Three Letters and a Conclusion.
In the last part of the article, I am going to focus on three notable letters that Camille Pissarro sent to his niece Esther Isaacson that broach the topics of anarchism, anti-Semitism and making ‘felt’ art. They are important because he shared significant thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that he had not shared with others or that he shared with her first. They date from December 1885, May 1889 and May 1890.
The first is the correspondence of 12 and 22 December 1885. I will treat the two letters as one exchange because the second letter continues the subject-matter of the first. Camille wrote to Esther three times that month, even though during the same period he did not write at all to his nephew Alfred Isaacson, who was about to move to America. He even said to Esther, ‘tell Alfred not to get upset with us if I don’t write to him much, that doesn’t stop us from thinking about him often, each time a discussion takes place, we ask ourselves what his thoughts would be’. The subject of the December 1885 letters to Esther was politics, and Camille might have given up writing to Alfred about politics after having sent him political literature and not getting the hoped-for response. As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, Camille wrote to Lucien in December 1883, asking: ‘Why doesn’t Alfred read the two little volumes on socialism that I lent him?’
By the time Camille wrote to Esther in December 1885, he was no longer interested in socialism—his attention had turned to anarchism, and the letters to his niece mark this important transition. In the Correspondance, Janine Bailly-Herzberg flags up this importance: ‘this letter brings a new element: the proof of the final political turn of Pissarro. […] It’s the end result of a long evolution’ (Vol. I, p. 361). What prompted the change? That very year Camille had read the newly-published book Paroles d’un révolté (Words of a Rebel) by Pierre Kropotkin, and it had transformed his thinking. Kropotkin was a Russian prince by birth, and a military officer, who abandoned his privileged origins to become a political activist. He helped found the anarchist newspaper Le Révolté (which became La Révolte in 1885, under Jean Grave’s editorship). In 1882 Kropotkin was sentenced by a French court to five years in prison for his affiliation with the International Workers’ Association. It was during his imprisonment that he produced his book, with help from another anarchist activist—Elisée Reclus. The December 1885 letters to Esther include Camille’s first mention of Kropotkin (spelled Kropotkine in the letters; the French add a final ‘e’). Camille would later become friends with Elisée Reclus, Jean Grave and other anarchist admirers of Kropotkin. He and his sons became faithful readers of La Révolte, and would contribute illustrations. As discussed in Part II of my article ‘Art, Anarchy and Other Dangers’, Camille’s open affiliation with anarchism put him in danger of arrest in 1894, when there were anarchist attacks in France and the President was assassinated.
Why did Camille address the subject of anarchism to Esther? He had seen Esther in late summer of that year when she had come to France to spend time with the extended family in Villerville, on the Normandy coast. Her other uncle, Alfred Pissarro (Camille’s brother), rented a house by the seaside and invited the whole family; Lucien and Georges Pissarro attended, but not Camille or Julie. After Villerville, Esther made the journey to Éragny to see Camille and the family. Their visits were full of lively, philosophical discussion and this often overflowed into the subsequent letters.
In late 1885, Esther had presented Camille with the opportunity to discuss politics when she wrote to him to express her disappointment that a candidate she admired—Edward Spencer Beesly—had not won a seat in the British Parliament. Beesly (1831-1915) was a history professor at University College London and a proponent of trade-unionism who ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal party candidate in 1882 and 1885. We do not have Esther’s letter, but Camille made the subject evident when he wrote to her on 12 December: ‘you were astonished by the English elections, but if you were to read the book by Kropotkin, the chapter “Representative Government”, page 169, you would be very indifferent as to whether Professor Beesly was elected or any other, whether it be Chamberlain, the so-called radical, or the Grand Turk, it brings about the same result for the people who work hard and die of hunger. Know this, my little Esther, that the best way to be free is not to delegate your powers to anybody’. He did not elaborate further on anarchism in this letter.
