“Your Charming Drawing”: Camille Pissarro & Esther Isaacson and the Story of a Painting

In this short article I want to have a look at an exchange between Camille Pissarro and his niece Esther Isaacson in which he asks for her help to complete his painting, Le Pont de Charing Cross, Londres, 1890.

Camille Pissarro, Le Pont de Charing Cross, Londres, 1890, National Gallery, Washington D.C.

From late May until late June, 1890, Camille and Lucien Pissarro visited London, staying with the Isaacson family at their home in Bayswater. Georges Pissarro was also there and had been living with the Isaacsons since June of the previous year while he attended The Guild and School of Handicraft at Toynbee Hall. He’d had a very successful year and had enjoyed living with the Isaacsons and life in London generally. Camille and Lucien came to London to paint and to take Georges home with them at the end of the visit. Camille would turn 60 on July 10th of that year.

Upon the return to France, Camille set to work finishing his London paintings. He wrote to Esther on 22 July 1890:

“My dear Esther,

I began the views of London. Kensington gardens, with the Queen’s palace. Charing Cross bridge with Parliament, a fog effect in Hyde Park, along the Serpentine, I will continue the series. I work hard day and night, even with family visits, I do not move from my chair, Julie complains that I wear out chairs by sleeping in them!!”

But after this letter, Camille became frustrated while working on his painting of Charing Cross Bridge, and felt the need for further detailed sketches. How could he get this information? In a subsequent letter to Esther (which I have not seen, or which no longer exists), Camille must have asked for her help getting additional specifics about the bridge, because she sent him a drawing made in accordance with his requirements.  In a letter, she told him that she’d made the drawing from Waterloo Bridge while listening “to the sweet sound of the blind man”. Was the blind man singing or playing an instrument for money? She said the blind man, not a blind man, suggesting that perhaps they had heard the blind man before, together, during Camille’s visit. Camille had sent Esther a sketch of the bridge, because she referred to this in her letter when she wrote:

“Your pillar no. 1 is in the right place, but the 2nd and 3rd are a bit too close together; in my sketch I did my best to place everything well. I think it’s accurate in terms of height of the houses, line of the quays, etc. I think that Westminster Abbey looks so nice in the background. I hope that you’ll be able to introduce it into your painting. My sketch is, as you see, of the tower of Big Ben up to the Obelisk which is near the station.”

Picture postcard of old Waterloo Bridge from 1907.

Today’s Waterloo Bridge was opened in the 1940s. Camille and Esther made their sketches from the old Waterloo Bridge, which was built in 1817 and demolished in the 1930s. Esther would have had to find the precise spot from which Camille had worked, and from there, looking west, there was an unobstructed view of Charing Cross Bridge (also known as Hungerford Bridge). This is a rail bridge which was built in 1864 and still exists, carrying trains in and out of Charing Cross Station, but now it is flanked on both sides by two busy pedestrian bridges named the Golden Jubilee Bridges, which opened in 2002. The view in Camille’s painting remains highly recognisable because of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, but now, the same view is dominated by the Millennium Wheel and by the imposing St George Wharf Tower (also known as Vauxhall Tower), a 50-storey skyscraper that is the eighth-tallest building in London.

Charing Cross Bridge today, flanked by the Golden Jubilee Bridges, and with the new Waterloo Bridge in the background.
The view from Waterloo Bridge today. ©Paul Murphy

In August of 1890, after Camille had received Esther’s drawing, he replied:

“My dear Esther,

I did not respond immediately to your kind letter because, being in Paris on business, Lucien had only sent me your letter [from Eragny] without including your charming drawing for fear it would be damaged by the trip. I thank you very much for the information, I could perfectly paint my picture, however I still lack a little information that I did not mention in my letter and that I thought I could easily find here: it is a drawing of the small steam boats with wheels covered by a white drum. I looked all along the Seine for the boats that do the tug service without being able to come across any, I went to photograph dealers, nothing but propeller boats. If I were rich, I would take the train to Calais or any seaport, in search of my boat, but that’s the difficulty, it will have to be invented. What bothers me are the small spots formed by thousands of objects which are on the deck, and which form a set of spots which gives a very particular appearance to these boats. Especially considering that it will be in the foreground as seen from the Waterloo Bridge and we will see it from a bird’s eye view. This is what it is not to have foresight, I had the idea of ​​going back there or looking for a photograph in London, but so many things occupied us then. As soon as I can I will send a list of my works to Mr. Lauser, thank you for your effort.

