‘Jean Barois’ and Understanding the Dreyfus Affair

This is a short commentary about a novel that recently came to my attention and which has informed my understanding one of the most historic episodes of the Belle Époque. Jean Barois by the French writer Roger Martin du Gard was published in 1913, the same year that Marcel Proust published the first volume in his series À la recherche du temps perdu. In 1937, Martin du Gard won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his series of novels, Les Thibault. He was a friend of the writers André Gide and Stefan Zweig, who, like Proust, are still well-known today, while Roger Martin du Gard has fallen into relative obscurity.

Editions Gallimard (2003), with cover art by Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (detail)

Jean Barois is divided into 3 parts. Parts 1 and 3 deal with the title character’s personal relationship with religious faith. In Part 1, he moves from a frail and pious child to a studious young man who abandons Catholicism in favour of scientific truth. In the process, he sacrifices important relationships. In Part 3, Barois re-examines the need for religious faith because of age, ill health, and the experience of witnessing his daughter’s faith.

The middle section of the novel is devoted almost exclusively to a close examination of the Dreyfus Affair. Jean Barois has been described as one of the earliest novels to deal with the Affair in the aftermath of the actual events, making it relevant to my research on the Pissarro letters, where it has become increasingly clear to me that this saga touched on the life of Camille Pissarro in significant ways. It is possible to map key developments by date as Pissarro comments on them in letters to friends and family. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the public mood of this decade; in my experience, a powerful way to understand the psychology of a past age is to read literary fiction from that time, including (or even especially) works which have fallen into obscurity. Jean Barois is ideal for my purposes because it includes a great deal of historical detail but it is depicted via the story of the intellectual and emotional development of a small group of friends over several decades.

Roger Martin du Gard was 50 years younger than Pissarro and had come of age in the shadow of the Affair: in December 1894, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, Martin du Gard was 13 years old. It wasn’t until he had turned 25 that Dreyfus was finally cleared of all charges and re-instated in the French army. Martin du Gard became intensely pre-occupied with the Affair, which led to heated debates with his bourgeois, Catholic, anti-Dreyfusard family. This kind of familial disharmony played out across France, judging by this cartoon from February 1898.

Portrait de Roger Martin du Gard (1926), Théo van Rysselberghe

Like many French people of the time, Camille Pissarro’s position on the Dreyfus Affair developed and changed over the years as he was confronted with new information. Then, as now, people received information via their newspaper of choice, according to their political leanings. Pissarro’s friendship with two of the most prominent figures from the Affair would help to formulate his views. One was the journalist Bernard Lazare, a journalist who was active in the same anarchist circles as Pissarro. In 1897, Lazare published a pamphlet called La vérité sur l’affaire Dreyfus : une erreur judiciaire (The Dreyfus Affair, A Miscarriage of Justice). He had been hired by the Dreyfus family to help exonerate Alfred and the pamphlet raised many undeniable questions about the justice of the case. Pissarro mentioned it in November of 1897 when he wrote to his son Lucien: ‘Bernard Lazare’s new brochure, which has just been published, proves that the document the general gave to the press was false!!! This is truly awful!!!’ Lazare was one of the first and most important of the Dreyfusards and his pamphlet convinced Pissarro of Dreyfus’ innocence. It also persuaded Pissarro’s friend Émile Zola, who was moved to take action. On 13 January 1898 he published his famous ‘J’Accuse’ article in which he condemned the French military authorities. Zola’s aim was to be taken to court for libel where, he believed, the facts of the case could be heard and Dreyfus would be cleared. Both Bernard Lazare and Émile Zola feature in Jean Barois.

Soon after the Zola article, but before the trial, Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien and described how the mood had changed:

‘Protests over the Dreyfus judgment are pouring in from all sides. Anyone who is an intellectual is protesting.’

This is an important point, and one that is echoed in Jean Barois. In the novel, Jean Barois and a group of young intellectuals create a journal called Le Semeur (The Sower), in which they publish articles explaining scientific developments and how they make religion irrelevant. These young men are representative of the generation that came of age alongside the monumental scientific breakthroughs that undermined traditional beliefs. Darwin’s Origin of Species, for example, was first published in 1859, rocking the foundations of Catholic teaching. One member of Le Semeur, Ulric Woldsmuth, reads Bernard Lazare’s pamphlet and becomes an impassioned Dreyfusard. He must demonstrate the urgency to Barois, who has difficulty accepting that French military officers could behave so immorally. Using excerpts from Lazare’s piece, he succeeds in convincing Barois, who, in turn, persuades his mentor, Marc-Élie Luce, of Dreyfus’s innocence. Luce is a Senator, and is based on the real-life figure August Scheurer-Kestner, who became an important Dreyfusard. Eventually, all of the journal colleagues become committed to the cause and their impassioned writings cause subscriptions to Le Semeur to increase exponentially. But they also become the target of anti-Dreyfusards, who in one scene actually descend on their office building intending to do them harm.

