Julie Pissarro: an Homage

Part 1 of 4

I want to begin this article with a description of a painting: Camille Pissarro’s The Garden, Éragny, (1898), now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The painting provides an appropriate starting point to an article that will be an homage to Julie Pissarro. The painting is set within the family garden of Pissarro’s home in the rural commune of Éragny-sur-Epte, two hours’ train journey northwest of Paris. He and his large family settled there in 1884 and this home and environs would provide the subject matter for several hundreds of paintings. Cosmopolitan Pissarro was occasionally frustrated by the limitations imposed by home ownership and would seek fresh motifs elsewhere, but he acknowledged that his paintings of Éragny were popular with his buyers. In 1893 he wrote to his son Lucien, “It’s true that my collectors prefer Eragny!!!” Each year there were two seasons that drew Pissarro eagerly back home: spring and autumn, when the colour and abundance of Éragny rivalled anything offered by more well-known locations. On 2 May 1898, having returned home from Paris, Pissarro wrote to Lucien “I am so happy to be able to breathe a bit of air here and to see the greenery and the flowers; I set straight to work so as not to lose the habit.”

Camille Pissarro, The Artist’s Garden at Eragny, 1898, collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The painting is Impressionist par excellence, presenting spring at a particular moment in its annual cycle of rebirth, when the blossoms of the flowering shrubs and trees were still fresh and vibrant, but the vegetable garden was yet taking root. The picture is suffused in golden light with gentle clouds breaking up the pale blue sky. The bent figure, working unshaded, is very likely Pissarro’s wife Julie, who worked tirelessly to feed her family during many years of financial fragility. Raised in rural Burgundy, the daughter of vineyard workers, Julie knew the land, and like her husband, she had enormous energy. There are numerous Pissarro letters which refer to Julie posting fruits and vegetables to her children and extended family in London: individually wrapped pears and plums, artichokes, asparagus, a branch of tarragon to plant in a London garden. Equally, her love of flowers was well-known and the display of blossoms spanning the body of the painting is testimony to Julie’s own sense of colour and proportion. But in the painting, her back is turned to this visual display, as she continues the toil that will provide physical sustenance for her family.

Among my pieces on Camille Pissarro and his family, this has been the most difficult for me to write. Why is that? In my articles on Felix Pissarro and Esther Isaacson Pissarro, I was exploring new territory and trying to piece together the tragically short lives of figures who are little known (Felix) or unknown (Esther). But Julie was Camille Pissarro’s life partner for more than 40 years; descriptions of her appear in multiple major works on Camille and his career. In many of these, I have found her role in his life to have been downplayed, or, she’s been treated with overly-harsh criticism. Through my reading of the Pissarro correspondence, I have come to have much respect and affection for Julie and I have been prompted to try to give her the credit she deserves. She experienced decades of extreme financial difficulty, while at the same time being responsible for feeding and caring for a large family. Between 1863 and 1884, she gave birth to eight children: three girls and five boys and she endured the tragedy of losing three of the them. Her daughter Adele Emma died in infancy, her daughter Minette died at the age of 9, and her son Felix succumbed to tuberculosis when he was 23 years old.

My goal is not to write a biography of Julie, but rather to focus on what she contributed in her partnership with Camille Pissarro over the course of his artistic career. Although she did not share Camille’s interest in anarchism or its intellectual underpinnings, she was interested in culture: she loved theatre and she procured music lessons for the children. She created a personal aesthetic that was reflected in the family home and garden, and the way she dressed her children. She had an opinion about paintings and maintained her own collection. It’s admirable that everything that she did was while living a very modest even vulnerable existence, but where she could exercise control, she did.

To an extent, I can recognise how Julie came to be side lined. Writers have been understandably focussed on Camille Pissarro’s development as an artist and, when looked at from that perspective, domestic considerations might seem like a diversion. In John Rewald’s classic book Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien, for example, Julie is not mentioned even once in the entire introduction. Also, Rewald presents the letters in heavily edited form, which was presumably necessary to keep the volume to a manageable size, but this meant that Pissarro family domestic matters were removed from the letters. My point is that this treatment overlooks the fact that Camille’s family and domestic life were extremely important to him and fed his art.