When Camille wrote to Esther again on 22 December, it was because she had replied and had confessed to knowing little about anarchism. He wrote: ‘My dear niece, I understand quite well that you are not very aware of political things, nothing astonishing and completely natural’. He then gave a fuller explanation of his new politics, beginning with the idea that universal suffrage did not work. In 1885, Esther, as a woman, did not even have the right to vote, but Camille said to her: ‘universal suffrage, the instrument of domination of the capitalist bourgeoisie […] it has had his day’. He mentioned the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as the political philosophers John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, saying that they had each declared universal suffrage to be ‘absolutely defective and harmful to the working classes, it effectively serves only the bigwigs!’. Camille told her that society needed a ‘new mode of political organization, based on a completely different principle from that of representation’, adding ‘it is the logic of things that imposes it’. In these sentences, Camille was borrowing language directly from Kropotkin.
Paroles d’un révolté was a 342-page book comprised of 19 chapters, with an introduction by Elisée Reclus. Camille repeatedly referred to a chapter titled ‘Representative Government’, which I will try to briefly summarise. It’s important to note that in 1885, France was only four years from the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, a date which was beginning to turn attention to the status of the country. Were the French people better off now than they were a hundred years ago when they’d stormed the Bastille and fought to bring an end to a repressive monarchy? Representative government was an ideal that had resulted from the Revolution, but Kropotkin argued that it no longer served its intended purpose and its new role was to keep the omnipotent bourgeoisie in place. He felt that representative government was now as repressive as the absolute monarchy—perhaps even more so—but it operated under the illusion of freedom and choice. And, it had greater resources: if Louis XVI had about 12,000 functionaries, France’s representative government had hundreds of thousands to do its bidding. The people, he argued, falsely believe that representative government gives us our freedoms, when actually all the freedoms we have were taken by force, wrenched from the official powers by agitation or general insurrection. This quote from the chapter is typical of Kropotkin’s style:
‘The mission of the state—we have been told (all the better to blind us) —is to protect the weak from the strong, the poor from the rich, the working classes from the privileged classes. We know how governments have fulfilled this mission: they have understood it backwards. Faithful to this principle, government has always protected the privileged from those who seek to free themselves. In particular, the repressive government has organized its defence with the complicity of the people; all the privileges of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie against the aristocracy on the one hand, and against the exploited on the other – modest, polite, well-brought up towards the first group, ferocious against the second’.
Kropotkin argued that the concept of representation is unattainable. For one, we ask the electorate for the impossible; we ask many thousands or even millions of people—people who don’t know one another, who never see one another, who never meet over common concerns—we ask them to agree on the choice of one candidate. This candidate must be good at everything, must legislate on every kind of issue, and his decision will be law. Well, this omniscient candidate doesn’t exist, and furthermore, Kropotkin argued, the honest citizen cannot get elected because he doesn’t seek attention and disdains the means necessary for attracting it. By contrast, lawyers, journalists, smooth speakers and slick writers get elected. They know how to talk convincingly about things they don’t understand at all. Or business men, who are willing to spend their own money to become known. But worst of all are professional politicians, whom Kropotkin called ‘ce ramassis de nullités’ (‘this bunch of nobodies’), who have never declared themselves insufficiently knowledgeable to legislate on crucial issues. How we can we expect such people to represent our needs? Kropotkin believed that this situation could not be remedied and needed to be replaced, just like 100 years ago, with a better system. He looked back idealistically to the independent cities of the feudal period, where smaller groups of people, with similar needs and interests, joined forces to act on their own behalf.
In Camille’s letter to Esther, it is clear that he had wholeheartedly adopted Kropotkin’s thinking and he, too, had come to believe that it was absurd to suppose that one man, no matter how excellent, could represent the interests of a large, diverse group. Esther suggested that Beesly would have been an honest representative, but Camille replied that the idea of representation itself was unattainable, ‘a utopia’: ‘A man, however honest he might be, cannot represent the thousands of interests of an entire class. This man would have to be universal, and, as a consequence, superficial, therefore it is absurd’. He used his own situation as an example, writing to Esther:
‘Suppose that I, a painter, select the very honourable Beesly, I ask you to tell me in what way he can serve me, he will never understand, he, a professor, the necessity to pull to the ground these bastions of art, the Schools of Fine Arts, the academies, the coalitions of large merchant capitalists who make reputations, non? Isn’t it so? It’s necessary that I do it myself, helped by my corporation, and the same for all the professional bodies, be convinced that this idea of representation has served only the class which does not produce anything!’
