‘A Poet’s Day’: the Romance of Félix Pissarro

On my website, I have published an essay on the life of Félix Pissarro, the third son of the artist Camille Pissarro (see Art, Anarchy and Other Dangers: the Premature Death of Felix Pissarro). Félix died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 23. This was tragic because he was so young, but also because he was a talented artist who was cut off before he could fulfil his promise. His brothers Lucien, Georges, Ludovic Rodolphe and Paul Émile, all went on to become artists, and it is certain that Felix would have joined them.

My earlier biographical piece on Félix ended so sadly, with the grim months of his terrible illness and his family’s heartbreaking struggle to cope with events. In this essay, I want to shift the focus to an earlier, high-spirited period of Félix’s life by looking at a drawing he did as a teenager. The drawing was for one of the Pissarro family art albums, which were sometimes called ‘Le Guignol’ and other times ‘Journal d’Eragny’. In the Pissarro archives at the Ashmolean Museum I was able to look at copies of three of the ‘Journal d’Eragny’—all of them produced between January and February of 1889.

The family albums demonstrate how early the Pissarro children became immersed in art. They learned to draw, to explore their own style and to tell a story using pictures. Camille Pissarro encouraged his children to create these albums, which delighted him, and he would also include a drawing. The albums that I saw in the Ashmolean did not have any pictures by Jeanne Pissarro, the only (surviving) daughter in the family, and I don’t know if she contributed to other albums. Jeanne did not become an artist, but she married the artist Alexandre Bonin, and her children became artists.  

One of the three family albums features a page with caricatures of four of the Pissarro boys. It’s entitled ‘Nos Collaborateurs’ (‘Our Contributors’), and pictured are ‘Piton’ (Paul Émile, age 4 1/2), ‘Lézard’ (Ludovic Rodolphe, age 10), ‘Jean Lapin’ (Georges, age 17) and ‘Mistigri’ (Félix, age 14 1/2).  The children used these alter egos  in the albums, and Félix would sometimes include a little black cat in the corner of his drawings. I do not know who drew the little caricatures, but I wonder if it was Camille since he had a great appreciation for the art of caricature drawing. Lucien Pissarro, almost 27 years old, was perhaps too busy with his own projects to contribute or he may have particpated by doing the lettering and assembling. 

The family albums were by and for the family, and were meant for their own pleasure. Though in one letter from September 1889, Camille mentioned to Georges that he’d shown one of the albums to his friend, the artist Jacinthe Pozier: ‘how he laughed at the deadpan comedy of the artist Pitou is indescribable, what a success!’

An album from January 1889 contains a witty and precocious drawing by Félix entitled ‘La Journée d’un Poëte’ (‘A Poet’s Day’). The picture is a tongue-in-cheek look at the creative process as it unfolds during the day of a bohemian young man. The poet is bearded, with long hair and a feathered cap. Every part of his day is ‘art’, even when he appears to be doing nothing at all, or simply cooking a meal. While finally down to the business of writing poetry, he is too absorbed in thought to notice the large spider hanging over his paper. His day concludes with two forms of ‘l’art plastique’. ‘L’Art plastique’ is best translated as ‘visual arts’, and in no. 1, the young man demonstrates that poetry is not his only talent. In no. 2, he shows a talent for seduction. Is the visual art the pretty young woman herself, her appearance, her stylish dress and elegant plumed hat? Or is it the art that the couple make together, sculptural shapes, pressed together in a romantic clinch? It’s an enigmatic drawing, but also full of life and playfulness. One can feel the youthful energy of a teenager eager to launch himself into adult life, but who can also see the humour in the posturing of the would-be poet.

Félix Pissarro (‘Mistigri’), ‘La Journée d’un Poëte’, in the family journal ‘Journal d’Eragny’, January, 1889 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

To me, ‘A Poet’s Day’ perfectly encapsulates two things that I learned about Félix from reading the family letters. The first is that Félix (who was called ‘Titi’ by his family) was funny. His off-beat humour was often noted by his family and made him good company. Lucien wrote to Camille from London in 1892, saying: ‘naturally we talk about Titi, who is so funny’. When Georges’ wife Esther Isaacson died in childbirth in 1893, Félix was immediately sent to be with him in England. Lucien wrote: ‘I think it will be very good that Titi spends some time here, because he is someone who animates everyone and his gaiety has the best effect on Georges’.  Another thing that I learned about Félix is that he liked women and they liked him. Lucien described the situation: ‘it’s difficult when one is so handsome and above all so elegant! Maman says that he chases after all the girls, but it could well be that it is the girls who run after him!!’ At first, his experiences were limited to the girls he met in his hometown of rural Éragny. In later years, when Félix was gravely ill, he wrote a letter to his brother Rodo on the subject of dancing lessons, saying: ‘me, what I learned [about dancing], it was in Éragny with the Princesses of la rue Gagny’.