With regard to criticism of Julie Pissarro, some authors have been relentless. I won’t name the author who wrote: “[Julie] was no longer the pretty, compliant girl to whom he [Camille] had been so attracted. She was difficult, bad-tempered and nagging, but she had great determination and perseverance”. This was the author’s description of Julie at the age of 32, when she and Camille married in 1871. I have trouble imagining that Julie was ever ‘compliant’, and the notion of a strong, vocal woman being ‘difficult’ is objectionable and passé.  To be sure, there were circumstances in which Julie raged and expressed sharp criticism of Camille or the children. But seen from her point of view, many of her upsets are quite understandable.  No longer ‘pretty’? She was an attractive woman, but tending to her appearance was probably the last thing on her mind most days, given the list of tasks she had to accomplish. When she had the time and money to dress up, she enjoyed doing so. In this letter to Lucien from December 1891, Camille describes how elegant Julie looked for a trip to the theatre: “If you saw her, she is stunning, you wouldn’t recognise her with her black velvet overcoat, her chic hat, her opera glasses, … we have a resurrection! … if she knew that I was writing this to you, she’d get angry!”

In a book about Lucien Pissarro, one author wrote: “For most of his childhood, [Lucien] had lived in sustained poverty. His mother could not tolerate the lack of money but it seems to have passed unnoticed by Camille, who famously disdained money and recognition.” Again, this commentary is misinformed. He states that Julie could not ‘tolerate’ the lack of money. She more than tolerated it, she worked tirelessly to keep her family fed and clothed and she penny-pinched for little extras that made their life more comfortable. And the lack of money passing unnoticed by Camille? Nothing could be further from the truth. Here, for example, in May 1891, Camille wrote to Lucien about the triumph of Monet’s latest exhibition and how he wished he could enjoy a similar success for the sake of his wife and family: “Monet opened his exhibition, I wrote to you about it, ah the luck! It’s only just opened and all of it is sold, each one between three and four thousand francs! If I could only sell a quarter of that, I would be so happy to be able to […] spread well-being around me, and above all your mother, who evidently deserves to be able to rest.”

For his part, Camille Pissarro did criticize Julie from time to time, but no one else was allowed to find fault. That was met with sharp rebuke. An example can be found in his letters to his son Lucien and daughter-in-law Esther Bensusan Pissarro. Camille and Julie, despite their own money worries, had to support the couple financially with a monthly ‘pension’. Esther had been raised in an affluent London family and had studied at the Crystal Palace School of Art, she was profligate and unaccustomed to the kind of physical labour and penny pinching that Julie undertook to make ends meet. These factors caused Esther and Julie to clash. Camille wrote to Lucien in March 1897, reprimanding them for their treatment of Julie:  “Why the devil do you want your mother to be so upset, it’s very easy for Esther to please her and leave her to her old habits…which haven’t prevented [Julie] from supporting us with hard and dedicated work. In short, we must be grateful and realise that it is the force of habit and the fear of misery that persist!”  Eight months later, speaking directly to Esther, Camille wrote: “As for your quarrel with Maman, there is hardly a way to settle it, I recognise that you are full of devotion, that you take care of Lucien as well as possible; Maman, believe it well, is also full of devotion, not only for you, but for everyone; although she shouts a lot, she should have been listened to sometimes, but here…! …education! Prejudices, a lot of little things that block your understanding. I believe myself to be fairly impartial to judge the question, Maman has defects of form!!! It’s understood, but you Esther, you? Of theory!” In these comments to Lucien and Esther, we see Camille’s respect for Julie and his understanding of why her justified fears sometimes manifested in anger. He asks Esther to examine her own class bias.

Julie’s class position sometimes affected how other people perceived their relationship, but Camille appreciated her lack of bourgeois pretence and false manners. Julie and Camille first met in 1860 when she entered domestic service at the home of his parents, Frederic and Rachel in the Paris suburb of Passy. They kept their relationship secret until she became pregnant, and the news provoked great upset from Camille’s parents who didn’t approve of Julie as a partner for their son because of her social class and because she wasn’t Jewish. She moved out of their home and became a florist’s assistant. Julie had a miscarriage, and his parents might have hoped that the relationship would not last. But their relationship did last. She became pregnant again and their first child, Lucien, was born in 1863. Camille took pleasure from Julie’s honest bluntness. An example can be seen in 1889 when his widowed mother Rachel died, resulting in a dispute with his brother Alfred and sister-in-law Marie over their inheritance. Camille referred to them as ‘cunning’ and ‘crafty’ and after a fruitless confrontation, he described what he saw as the contrast offered by Julie: “her beautiful frankness, with the accuracy of her reasoning as an honest woman”.

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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