Throughout his letters, Camille always disparaged the kind of training offered by art schools, which, he felt, only taught students how to execute the sanctioned style of art favoured by the official Salons. I will expand further on this subject later in this article when I discuss his third important letter to Esther.
Camille also accepted Kropotkin’s view that anyone elected—no matter how well-intentioned to begin with— becomes part of the system and uses their position to support the bourgeois status quo. He referred to examples in France: the Paris Municipal Council, comprised of radicals and socialists, had not granted the working class the eight-hour working day which it had urgently demanded: ‘how do you expect the bourgeoisie to make laws that go against the capitalists?’ Camille used another question from Esther to explain how the political system hurt artists:
‘You asked me for news about Durand, well! There are a few innovative painters with more or less talent; Durand, a small capitalist, like a wise man, monopolizes their works; the big capitalists, with the scent of possible future gain, unite themselves to bring him down, and who is hit by this storm? The unfortunate innovative painters. Who is the Beesly who can put an end to this?’
It would be interesting to draw Camille further on this subject, to know more specifically if he was suggesting that particular artists had been poached from Durand-Ruel by bigger galleries? And what does he mean by the impact on the ‘unfortunate innovative painters’? Is he arguing that people like Durand would either hesitate to take on new artists or not have the funds to do so? I would like to hear from present-day art gallerists to learn if this is still largely the way the art world operates. Would Camille be discouraged to find that nothing has changed or, indeed, that the situation is worse?
Camille concluded his discussion of anarchism as follows: ‘thus no government, no state, no capitalists and consequently no universal suffrage’, and he argued that universal suffrage, the ‘means for the bourgeoisie to dominate the economic situation’, would disappear in 10 or 20 years, ‘perhaps earlier’, due to the ‘general cry’. He referred Esther again to the Kropotkin book, urging her to read it, and describing it as ‘quite remarkable, written in a very simple style, easy to read and with the clarity of a clear water stream’. Janine Bailly-Herzberg again states that this letter offers ‘certain proof that it is definitely during these dates that he opted for a new ideology’ (Vol. I, p. 369). Camille had confidence that Esther could understand Kropotkin and, perhaps, be persuaded of the relevance of the ideas. He would certainly have known that anarchism did not correspond with Phineas Isaacson’s views, and one wonders if Esther shared Camille’s letters with her father. Importantly, with these letters to Esther, Camille was laying the groundwork for the book that he made for her in 1889, the ‘Turpitudes Sociales’ (discussed in Part III of this article), which borrowed ideas and language directly from La Révolte.
The next significant letter from Camille to Esther was written on 1 May 1889. Camille was deeply discouraged about his art career—he was frustrated with sales and he was troubled with a chronic eye affliction which interfered with his work. He was preparing to exhibit in the Exposition Universelle, a World’s Fair being held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. The Eiffel Tower, which Camille incorporated into the Turpitudes Sociales, was created for this historic event. He was worried that his participation in the Exposition had created new obligations and would not return any profit. Generally, he was a resolute person whose idealism kept him moving forward with a certain trust that everything would work out, so letters in which he gave way to hopelessness are infrequent. But on this occasion, he wrote to Esther: ‘You would not believe the state of discouragement I find myself in, me and mine’. It was rarer still for Camille to address the subject of being a Jew in the art world, and how it might explain the adversities he’d experienced.