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 of yours confirms me in the opinion which I always had: that it was a pity not to pursue further your artistic studies.

Your affectionate uncle”

It’s always interesting to gain insight into an artist’s creative process, and in this case, we can see that the more Camille Pissarro developed his Charing Cross Bridge painting, the more detail he desired. He was in the frustrating position of being unable to simply return to the source material, and he worked in a time before artists carried cameras with them. When looking at the finished painting, at first glance it seems that his solution to depicting the objects on the decks of the boats was to give them the appearance of people, rather than cargo. But when I look more closely, I believe that Camille was painting cargo, but did so using a colourful range of spots. It would be interesting to know what kind of cargo he was imagining. Reader, what do you think is in the boats? In Victorian times, watermen carried all manner of goods up and down the Thames, including coal and even rubbish. The painting is now in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., which I shall be visiting in May of 2022, and I look forward to seeing it in person and looking at the boats and cargo more closely.  

Detail from Le Pont de Charing Cross, Londres, 1890.

Camille had known that Esther was capable of making a drawing that would help him because she was an art teacher and he’d seen her own art pieces. Earlier that year, for example, she had contributed a drawing to the Pissarro family art album. At the end of the letter, Camille referred to Esther’s upcoming trip to Eragny, where he hoped that she’d have the courage to make art alongside him, something she’d been too shy to do before. Imagine drawing or painting alongside a member of the Impressionists, even if he was your kind and loving uncle? I do not know where Esther, who was 32 years old at the time of this exchange, received the art training that permitted her to be an art teacher; perhaps she’d had private tutoring, or perhaps, like her friend Esther Bensusan, she’d attended Crystal Palace School of Art, which was near the home in Norwood that the family occupied while she was growing up. In the course of further research, I hope to find one of Esther’s drawings and further information about her education. Camille was very much looking forward to her visit, and in another letter wrote: “We all await you, you can prepare your paint brushes, we will watercolour till the death.”

Esther did visit Eragny that September, before her teaching schedule recommenced in October. Did she draw or paint alongside her uncle Camille? She wrote a letter to Esther Bensusan from Eragny, explaining “I’m supposed to be working, but I don’t do much. It is so very difficult to apply their theory.” Perhaps, in the end, she did feel too daunted to work right beside Camille and his sons, especially if she felt that she had to work in a particular manner. But, she did say to Esther Bensusan:

“I am teaching Cocotte to do embroidery. Lucien has drawn a very pretty design, I think you have seen it, a girl’s head in a circle, & daffodils on either side, well, we are darning the back ground pale blue & working the outline of the flowers & leaves in yellow, of course, & green. Then the ground of the circle will be darned in pale yellow, & the girl’s head will be blue, & of course a darned frame all around. Cocotte is a most intelligent & willing little worker. She darns beautifully & seems to know instinctively where to leave white stitches. She is so gentle that it is quite easy & pleasant to teach her.”

Cocotte was the nickname of Camille and Julie’s daughter Jeanne, who would have been 9 years old at the time of Esther’s visit. This passage describes a lovely moment of joint creativity between the two female cousins, where Esther is able to use her experience as a teacher as she instructs Cocotte in stitching and they make decisions about which colours best suit the design given to them by Lucien. I do not know if this piece of embroidery still exists. I wonder if Esther was able to view the finished painting Le Pont de Charing Cross during her visit? She would have been pleased to see the inclusion of Westminster Abbey, and to know that she had contributed something to her beloved uncle’s work.

Author’s note: the letters from Camille were in French, and the letter from Esther to Camille was in French. All translations are by me. The letter from Esther Isaacson to Esther Bensusan was in English. Further information about Esther Isaacson’s relationship with her uncle, Camille Pissarro, can be found in my article, “My Dear Niece: The Life of Esther Isaacson Pissarro”, found on this website.

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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