kept asking Lucien if he had found students, and expressed some frustration at his lack of progress. On 26 November he wrote: ‘But you need students, you need to earn money, and as soon as possible. Because you have to succeed at your work so that Georges can go to London’. Things at home only got worse; by 3 December, Camille wrote:

‘Maman is writing to you, and by her letter you will see the kind of battle that exists in Eragny. I feel discouragement gradually taking over me, it’s untenable and especially the feeling that Georges doesn’t seem to understand the seriousness of these quarrels. […] He always has these airs —here and there—that displease and exasperate your mother, thus there are storms. At present, she absolutely wants him to get a place in Paris. She claims that London doesn’t suit him, and that he must be kept away from his Dulcinée. It’s absurd, but never mind, that’s the anvil that she strikes.’ 

His ‘Dulcinée’, as Julie called her, was Esther Isaacson. Julie wrote to Lucien: ‘I don’t think it’s prudent that [Georges] return to London because he’ll suffer due to his ideas. You think that I’m mistaken about Esther but sadly I’m almost sure that all his rages and all his nastiness come from thinking of her. He doesn’t work, he doesn’t do anything unless it’s for her’. Thus, even though Esther had recently stayed with them for a month in Eragny, she and Georges had kept their relationship a secret. But Julie had certainly detected something and she was not in favour of the union. Can she be blamed? Esther was 33 and Georges was only 19, and not very mature. At this point, Lucien was not able to attract enough students or paid work in London, and he moved back and forth—returning home to Eragny at certain intervals.

What was Julie’s relationship with Esther? Though Esther was fond of Julie and loved the world she’d created with Camille in Eragny, the two women were not as close as Esther and Camille. They did not share the same interests or imperatives; Esther was artistic, lively and intelligent, whereas Julie was imminently practical and had many day-to-day realities to confront with very few financial means. In a letter to Lucien written while he was in London, Julie complained that she thought Esther would give Lucien some of her students, adding sarcastically ‘but it seems that I was mistaken’. But why should Esther have given Lucien some of her students? Esther would have worked hard to build her reputation as a teacher. Julie was closer to Alice, the more practical and sweet-natured niece. Both Esther and Georges were described by family members as ‘fantasque’. There are two definitions of ‘fantasque’, and one is more joyful while the other can be more troublesome. The first definition could describe Esther: ‘someone who freely and happily follows their fantasy, original, imaginative, non-conformist’. The second is more appropriate to Georges: ‘someone who is capricious, prone to fantasies, mood swings, unpredictable’. But these personality traits that so irritated Julie were likely the very qualities that attracted the pair to one another; they allowed one another to be ‘fantasque’ without constraint.

Georges finally set off for London at the end of September 1891, and he was joined by Lucien. From this point on, Georges’ career became very important to Esther because of the future life the couple were secretly planning. This would also mark the moment that the writer Octave Mirbeau became closely intertwined with the fate of the Pissarro family, and particularly Georges and Esther. In the late 19th century, Octave Mirbeau was a very famous journalist, novelist and art critic, made even more famous through his marriage to Alice Regnault, a well-known actress and former courtesan.  Mirbeau used his celebrity as a public intellectual to speak out for causes he cared about, many of which were anti-establishment, and he championed the art of Camille Pissarro. Though his name might be unfamiliar today, his novel Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (The Diary of a Chambermaid) has been made into a film three times: by Jean Renoir in 1946, by Luis Buñuel in 1964, and by Benoit Jacquot in 2015.

Octave Mirbeau

Octave Mirbeau and Camille Pissarro became close friends, and it would be Mirbeau who smoothed the way for Georges and Lucien to move to London by organising two contacts for them. First, Mirbeau arranged for the boys to meet the painter John Singer Sargent, who was then living in London. Second, Mirbeau wanted some illustrations for the work of one of his protégées—the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, a rising star. Georges’ more stylised artistic-leaning seemed best-suited to the content of Maeterlinck’s Symbolist work. These leads gave Camille and Julie the confidence to take on the financial commitment of paying the London room and board for the boys. The couple were also worried that if Lucien and Georges remained in France, the authorities might discover that they were not registered with the French army.

This time, Lucien and Georges did not live with the Isaacsons, but instead lived together in various west London locations. Soon after their arrival in London, Mathilde Henry, the French widow who had been an important part of Esther’s life, died at the age of 68. Esther was very upset, and to make matters worse, Madame Henry had died on 31 October 1891, Esther’s 34th birthday. Camille wrote to Lucien with a message for the Henry daughters, Ida and Louise: ‘On our behalf, I ask you to present our condolences to the Misses, who must be so devasted!’