The context of the letter was the ongoing question of whether Georges would move to London to pursue his art studies. As discussed in Part III of this article, Esther had long known that Camille wanted Georges to make a career in applied arts rather than painting alone, in light of his own struggles, and the troubles Lucien had launching his art career. In May of 1887, Esther had already offered to help Georges get a place with William Morris, though the idea was not taken up. But by May 1889, there was serious discussion of Georges pursuing his studies at Toynbee Hall, The Guild and School of Handicraft in Whitechapel. Esther had written to express her family’s willingness to host Georges in their home and to help him get settled in London, as they had done for Lucien. As Camille was writing this important letter to Esther, he had to make a final decision about whether he could afford to send Georges to London. He explained to Esther: ‘I wrote to Julie immediately upon receiving your letter, and also sent her your good and generous letter, you cannot believe how happy and grateful she was; but we have to reckon with events, it’s about jumping over obstacles; My gosh, so far I jump to the side only to fall endlessly into a rut’. The Pissarro family finances were delicate and the imposition of more expenses—Georges’ tuition fees, travel and living expenses—must have seemed like an insurmountable obstacle and caused Camille to reflect on the struggle he was still facing, a year ahead of his 60th birthday. He wrote to Esther:
‘Everywhere I look, it seems that only the mediocre have the inside track, though some great talents have managed to succeed a little bit; how is it that they understood even a tiny bit? A mystery! A matter of race, probably; to this day no Jew here has made art or rather sought to make art that is felt, disinterested, I believe that could be one of the causes of my misfortune; too serious to please the masses and not enough of the exotic tradition to be understood by dilettantes. I surprise too much; I break too much with acquired customs’.
Camille spoke once previously of being a Jew, in a letter to his friend Claude Monet in July 1885. He asked for advice concerning Edmond Renoir, the brother of their fellow Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Edmond Renoir was an editor of the trendy new illustrated magazine, La Vie moderne. Camille was, at that time, the only Jewish member of the Impressionists and he noticed that Edmond Renoir singled him out for particularly rude treatment:
‘It seems that I am an intrigant of the highest order, without talent, a self-serving Jew, using underhanded blows in an effort to supplant both you, my dear, and Renoir. […] Here is a boy I hardly know, I only speak to him when we meet, I never think of him; yet he finds such a way to hate me.’
There is a difference to the content of the two letters. In the comments to Monet, Camille conveyed his upset at direct anti-Semitism: Edmond Renoir openly distrusted and despised him simply for being a Jew. Monet reassured him and said that he, too, had noticed that Renoir’s brother was an unpleasant character, but advised Camille not to worry since he had no authority within the Impressionist group, and an appropriate time to discuss matters with Renoir the artist would present itself. What Camille expressed in his letter to Esther was more complex; not overt anti-Semitism as much as his feeling of ‘Otherness’, and the question of how this might have affected his career and whether being Jewish had altered public expectation of the subject-matter he should be painting. Had it also interfered with the sale of his work? Camille used the word ‘race’, which shows that despite having long since abandoned his Jewish faith for a secular life, he nonetheless felt himself to be perceived as a Jew. With his use of the word ‘exotic’ Camille reveals his awareness of contemporary perceptions of Jews in a way that is reminiscent of the word ‘oriental’ used by the Jewish Victorian writer Amy Levy, discussed in Part II of this article. Levy felt a profound conflict between her British and Jewish identity, and her use of the word ‘oriental’ to describe Jews suggests that she accepted certain views on race that were commonplace in the period.
The timing of Camille’s letter to Esther is striking. Though the new ‘science’ of ethnology arose in the 1840s, it came to prominence in the late nineteenth century and consisted of cataloguing racial differences and ranking peoples by race, such as claims that Indo-Europeans were superior to Semites. This sort of racial terminology itself arose with ethnology and was part of the new ‘scientific’ basis for all varieties of racism, including anti-Semitism. That Amy Levy and Camille Pissarro perceived a sense of Otherness in this period is hardly surprising, but whereas Levy became psychologically burdened by this awareness, Camille remained, for the most part, self-possessed. But Amy Levy was much younger and came of age as anti-Semitism was rising. She took her own life in September 1889, at the age of 27, four months after Camille’s letter to Esther. As discussed in Part II of this article, Amy Levy and Esther Isaacson were of a similar age and social milieu and it would be surprising if Esther hadn’t known of Levy’s novels and her suicide. Camille, born in 1830, had a broader life experience and was bolstered by his strong ties to his wife, children and profession. But as we see, he was not immune to the same feeling of inescapable Otherness.
