Pissarro Research Update

After having written articles on two members of Camille Pissarro’s family—Félix Pissarro, his third son, and Esther Isaacson Pissarro, his niece and eventual daughter-in-law—I’ve been pursuing two avenues: 1) preparing to unite these two articles in one little book, and 2) searching for answers to questions raised in these articles.

A book needs an introduction, and I felt that in order to write a good and proper one, I would need to be able to explain the importance of family to Camille Pissarro—the central and unifying figure in the Félix and Esther articles. My primary source of research is always the Pissarro letters. They are plentiful, they are beautifully written, and they tell me almost everything that I could hope to know and more. Whereas in my previous research I’d focused on letters specifically pertaining to Félix and Esther, for the purposes of the introduction I needed to read more broadly. So, I have spent the past few months reading all of the letters in all 5 volumes of Janine Bailly-Herzberg’s Correspondance de Camille Pissarro series. This has taken me on an immersive journey as I’ve traversed Camille Pissarro’s life from 1865 to 1903, in his own words, and in the present tense. As I got closer to autumn of 1903, I found myself reading more and more slowly to put off the inevitable heartbreak.

The Correspondance de Camille Pissarro volumes are a remarkable resource. Janine Bailly-Herzberg (1920-2005) compiled letters from the Ashmolean collection, but also from a wide variety of different archives to which I have not (yet) had access. The scholarship of the notes is masterful and also full of affection for Camille Pissarro. There are moments where she allows herself to expresses a personal view on events in his life from a perspective of deep understanding of his character, and that of Julie and the different children. Bailly-Herzberg also puts brackets around all the material that was left out of the John Rewald book Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien (1943), nearly all of which was content about the family. The focus of the Rewald book was on art, which is understandable, but on its own it would give a skewed idea of the Pissarro family life. There is one thing upon which Bailly-Herzberg and I are particularly in agreement upon: for Camille Pissarro, his family were of central importance to his life, and they were his reason for carrying on when the business of art lowered his morale. The sole limitation of Janine Bailly-Herzberg’s series is that it presents only Camille’s letters (although there are certain other correspondents quoted at length in the notes). At the Ashmolean, I was able to look at letters from Félix, Esther and other family members and friends.

Since completing the Félix Pissarro article, and now, having read all of the Camille Pissarro letters, I’ve developed a greater recognition of the effect of Félix’s death on the family. One such effect was a heightened nervousness about the remaining children. Rodolphe wanted to make an extended visit to London less than a year after Félix’s death, but Camille and Julie were very apprehensive. Camille wrote to Lucien: “J’espère que l’Angleterre ne lui sera pas aussi néfaste qu’a notre pauvre Félix” [“I hope that England won’t be as harmful to him as it was to our poor Félix”].  After a minor health complaint, they urged Rodolphe to come home, which he did. Camille himself never returned to England, and in subsequent years Lucien would ask him why he didn’t visit them, but Camille would put him off by saying ‘next year’ or explaining that he needed the guarantee of extended good weather in order to complete a series of paintings.

Through reading all of the letters, I also perceived another and unexpected effect of Félix’s (and Lucien’s) illness. Camille had to work exceptionally hard during this period because he had to support the entire family while none of his elder sons could work; even Georges was too busy caring for Félix to paint. In addition, Camille had to provide for Lucien’s wife and child and Georges’ child, and on top of this were the many medical bills. Camille, always a hard worker anyway, had to redouble his efforts, to the extent that Julie, somewhat cruelly, accused him of being insensitive to Félix’s death. By early April 1898, just over four months after Félix had died, Camille had finished his latest series and Durand-Ruel had taken everything. This group of paintings consisted primarily of his Paris series, especially the views from the windows of the Hôtel Garnier and the Grand Hôtel du Louvre, done during months of extreme mental anguish. An example is his Avenue du l’Opéra, effet de brume, done in the months immediately following Félix’s death. His work was shown at Durand-Ruel from 1-18 June, where he had an entire room to himself, with other rooms given to Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Puvis de Chavannes. His work was a success, as he wrote to Lucien on 6 June: “Décidément, c’est un succès, mon exposition” [“Definitely a success, my exhibition”]. It’s a question that I now ponder: did the emotional duress under which Camille was working manifest itself in the paintings themselves, giving them a certain intensity?

As a consequence of this success, toward the end of 1898, just a year after Félix’s death, Camille and Julie were able to sign a contract to rent a flat in Paris for the winter at 204 rue de Rivoli, overlooking the Tuileries. It is sad to think that Félix didn’t live to experience the greater financial ease that permitted the family to live in Paris for part of the year, which he certainly would have enjoyed. As Camille wrote to Lucien on 16 November, “j’espère qu’ainsi ta mère, Cocotte et Paul s’ennuieront moins à rester seuls a Eragny, qui n’est vraiment pas gai en hiver” [“I hope that this way, your mother, Cocotte and Paul will be less bored than staying alone in Eragny, which is really not cheerful in winter”.]