John Singer Sargent’s studio at 31/33 Tite Street, Chelsea

The boys did meet John Singer Sargent; he kept his word to Mirbeau and invited them to lunch at his home studio at 31/33 Tite Street, Chelsea. They were impressed by his kindness and reported that he offered to look at their work on a future occasion. And Georges did set to work on illustrations for Maeterlinck plays. He was especially drawn to the piece La Princesse Maleine, a gothic fairy tale. For this work, Georges used Esther as his model. He wrote to Camille: ‘It was Esther I. who posed for Maleine this time and for all the others, she promised me her help; she has an amazing velvet dress’. Posing as the Princesse Maleine must have brought about some intense shared hours for Georges and Esther, and this arrangement demonstrates the way Georges viewed Esther: even 14 years his senior, he saw her as an inspiration for drawings of a young princess.

In addition to these paths, Georges also successfully sought out portrait work in London, aided by Esther’s connections. But this portrait work caused friction between Georges and Lucien. The pair had never been as close as Georges was with their younger brother Felix (the subject of another article on this website). They had very different personalities, and the appearance that Georges was having more success in London would have stung Lucien, who was 8 years older and who seemed the more consistent of the two. In general, relations between Lucien and Georges deteriorated after their arrival in London in September 1891. When Camille wrote to Lucien in May 1892, and seemed to be trying to prop up Lucien’s morale, Janine Bailly-Herzberg added a footnote to the letter suggesting that Lucien’s mood might in part be caused by Georges obtaining portraiture work ‘easily’ and that Georges was ‘well helped – if not favoured – in his affairs by Esther Isaacson’ (Vol. 3, p.225). For many years Esther Isaacson had helped Lucien, and if she now appeared to favour Georges, it was because they were planning a future together, and because Georges did have a natural flair for portraiture. Lucien’s low morale might also have been caused by difficulties with the Bensusan family. He and Esther Bensusan had announced their intention to marry in May 1892, but the Bensusans were vehemently opposed to the union and pressured Lucien to become a practicing Jew, under threat to disinherit Esther. Sadly, relations between the two Esthers also deteriorated in this period, perhaps because of the competition between the two brothers. The secrecy with which Georges and Esther Isaacson conducted their romance—which would have necessitated a certain amount of deceit—must also have created tensions. In the spring of 1892 Georges asked Camille to send his birth certificate, which he would have needed in order to marry Esther.

Camille came to London for an extended visit from the end of May until early August 1892. He was there to paint because he enjoyed the change of scenery and his paintings of London were usually attractive to buyers. He was also there to support Lucien in his dealings with the Bensusans. He stayed at 7 Colville Square in Bayswater, near the Isaacsons, and then moved to lodgings in Kew—1 Gloucester Terrace, Kew Green, where there is now a Blue Plaque. Camille wrote to Julie on 30 June: ‘Lucien will soon be marrying and plans to come to France. Georges is doing well and is working on his portraits’. It was a happy and busy visit, and he saw much of his Isaacson nieces; Esther even stayed in London while Alice and Amelie went to the seaside for a week. Georges travelled back to France with Camille in August but was back in London by mid-September. Camille wrote to him: ‘Kiss my two nieces and tell them how much I miss not seeing them as we did in Kew. What a pity they are not practical in life, otherwise I would ask them to watch over you, but alas! They are so little of this world!’ Lucien and Esther Bensusan married in August and went on honeymoon in France. They then spent many months in Eragny, leaving Georges on his own in London. Georges returned to lodgings in 7 Colville Square, around the corner from the Isaacsons. Even at this late stage, and with Camille having spent time with them, Georges and Esther kept their romance a secret.

The subject of Georges’ portrait-work came up again in late 1892, and this time it was Camille who had misgivings; he always wanted his children to pursue ‘real art’—art that was felt—and worried that Georges’ early success with portraits would lead him in the wrong direction. Camille expressed his concern to Mirbeau in December 1892: ‘I recently received some letters from Georges who exudes great satisfaction, he has a number of portraits to do, he is very popular with English ladies; that gives me some worry, I fear that this success will cause him to lose sight of the true path, I have faith in his instincts, but damn it, it’s dangerous!’ This subject came up again in a letter from Camille to Esther from 9 December 1892, in which he wrote somewhat defensively and sharply, replying to her letter in which she queried his reasons for not supporting Georges’ portrait work:

‘You are in deepest error, my dear niece, to believe that you are the reason for the reflection that one of Georges’ letters prompted […] but what I feared—and you had nothing to do with it—was rather Georges’ temperament […] it’s because he is admirably gifted that I would not want him to lose his fine qualities by letting himself be drawn toward a too easy proficiency, that’s all. […] But he is wrong to take my advice for reproaches, for God’s sake, no! just some advice after having seen young people fall asleep after their first success, be it artistic or otherwise!’