Throughout Camille’s many letters, he spoke repeatedly of his determination to make felt art, generated by using his sensations, thus his use of the word ‘disinterested’ to mean painting only what his sensations had dictated, without regard to what clients, fashion or tradition imposed. When he said to Esther, ‘to this day no Jew here has made art or rather sought to make art that is felt, disinterested’, he was expressing his sense of being an outlier, a pioneer. Would the Paris art world allow him to be so? He gave Esther the following self-assessment: ‘too serious to please the masses and not enough of the exotic tradition to be understood by dilettantes’. The ‘masses’ were those who attended the Salons, the ‘dilettantes’ were those who bought art, but to understand his notions of ‘too serious’ and ‘not exotic enough’, we need to know more specifically to whom he was comparing himself. Perhaps to other French or European Jewish artists, since this statement followed directly from his suggestion that they had not attempted to make felt, disinterested art.
In the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Camille was not the only Jewish artist to be included; Jacques-Émile Édouard Brandon had participated at the invitation of Degas, though he did not paint in an Impressionist style. Camille did not speak of Brandon in his letters, but was certainly aware of him, and included him on a list he made for Felix Fénéon of artists who had participated in the first Impressionist exhibition. Another French Jewish contemporary was Édouard Moyse. Brandon and Moyse painted scenes from Jewish biblical history and Jewish life, subjects that would have been perceived as ‘oriental’ and ‘exotic’ at the time. Esther might have been aware of the Jewish artist Simeon Solomon, who gained some prestige in Britain with his Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Jewish biblical scenes. Had Camille deduced that a Jewish artist was expected to produce such genre paintings of scenes from Jewish religion, history or family life? Though there are unanswered questions about which customs Camille felt himself to be abandoning and how he was surprising, one thing is abundantly clear: Camille was now acutely conscious of being a Jewish artist in the largely non-Jewish art world of Paris.
Camille could speak to Esther about his thoughts because she was Jewish, and would understand the conflict between erasing, accepting or embracing Jewish identity. Esther was only four years older than Amy Levy, so might have felt this struggle more profoundly than Camille. As discussed in Part I of this article, Esther had considered converting to Christianity in late 1883/early 1884, an option that might have seemed to offer her the chance to blend into British society. Camille was aware of this dramatic episode in Esther’s life and was relieved when she abandoned the plan. But in this 1889 letter to Esther, we see his recognition that being perceived as racially Jewish was beyond his control (or Esther’s), and that rejection of Jewish practice mattered little. Is it a coincidence that Esther’s two brothers and Amy Levy’s three brothers left England for the Americas in these decades? Perhaps it was easier for these young men to forge an individual identity outside of Europe, in places that were more unfettered and culturally diverse. By contrast, Camille Pissarro had left the ethnically diverse Danish West Indies to come to one of Europe’s capitals of high civilization in the mid-19th century, a period that seemed to offer the promise of assimilation.
Both Amy Levy and Esther Isaacson died before the start of the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906), the political scandal that divided France and exposed the extent of its anti-Semitism. I will not write about the Dreyfus affair here because it is beyond the scope of the letter to Esther from 1889, but it’s important to note that events surrounding the Dreyfus affair touched on Camille Pissarro personally and would have intensified the feeling of Otherness that he expressed in the letter. He had to wait and watch as his friends and colleagues chose sides—Dreyfusard or anti-Dreyfusard, with some of them opting to cut off relations with him. As noted in Part III of this article, Jacques Hadamard, the cousin of Dreyfus’s wife Lucie, had stayed with the Isaacsons in London in 1884.
We do not have Esther’s response to this letter from 1 May 1889, but on 30 May of that year, Camille’s mother Rachel (Esther’s grandmother) died at the age of 94. She had been a strong Jewish matriarch who united the Pissarro and Isaacson families for decades. Rachel and Esther kept alive Camille’s connection to his Jewish origins, despite his abandonment of Jewish practice. This circle would grow to include his Jewish daughter-in-law, Esther Bensusan Pissarro, and his London grandchildren Tommy and Orovida, who were raised with a great deal of exposure to Jewish culture and ritual. Rachel Pissarro was buried in the Jewish section of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, along with Camille’s father Frédéric. Camille, too, would be buried there after his death in 1903, and Julie in 1926.