When intellectuals became involved in the Dreyfus Affair, they broadened the debate because they addressed all of the fault lines that the case exposed. They fought for justice for Dreyfus, but they also asked questions about the role of the army and the Church in France, about the independence of the courts, and about nationalism. They also identified the country’s latent anti-Semitism, which had been brutally exposed by the Affair. In Jean Barois, the journal colleagues attend Zola’s trial in February 1898, and afterward, they are with Zola when he is forced to flee for his life from rioters shouting ‘Death to Zola! Death to Dreyfus! Long live the Army! Down with the Jews!’ In the street there is targeted violence: ‘Isolated individuals, who have Jewish noses, are taken, surrounded and manhandled by frantic youth who dance around them savagely, brandishing flaming torches made with rolled up Aurore newspapers.’

During the weeks surrounding Zola’s article and trial, Pissarro’s son Lucien expressed worries for his father’s safety as news of the anti-Dreyfus and anti-Semitic rioters reached London. The Dreyfus Affair was becoming an international news story. Pissarro replied to Lucien:

‘Don’t worry too much about my safety here, at the moment there are only a few spineless Catholics yelling in the Latin Quarter […]. They shout: “Down with the Jews”, but nothing more. […] Yesterday while going to Durand’s gallery at five o’clock, along the boulevards, I found myself in the middle of a group of schoolboys, followed by thugs, all shouting: “Death to the Jews, down with Zola!”. I passed quietly through the middle of the bunch as far as Rue Laffitte, they did not even take me for a Jew! […] France is very unwell; will she escape from this illness? We will find out after the Zola trial! I wrote him a few words to express all my admiration. Yesterday I received a card from [Octave] Mirbeau asking me to sign a protest with him, Monet, and many others. Despite the serious events unfolding in Paris, I am forced, despite my concerns, to work at my window, as if nothing is happening; in the end, let’s hope that all this will end in song!’

Camille Pissarro did sign the letter of protest that was published in L’Aurore, which contained the names of many prominent figures.

The intervention of intellectuals only served to heighten the backlash from the anti-Dreyfusards, who consisted mainly of pro-Catholic and pro-Army French nationalists. They loathed seeing the country’s pillars dishonoured, and consequently, despised the intellectuals, who they saw as dragging France through the mud. They all hoped the problem would just go away. The divide between anti-Dreyfusards and Dreyfusards was not 50/50; the anti-Dreyfusards were in the vast majority, something Camille Pissarro noted in a letter to his daughter-in-law Esther Bensusan, written on the day that Zola published his article:

‘The bulk of the public is against Dreyfus, despite the bad faith deployed in the Estérhazy affair. I heard [the artist] Guillaumin say that if Dreyfus had been shot immediately, we wouldn’t be in this mess, it’s not just him of this opinion, at Durand’s, everyone was of this opinion except for a gallery attendant, one out of five, and I have heard many others; no, definitely, we must despair of the French people who were so great in 93 and 48!!!’

In the novel, the colleagues discuss the political situation in France after Zola was found guilty of libel. Luce says: ‘France is like a drunk woman: she no longer sees clearly, she no longer knows what is true, she no longer knows where to find justice. No, she has fallen too low: it’s discouraging’. But Barois, who tries to be positive, replies: ‘A nation that is still capable of such effervescence over ideas has not fallen’. Another colleague, Zoegler responds: ‘This is perhaps the first time that morality has intervened in politics’, to which Luce replies: ‘Yes, I have had that impression since day one: we are witnessing a revolution’, and Zoegler corrects him saying ‘We are making it’. Zoegler believes that he and his fellow intellectuals are changing the course of history.

Later that year, in August 1898, another development shocks people on both sides of the rift: Major Hubert-Joseph Henry commits suicide after it is revealed that he’d forged a key document used to convict Dreyfus. The Le Semeur colleagues shed tears of joy in the belief that the end of the Affair is in sight. It takes another year, however, for the original verdict to be quashed and for Dreyfus to be brought back to France to face a new military trial, which will be held in Rennes. Barois believes that acquittal is inevitable, but Woldsmuth disagrees, arguing that the military will try to save its reputation by introducing further documents—’State secrets’—possibly involving the Kaiser himself, that cannot be divulged in public because they would be diplomatically dangerous. Woldsmuth is Jewish, and these are the rumours that he’s heard circulating in his network. The ‘procès de Rennes’ took place between 7 August and 19 September. On 28 August 1899, Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien to say ‘I hope that the Dreyfus Affair will soon be finished, or in part’. This letter was ahead of Lucien’s visit to France in October, and Pissarro was hopeful of an improving art market. The Affair had received international attention and had subdued art sales. One can see from his statement that Pissarro thought Dreyfus would be acquitted, and that tensions in Paris would de-escalate.