This is one of the last letters that Camille wrote to Esther before she and Georges eloped on 17 December 1892. 

A Victorian postcard of Wellington Crescent, Ramsgate

I do not know where the couple married, but they spent their honeymoon by the seaside at 16 Wellington Crescent in Ramsgate—a Victorian seaside town. From there, they wrote letters to their friends and family informing them of their marriage. There were strong repercussions: Julie was deeply upset and forbade it to be spoken of; Esther’s sisters were shocked at having been excluded; and Ida Henry was angry. There are no letters that discuss Phineas Isaacson’s reaction, but we saw at the end of Part 2 of this article that Mr. Bensusan would not attend Esther’s funeral because of the marriage. The reaction must have been enormous in Esther’s London world and in Phineas’ Jewish community. Esther and Georges were astonished by the recriminations, but Camille explained to them that marrying in secret had helped them to avoid ‘quarrels, advice, pleas’, but now they would have all that and ‘more intense and more persistent’. Camille, however, was characteristically philosophical and attempted to bring about peace. He wrote to Lucien: ‘I’m very surprised and yet I expected it, isn’t it so?’, adding ‘one can no more stop the passions of love than one can stop the sea, the torrents, the only remedy is to know how to channel the forces rather than combat them, I let nature act’. To Esther, Camille wrote ‘be happy’ and asked for one thing: ‘union and harmony with my other children, especially Lucien’.  

Again, it was Octave Mirbeau whose intervention helped smooth difficulties for Georges and Esther after their dramatic elopement and the family fallout. One of the people Georges wrote to from Ramsgate was Mirbeau, to say that he had married ‘La Princesse Maleine’. Mirbeau wrote immediately to Camille for clarification. Camille explained: ‘the passage of his letter concerning Princess Maleine relates to his wife, whom he considers in this poetic and romantic dreamlike way. My niece has only this fault — of being a little disproportionate in age with her young, very young husband. She’s intelligent and devoted, but we can’t help but fear for the future given the sensitive character of this boy’. Mirbeau was surprised by the marriage but congratulatory. He expressed his hope that Georges would find happiness and stability with Esther and that Julie would come to support the couple. Moreover, Mirbeau hired Georges to undertake work making decorations for his new residence in Carrières-sous-Poissy. By February 1893, Georges and Esther were installed in lodgings in nearby Grésillons, and work was underway. Julie admired Mirbeau greatly, and his support for Georges and Esther’s marriage pacified her.

By May, Félix was living with the couple, helping Georges to make paintings and decorated panels, and decorating furniture. In a letter to Camille, Félix described their home: ‘The dining area downstairs is arranged by the windows, which have yellow curtains made of some splendid material; we have hung your prints on the walls and your paintings, it looks very nice. Amélie came yesterday, and you, when will you come?’ The Mirbeau residence was 50 kilometres from Éragny and easily accessible by train, and indeed, there were family visits and joint outings. Camille wrote to Lucien on 2 February 1893: ‘I have been in Paris since yesterday. I got back from Poissy with Georges, Esther and Titi, we met M. and Mme Mirbeau at the railroad station in Poissy’. They had been to see the influential exhibition of the Japanese artists Utamaro and Hiroshige in Paris at Durand-Ruel’s. Mirbeau seemed pleased with Georges and Félix’s work and wrote to Camille in early June: ‘I believe you will experience a moment of joy when you see the progress of your sons!’ Camille wrote to Mirbeau: ‘I recently received a letter from Georges telling me enthusiastically about his work plans. You are a thousand times correct; it is so beautiful and joyous that these children have such a love of art’. During this happy time, Mirbeau also organised for Georges to meet Maurice Maeterlinck, which gave him further inspiration for the illustrations.