The third and final letter that I will discuss was written on 5 May 1890, one year after the previous letter. This is his 60th year, and here the subject is more joyful than anarchism or anti-Semitism because Camille talks to Esther about the lengthy and delicate process of becoming an artist.
The context of the letter was Camille’s upcoming visit to London. He was responding to a letter from Esther asking him to come over sooner so that he could see ‘The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society’ show at the New Gallery in Regent Street. Some William Morris pieces were included and Esther, a great fan of Morris, didn’t want Camille to miss them. He replied that he was unable to get to London in time, but hoped that Esther would take him to see similar exhibitions. Georges was about to complete his year at the Guild and School of Handicraft at Toynbee Hall, and he’d been happy in London with the Isaacsons and had shown commitment to his studies. Camille would arrive in London on 23 May, with Lucien, and stay until the end of June; he and his two sons would spend time making art together in London. So, in this letter to Esther, he was content but also reflective because he was conscious that Georges was about to make the transition from student to independent artist. Camille’s brother Alfred Pissarro had died on 29 April, just a week before this letter, but relations between the brothers had been fraught due to disputes over the inheritance from their mother, Rachel. Camille only learned of the death via the receipt of a printed card, and his letter to Esther mentions Alfred but does not display any anguish over the loss of his brother. He was focused on Georges and the London trip.
Camille wrote to Esther that upon arriving in London, ‘I will see about establishing harmony between you and Georges, who seem to be fighting hard!’ As I have detailed in earlier parts of this article, Esther and Georges secretly became a couple, and then eloped in December 1892. We don’t know precisely when their rapport became romantic, but it was likely to have been during Georges’ year in London given the passion of the letters from this time, and the amount of time they spent together. They were both intense and spirited, so Camille’s description of them ‘fighting hard’ was partly in jest, but also reflected the spark between them. In the quotes below, I use bold text to indicate words that Camille had underlined, and it was highly unusual for him to employ so much underlining in one letter, a reflection of his zeal for the subject.
Esther had written to Camille about the differences of opinion between she and Georges, and they were all to do with art. The subject of Georges and art were dear to Camille, so he wrote back with passion: ‘Georges, you say, is so afraid of being influenced that he doesn’t want to put himself in the path of temptation. Eh! My dear little niece, isn’t that instinctive defiance against something that could be fatal to him? Your idea is correct, one can perfectly well admire something beautiful without letting oneself be influenced.’ But, he explained, influence can be a danger to an artist, whether one consciously tries to work with influences, or to reject them. The greatest danger, he wrote, was to those artists who are like ‘wax’ and the influence of something they’ve seen imprints upon them and they imitate it unconsciously. The ideas that Camille expressed here were completely contrary to the traditional, ‘academic’ style of art instruction found in Schools of Fine Art and art academies in the 19th century, where learning by copying great masterpieces was standard practice. For the Prix de Rome, for example, one of the most prestigious art scholarships of the period, a key task was to complete a perfectly executed copy of an Old Master painting.
Camille’s reasons for fearing the effect of influence became clearer when he addressed Esther’s next point, allowing him to talk about his concept of ‘sensations’, which is key to understanding his fundamental philosophy:
‘Georges is wrong to say that a piece of art is bad because he doesn’t feel it, (note that I don’t employ the work ‘understand’, as you did), for an artist there is an abyss between feeling and understanding. Art is, in effect, the expression of thought, but also of sensation, especially the sensations that one usually puts aside or even forgets. And now, as to your second proposition that ‘each artist must express himself in his own manner’, yes, if he has some sensations and that these sensations, so fleeting, so delicate, are not disturbed by some circumstance’.