Un diner en famille, by Caran d’Ache, published in Le Figaro on 14 February 1898. The captions read: “Above all, don’t talk about the Dreyfus Affair!”; “They talked about it…”

All of the Le Semeur colleagues, apart from Woldsmuth, are stunned when Dreyfus is found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Barois says: ‘Our discouragement knows no bounds. Practically speaking, the cause is lost’. Despite their disappointment, they comprehend the mentality of the army, which had acted for its own preservation: ‘I do not question the good faith of the judges of the court martial. I believe them to be as impartial as they can be. But they are soldiers. […] We posed the question before them: Dreyfus’ guilt or the infamy of the general staff: this is what an idiotic dilemma we have locked these officers into. […] How could they come out in favour of the Jew, against the general staff?’ As the men take the train from Rennes back to Paris, they hear snippets of conversation from anti-Dreyfusards. One man, for example, declares:

‘Let’s say that Iwas on the Council, and that I knew that Dreyfus was innocent… Well, sir, without hesitation, for the good of the country, for public order, I would have had him shot like a dog!’

This echoes the sentiment that Camille Pissarro heard expressed in Paris, by people he knew: better that Dreyfus had been executed straightaway, whether innocent or not, to spare the country such disgrace.

After the verdict at Rennes, the novel skips forward to 1900, with Roger Martin du Gard having decided to pass over a key event: on 19 September 1899, French President Émile Loubet pardoned Dreyfus. The Le Semeur colleagues had anticipated that Dreyfus would not accept a pardon, even if it meant returning to Devil’s Island. But Dreyfus did accept clemency, on the condition that he would fight to have his conviction overturned. In the aftermath of the pardon, the country remained fractured, as can be seen in a letter from Camille Pissarro to Lucien on 24 November 1899, in which he tells him ‘they talk nicely about the expulsion of the Jews’, by which we assume he means the newspapers, or again, talk that he hears among his circle of acquaintances. Pissarro told Lucien that he hoped the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair), which would begin in April 1900, might finally draw a line under the Affair and return Paris to a more peaceful city.

In the final scene of the Dreyfus section of Jean Barois, it is 8 months after the pardon and a group of thirty young men are gathered at an outdoor café along the Seine. Their elder statesman, Marc-Élie Luce gives a speech which attempts to summarize what the past years have meant to them. ‘It’s to commemorate those sacred hours—which are, aren’t they? among the last pure hours of the Affair—that we are assembled this evening. We are in the wake of a revolution’. Luce tells them that they had fought for national honour over public order because the right of every French citizen to have Justice was earned through bloodshed. ‘We sacrificed ourselves for a good cause!’ With bitterness, he remarks on the arrival of latecomers to the Dreyfus cause, politicians who saw that the political tide was turning and joined out of self-interest. Luce wonders what these newcomers will build on the ruins left behind.

Émile Zola died on 30 September 1902, asphyxiated in his home by a blocked chimney in circumstances which raise doubts about whether his death was accidental or not. Camille Pissarro wrote to Lucien on 3 October: ‘you will have learned of the death of Zola, it is a great loss for France and after all of this Dreyfus affair it is, as you will conceive, a considerable event!’ Camille felt unable to go to the funeral because he’d just returned from Dieppe with many paintings and was too weary for the journey to Paris and the funeral procession. His son Georges Pissarro (Manzana) wished to attend. But the following year, Camille accepted an invitation from Madame Zola to be among the friends and admirers of Zola to join the Pèlerinage de Médan to honour the first anniversary of his death. In Jean Barois, the Le Semeur colleagues will bemoan the fact that they are not invited to the ceremony for the interment of Zola’s remains in the Pantheon in 1908: ‘this theatrical procession from which we have been excluded, this fairground parade, to glorify our great Zola, this monopolization of a name which signifies loyalty and justice, to cover up the politics of self-interest!’

Letter from Camille Pissarro to his son Ludovic Rodolphe (‘Rodo’) from 21 September 1903, speaking of the first Pilgrimage to Medan to honour Zola.