But this blissful period of domesticity and creativity did not last long. Soon after these letters between Camille Pissarro and Octave Mirbeau, a misunderstanding between them caused a rupture in the friendship and the consequences 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. On 10 June, Esther, now 6 months pregnant, turned up suddenly in Eragny asking for Camille’s help. Because Georges was not registered with the French military and the court case might necessitate showing official documents, Georges wanted her to go to Newhaven in England to rent a property so he would have an English residence to show authorities. Camille told Esther that it was Georges who should leave the country, as soon as the court date was set. The couple fled France together on 5 July 1893.

When Georges and Esther arrived in London, they stayed in the lodgings at 7 Colville Square in Bayswater, a few blocks away from the Isaacson home, a residence where the Pissarros had often stayed and where Camille knew the landlady, Miss Zink. This was a very stressful time for the couple, having to suddenly leave France and with no immediate source of income. Esther wrote to Camille of finding students again, but she was heavily pregnant and it was summer. Relations between Georges and Lucien were still poor, so the couple must have felt very isolated. Esther gave birth to her baby son on 30 August 1893, and died of eclampsia two days later, 2 September. The baby was named Tommy because it was the name that Esther uttered while she was delirious. His middle name, Clarence, was derived from Esther’s middle name, Clara. Sadly, in a last letter to Esther from Camille, the subject was money. He had given the couple money, but was unhappy with their spending habits. After her death, Camille wrote to Lucien, wondering if the events of the previous months had contributed to Esther’s death: ‘Georges and Esther must have been very worried, disturbed by the sudden departure and these unexpected changes’. Eclampsia can be exacerbated by stress.

Camille wrote to his friend, the writer Georges Lecomte: ‘At home, we have all been plunged into the deepest sadness. About a week ago, we received a telegram from Lucien telling us that Georges had just lost his wife, who died after having delivered a big, healthy boy; isn’t that heart-breaking? You can imagine what condition my poor boy is in’. Georges was distraught; he couldn’t be calmed and couldn’t sleep. Lucien brought Georges to his home in Epping to care for him, and Félix was immediately sent to England to offer support. This was an anxious time for Lucien and Esther Bensusan Pissarro, who were also expecting a baby, but their daughter, Orovida, was born safely on 8 October. In the early months after Esther’s death, Georges was afraid to care too deeply for Tommy, and wrote to Camille: ‘Tommy is doing wonderfully, he is so sweet, but I dare not hope, now that bad luck is against me, you can bet ten to one it will continue. The doctor is very happy with him, so much the better (he himself admitted that he would not have believed Tommy would live). That would have been awful! Both of them! I don’t dare trust too much and I do what I can not to love him too much!!’  Julie offered to raise Tommy in Éragny, but the responsibility fell instead to Esther’s sister, Alice, who doted on the child. Camille sent money to Alice every month, but Tommy grew up in London, living with his aunts and with his grandfather, Phineas. Alice seems to have tried to keep connections between Tommy and the Pissarros alive, she sent photo portraits and she brought Tommy to Eragny occasionally, and the family adored spending time with him. Tommy’s aunts Amélie and Alice died in the mid-1930s, after which time I don’t know if he was able to maintain his links to his French relations.

Pissarro family photo. From left to right: Paul-Emile, Camille, Cocotte, Tommy, Rodo, Alice Isaacson, and Julie.

It would be interesting to know what sort of religious upbringing Tommy had, growing up with his Jewish grandfather; Phineas Isaacson died in 1913, at the age of 94, when Tommy was 20. I do not know what career path Tommy followed, but in the 1911 census, still living in Bayswater, he is listed as a ‘Junior Clerk’ in the City of London. It is difficult to gain a picture of the relationship between Tommy and Georges over the years because the Pissarro letter collection ends in 1903, when Camille died. Julie, who made trips to London in the years that followed, died in 1926. Georges, who lived until 1961, would go on to marry twice more, have 5 more children, and spend the remainder of his life in France. Esther’s brother, Alfred Isaacson, returned to England after many years living in America, and settled in Colchester in Essex. Tommy and Alfred may have established a bond, because Colchester is where Tommy was living when he died in October 1980, at the age of 87. He had married and had two sons, Anthony and Richard—Esther’s grandchildren.

Pissarro family photo. Camille and Julie Pissarro with Tommy in Rouen, 1900.
The 1911 census showing Tommy’s employment as a Junior Clerk in the City.

In the final part of this article, Part 4, I will discuss three particular exchanges between Camille and Esther that give insight into the bond of intellect, affection and creativity between the pair.

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 I, Part II and Part IV

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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

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