It’s helpful to try to understand what he means by ‘sensations’, and the best definition comes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: ‘a mental process (such as seeing, hearing, or smelling) resulting from the immediate external stimulation of a sense organ, often as distinguished from a conscious awareness of the sensory process’. This definition corresponds well with what Camille described to Esther, including the ineffable aspect that sensations act separately from conscious awareness. For the artist, taking on sensations is just the first step—they must then translate these sensations into a concrete form, such as brush strokes on canvas. He suggests to Esther that not all artists have these sensations, and among those who do, not all are able to translate them into a physical form before they evaporate. ‘Influence’, therefore, is dangerous because it could interfere with the artist receiving and translating their own sensations. He will talk further about the process of understanding one’s sensations at the end of the letter.
But first, Camille turned to art education, a subject of interest to both he and Esther. As discussed in earlier parts of this article, Esther taught art to young ladies in London, and she discussed her pupils’ progress with her uncle. She also made art herself—drawing, sculpture, tapestries. She and Camille sometimes diverged in their opinions on art instruction, as seen during the year that Lucien Pissarro lived in London with the Isaacsons (1883/1884). Esther tended to believe that formal art education was essential, so, for example, she advised Lucien to study with Alphonse Legros at the Slade, and she herself wanted to take further painting lessons. At that time, Camille replied: ‘La peinture s’apprend tout seul’ (‘Painting is learned all by oneself’), and he never deviated from this point of view. He had approved of Georges attending the Guild and School of Handicraft for a year because the programme offered training in the practical skills necessary for making objects.
Esther did believe that drawing from life was essential to learning to make art. She was about to start art lessons with a group of four girls whose previous experience she clearly disapproved of: ‘So far they have learned in school, where they made drawings of noses and ears in albums, the copy on the left took up half the page, leaving the other half for reproduction’. She herself drew as a matter of habit, and she spoke regularly of taking her students to outdoor beauty spots or to places like Westminster Abbey, where they could draw the sculptures and carvings.
In this May 1890 letter, what Camille wrote to Esther is fascinating both from the perspective of art instruction, but also because Esther and Georges were secretly becoming a couple and though Camille was unaware of this development, he seemed to be aware of an important connection between them. He wrote:
‘You complain, my dear Esther, that because of your diverging artistic opinions, your discussions [with Georges] aren’t so friendly, but that should be the opposite; you have the rare occasion to study this boy, who knows nothing, a savage, but who is very curious about his sensations; the big difficulty will be to teach him at the same time as leaving him free, absolutely; if you want to convince him of something, make him feel it, but you will never do so by reasoning. You know it’s through heredity that he is formed the way he is.’
Georges could be impetuous, and he was more difficult than his siblings, but when Camille referred here to ‘heredity’, he was clearly making a link between he and Georges, and he was obviously proud of his son’s ungovernable character. Camille had to break free of his bourgeois upbringing and gravitate instinctively toward situations that allowed him the freedom to learn to make art, but also to accept input from others when it was needed. In this passage, Camille was placing Georges in Esther’s hands, a supreme demonstration of trust considering how deeply he cared about his son’s development as an artist.
In the final part of the letter, Camille described his own development as an artist with a certain directness and clarity that could only come from having thought about it so much, and for so many years:
‘I will be very happy to discuss all of this with you in London, you know that the question of education, it is all that is the most complicated; one can’t present formulas, each personality having different sensations. In all the (art) schools one learns to make art—no, that’s a huge error—one learns to execute it, but to make art, never! I began to understand my sensations, to know what I wanted, at about age 40, but vaguely; at age 50, in 1880, I formed the idea of unity, without being able to render it; at age 60, I begin to see the possibility of realising it. Eh bien, do you believe that this can be taught?’
Camille wrote of art education, but in reality, he was describing how long it had taken him to achieve the perfect synthesis of sensation and understanding. This was a very personal and lengthy process that gradually enabled him to achieve his vision. We can see that he continually assessed his development, with a certain fascination for the elements of the process that were beyond his conscious control. He wanted Esther to understand this process because it was now Georges’ turn to begin this journey. Camille wanted her to understand that there was no way to quicken the process, there were no tricks or short cuts.