Since completing the Esther Isaacson Pissarro article, my focus has been to learn more about the typical experience of young Jewish women in Victorian London, and to better understand Esther’s Norwood years (1868-1879), when she would have come of age. I’ve received a great deal of help with my questions from people acquainted with Jewish history and practice: Rabbi Johnny Solomon, who took the time to phone me from Israel, for which I’m very grateful. I also had the pleasure of speaking with three members of the Kingston Liberal Synagogue—Sara Alston, Carolynne Farrer and Mary Regal—who were a wealth of information. I learned that my fixation on the idea that Esther would have needed to attend synagogue weekly, or even regularly, was misguided. Only men would have been expected to attend religious services regularly, and what constituted religious practice (for both men and women) did not need to take place in a synagogue. Service could take place in a private home as long as there was an assembly of at least 10 men, known as a Minyan. Rabbi Johnny pointed out that for a Jewish woman from an orthodox family, the need for a Mikveh was more important than a synagogue. The Isaacsons were close friends with the very orthodox Bensusans, who were also resident in Norwood, and one wonders if they had a Mikveh? Although there was not a large concentration of Jewish families in Norwood, there would have been enough to form a Minyan.

Also, the Jewish Orphanage at Knight’s Hill in Norwood, which opened in 1863, had a small synagogue for the children, and one presumes that local people might have been permitted to attend, though I have not been able to confirm this, and the building was demolished in 1962. The archives were transferred to the University of Southampton in 2020, but initial inquiries have not turned up this kind of information.

I learned that one likely explanation for the fact that Esther’s sisters never married (and remember, Esther only married late, eloping with her cousin Georges Pissarro), is that their mother Emma had died when they were young. Jewish marriages were usually arranged by match-makers, but the mother is an important figure in this process, and Phineas Isaacson does not appear to have taken a lead in seeking out marriages for his daughters. Perhaps he enjoyed having them at home, where they organised the running of the household, leaving him free to tend to his business matters? While I now have a clearer picture of Esther’s adolescence, I’m still hoping to find out where she received her education. Did she also go to the nearby Crystal Palace School of Art, as Esther Bensusan had done? Unfortunately, the school was destroyed in the same fire that consumed Crystal Palace in 1936 and I have been unable to locate any surviving archives. I’m also hoping to find where her mother (Camille’s sister), Emma, is buried.

I learned that it was likely that only men attended Jewish funeral services in the Victorian period. Funerals take place in the burial grounds, and after the burial the family members sit Shiva for a period of 7 days. We know that Shiva was observed after the death of Camille’s sister Emma, because he mentions this in a letter to Julie, so we can presume the family sat Shiva for Esther. I am imagining Esther’s funeral at the West Ham Jewish Cemetery, Phineas Isaacson without the support of his daughters or his close friend Mr. Bensusan, who refused to attend because he disapproved of Esther’s marriage. Georges must have attended, but he would have been hopelessly out of place is such a religious environment.

Why do I care so much about Esther’s Jewish family life? Because Esther and her uncle Camille were extremely close, and through their shared Jewish origins there would have been things that Esther understood better than Julie or the children. Although Camille had become an atheist, he was still a member of an extended and close-knit Jewish family, and the extent of his ongoing feelings of Jewishness would become apparent during the course of the Dreyfus Affair. And certainly, the world around him never let him forget that he was Jewish. After his death, the art critic and poet Fagus (Georges Faillet) wrote an obituary for La Plume, which said of Camille: “Il fut le bon juif (cela existe encore): le don de s’assimiler l’amour du réel, du tangible, de l’immédiat, une indifférence pour tout le reste, une quiétude comme orientale” [He was the good Jew (this still exists): the gift of assimilating the love of the real, the tangible, the immediate, an indifference for all the rest, an oriental quietude”]. Fagus was at once calling attention to Camille’s Jewish origins and seemingly ‘absolving’ him of them. Four of Camille’s children were living in France during the outbreak of World War II, and I wonder what steps they had to take to avoid persecution, since they would certainly have been perceived as Jewish.

Reading all of the letters has given me a true feel for the yearly rhythms of the Pissarro family life, as well as a better understanding of the personalities of all the children, and a fuller appreciation for Camille’s enduring partnership with the indefatigable Julie, whose judgement he valued highly.  I was also able to enjoy the renewal of the friendship between Camille and the writer Octave Mirbeau, which had beneficial consequences for Julie and the children, especially Georges. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this friendship, about which I plan to devote an article. Via the articles that I have already shared, I have had the pleasure of meeting Ann Saul, an eminent Pissarro scholar who has published significant books on Camille’s art. It has been wonderful to speak with her and share our mutual interest and enthusiasm and I hope to meet her in person in 2022. And finally, I am currently working with the radio producer & presenter, Patrick Bernard (https://modernnature.productions/), on a programme about the connections of the Isaacson and Pissarro families to London, and we will be making our first recce visit to Norwood and Crystal Palace on Thursday, November 4th. Stay tuned!

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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