What have I learned from reading Jean Barois? While it is well-known that the Dreyfus Affair divided France, the novel brought me directly into the period and helped me feel the strength of passions and how the fluctuations were perceived as they occurred over time. The sheer length of the Affair took a toll on people, which is perhaps why some—even Pissarro’s artist colleague Guillaumin—expressed the shocking view that Dreyfus should have been executed. Roger Martin du Gard is willing to explore the nuances—he does not ridicule the anti-Dreyfus side, although he is clearly sympathetic to the Dreyfusards. He shows how French Nationalism underpinned the pro-Church and pro-Army stance, whereas the Le Semeur colleagues tried to argue they were the ones upholding the honour of France by fighting for Justice with a capital ‘J’, which goes beyond Alfred Dreyfus himself. In fact, the trial at Rennes is the first time the group see Dreyfus in person, and they are disappointed. They’d built him into a hero, but after more than four years in the harsh conditions of Devil’s Island, he was weak and bowed. Barois sums up the feeling: ‘He disembarked; and, as we should have expected, reality didn’t coincide with our imagination. Many among us have not forgiven him.’ This is a group of young men who live and breathe the politics of their generation, but they will be followed by the next generation. One of them says: ‘I recognise that we live in unsettled times, but can’t you see that the future is germinating from this suffering?’ The book’s heroes (and Roger Martin du Gard) could not have known that Europe was only a year away from the start of World War I when the novel was published.

Regarding the Pissarro research, Jean Barois has informed my understanding of the scale of the anti-Semitism revealed by the Affair, and the importance of Pissarro’s relationship with Bernard Lazare. Pissarro and Lazare were both anarchists and both Jewish and knew one another before the Affair. In the spring of 1894, Lazare published his brochure L’Antisémitisme, son histoire et ses causes (Anti-Semitism, its History and Causes). In that same year, Lazare spent time with Camille Pissarro and his son Félix while they were painting in Belgium. When Camille read Lazare’s piece, he wrote to congratulate him: ‘Needless to say how much I share your ideas on the anti-Semitic movement and how happy I am to see a Semite defending my ideas so eloquently; and besides, only a learned anarchist Jew is capable of raising his voice with authority! You were brave and you did your duty.’ Pissarro sent a copy of the pamphlet to his Jewish daughter-in-law, Esther Bensusan Pissarro, who lived in London and he would later act as an intermediary between Esther’s brother Sam (editor of Jewish World) and Lazare, when Sam wished to translate Lazare’s work into English.

Among Pissarro’s anarchist friends, there was a delay in choosing sides. It was not immediately evident that they would support Dreyfus, who seemed to be a member of the hierarchy that anarchists opposed—an elite and wealthy military officer. Only later did they decide that the case demonstrated the corruption of the all-powerful State. Bernard Lazare died tragically young, at the age of 38, of cancer. It is disappointing that there are no Pissarro letters that speak of his death, but as Janine Bailly-Herzberg notes, the letters found in the archives are not exhaustive. I’m certain this loss would have been keenly felt and commented upon.

‘La Dégradation du traitre Dreyfus’ (The degradation of the traitor Dreyfus), Le Petit Parisien, 13 January 1895

I have written elsewhere about the rise of anti-Semitism in France in Pissarro’s lifetime, which pre-dated the Dreyfus Affair. [See “My dear Niece, The Life of Esther Isaacson Pissarro, Part IV”] As early as 1889 he had written to his niece Esther Isaacson, suggesting that being Jewish might have hindered his art career. But the Affair marked a dramatic new point. Stefan Zweig noted that the writer Theodor Herzl was in the audience when Alfred Dreyfus underwent his ‘degradation’—the process by which he was publicly stripped of his military insignias, including the breaking in two of his sword. It was witnessing this event, according to Zweig, that caused Herzl to write his historic Zionist manifesto, which founded the modern movement. In the letters I’ve quoted, we can see the way Pissarro tries to make light of the violence he experiences during the Affair, both the anti-Semitic chanting and his surprise at not being perceived as Jewish while walking through a baying mob. Was he really so phlegmatic, or was he putting on a brave face for Lucien, who was recovering from a serious illness? It must be remembered that Zola’s ‘J’Accuse’ article appeared less than two months after the tragic death of Pissarro’s son Félix, and the family were still deep in grief. Félix and Lucien’s illnesses meant that there were large medical bills to pay, which required Pissarro to produce paintings even in the darkest of times.

[Note: the annual Pèlerinage de Médan contines to this day. I attach a link to this interesting film from 1974, which includes a conversation about the event with Zola’s grandson:


Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

3 thoughts on “‘Jean Barois’ and Understanding the Dreyfus Affair

    1. Dear Shira, thank you so much for reading and commenting. I am a bit obsessed with the Dreyfus Affair at the moment, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn. I try to think of which modern day ‘scandal’ would be the equivalent.
      Kind regards,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hello, Karen, so nice to “meet you” here! I think that the Dreyfus Affair is a very good thing with which to be obsessed! I can’t recall right off the top of my head of a similar scandal that has run so long and exposed so much, but let me have a think, and see if I can add a brain cycle or two to your work. There must be something, and it is well worth the effort.
        Warmest Regards,

        Liked by 1 person

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