The subject of Félix’s interest in women (and their interest in him) allows me to mention a series of letters that I hadn’t yet discovered when I wrote the earlier biographical piece. They tell the story of a brief but intense romance. In the summer of 1894, Camille and Félix went to Belgium for a number of months (the circumstances behind this trip are described in Art, Anarchy and Other Dangers: the Premature Death of Felix Pissarro, Part II). While there, they were joined by Camille’s artist friend, Alexandre Charpentier, and his daughter Louise. There was a period when all four were together in the seaside town of Knokke. In the autumn, Camille returned to France, but Félix and the Charpentiers stayed on in Brussels. Félix was under the tutelage of Théo van Rysselberghe, who was also a friend of Charpentier. Either in Knokke or in Brussels, a secret romance developed between Félix and Louise Charpentier, who were of a similar age. The relationship was only discovered when Alexandre Charpentier discovered a note from Félix that was intended for Louise. The pair would have had a lot in common, as children of artists and subjects of their fathers’ art. Louise was immortalized in her father’s bronze piece Louise, or Young Girl with Necklace (1893), now in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay.

Félix, age 20, wrote to Camille to say that he and Louise wanted to marry. On 31 December 1894, Camille replied to Félix using a measured tone. He didn’t forbid the marriage, but he painted a bleak picture of a young couple living without means. ‘Here is what I think : that it would be crazy to marry at twenty-one, when you have nothing and aren’t in a position to feed your family. Pay attention to the fact that you barely know your profession. So, it would be dark poverty, and when there is poverty, there isn’t a happy household’.

Alexandre Charpentier had returned to Paris, and he and Camille were to meet that very night to discuss the situation. Camille wrote again to Félix to report on the outcome: Charpentier had given his permission for Félix to continue writing letters to Louise, but both men agreed that marriage would not be practical at that point. Camille wrote: ‘Since you love Mademoiselle Charpentier you must, through your work, conquer her, and as you are the man, you must earn a living. I hope that you don’t do anything to turn Louise against her family. You have both been crazy, it’s a matter of not being even crazier’.

Theo van Rysselberghe, Portrait d’Alexandre Charpentier, assis devant son chevalet (circa 1892-98)

By the middle of February 1895, Félix and Louise had ended their relationship. Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘I received word from Félix this morning, all is broken off with the little Charpentier girl. They exchanged mutual letters. You don’t need to speak to him about it, it’s better for both of them that it’s ended’.  The surprise twist to the story came in April of the same year, when Camille learned that Louise had become engaged to a writer. It would be interesting to know what became of Louise Charpentier and whether she did marry the writer, but nothing more is mentioned of her.

This is a little episode that makes me wonder what would have happened if Félix had married Louise Charpentier, might his life have turned out differently? Tuberculosis is a mysterious illness and it is impossible to know where and when he’d contracted it or if he was already infected in 1894/1895 when there was talk of marriage. It made me happy to find these letters because it was gratifying to see that even though he was so young, Félix did a great deal of living before he died.

Update:

I’ve done further research and found additional biographical information about Alexandre Charpentier and his family in the excellent catalogue produced by the Musée d’Orsay for an exhibition of his work held there in 2008 called Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909), Naturalisme et Art Nouveau. I learned that Louise Charpentier was actually Alexandre’s step-daughter. Louise was born in 1879, when her mother Nelly was married to a man named Joseph Zierl. Alexandre and Nelly married in 1881, and Louise was raised as his own child. Louise did marry the unnamed writer mentioned in the above essay, but they were divorced within the same year. In 1898, she married the architect Henri Sauvage (1873-1932), with whom she had a child, Fred, in 1900. Sauvage is one of the most famous architects of his time, associated with Art Nouveau, Art Deco and architectual modernism. He designed the La Samaritaine department store in Paris, among other well-known buildings.

Henri Sauvage and his wife Louise Charpentier Sauvage

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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