A few weeks after writing this letter, Camille was in London with Esther, Georges and Lucien, where he enjoyed a productive time painting and being with his family, discussing all the creative and political matters that were important to the four of them. After he got home, Esther sent him some sketches that had been done by her most talented pupil, Katie (whose surname is never mentioned). According to Esther, Katie had been more influenced by all the Camille Pissarro paintings hanging up in the Isaacson home than by the Constable and Morland paintings hanging up in her own home. Camille wrote to Esther in July 1890: ‘I looked with great interest at the sketches by your little student, they’re quite sensational…she’s a little impressionist!’ Would Katie have understood that ‘sensational’ is the very highest compliment Camille Pissarro could bestow?
And here concludes the story of Esther Isaacson Pissarro—for now. As I continue my research, I hope to be able to revisit some of the unanswered questions that have arisen. It is the nature of research of this kind to end with certain frustrations, and I would dearly have loved to gain access to more of Esther’s letters and to more family photos. I have one photo of her, formal and solitary. None of her with her family, or with Camille or Georges. Alfred Isaacson mentions a photo of Esther with her friend (and eventually sister-in-law) Esther Bensusan Pissarro. If this still exists, I would love to see it.
My intention in writing this article was to “write a woman back into history”, since it became clear to me that in a number of books on Camille Pissarro, Esther’s relationship with her uncle and her cousins had been minimised or even deleted. Indeed, there are even factual errors. It was through going directly to the primary source—reading and re-reading the Pissarro letters—that Esther came to my attention because her vivacity and intellect jumped off the page. Equally, when Camille wrote to Esther, his letters became especially lively and engaging. It was clear that there was a special bond between them, and that Camille had a high esteem for Esther’s thinking and her endeavours, and he delighted in her company. I wanted to know more about this young woman.
After reading the letters and doing additional research, I set about following in her London footsteps, to gain a feel for the neighbourhoods she called home. Over 130 years later, much has changed, but the stamp of Victorian London remains. The property at 7 Colville Square in Bayswater still exists. This is where Camille and his sons occasionally lodged, and became acquainted with the landlady, Miss Zink, whose cooking Camille rated highly. This is where Esther died, and where Félix Pissarro would spend some of his last months, as he was dying of tuberculosis. It was poignant to think that Esther had entered 7 Colville Square with Georges, expecting their first baby, but had left the premises in the most tragic of circumstances. The Isaacson family home in Bayswater no longer exists, but around the corner from the site remains the home of Esther’s best friend, Ida Henry, in Aldridge Road Villas. The house is largely unchanged, and I could imagine Esther and Ida making the short journey to one another’s home.
Finding Esther’s burial place brought another set of upsetting discoveries. She was buried at West Ham Jewish Cemetery, which contains the Rothschild mausoleum. The cemetery is difficult to find because it is not searchable on Google Maps, the entrance is hidden, and it can only be entered by appointment. It had been the target of a serious anti-Semitic attack in 2005 from which it does not seem to have recovered, and the approach to her grave was very discouraging. Everywhere were smashed or overturned memorials. Miraculously, Esther’s grave was intact due to, I believe, the quality and style of her memorial which made it more resistant to damage. Her stone reads: ‘In Memory of Esther Clara Pissarro, Née Isaacson, Wife of Georges Henri Pissarro, Born in Paris October 31st 1857, Died in London September 2nd 1893’. I was relieved that her grave was undamaged but felt depressed that the peace here had been shattered by hatred and violence, and that this could happen again. These feelings returned me to Esther, Camille and Amy Levy’s experiences of being Jewish in late 19th century Europe, and reminded me that 130 years can feel like a short span of time.
I will finish with a quote from a letter that Camille wrote to Esther in August of 1890, after he’d returned from his trip to London, and before Esther’s upcoming visit to Eragny. Although she’d shared with him her little cartoons and funny sketches, she’d been hesitant to show him her serious pieces because she doubted her own talent. He wrote to her: ‘Prepare your paint brushes! When you get here, I hope we can all work together, if you keep your promise; we will see if you will have the courage, because this little drawing confirms me in the opinion which I always had: that it was a pity not to pursue further your artistic studies’. And she did paint with her exceptional uncle.
All translations from French to English done by the author.