Julie Pissarro: an Homage

Part 2 of 4

Beginning in 1863, the year that their eldest son Lucien was born, Camille and Julie no longer lived full time in Paris because it was simply too expensive. For more than twenty years the family moved from one rented house to another, principally in and around the Pontoise area, about 25km northwest of central Paris.  But in April of 1884 they moved even further from Paris in a quest for a home big enough for their expanding family. They found an affordable property for rent in the rural commune of Éragny-sur-Epte, which offered them more space, land, and outbuildings. Éragny is in the Oise Department, officially in the Hauts de France Region, but it sits on the border of Normandy, and the nearest market town, Gisors, is within Normandy. The Epte river also flows through Monet’s hometown, Giverny.

The Éragny house, which still exists today, is large and handsome, made of red brick with a slate roof, multiple chimneys, and elegant tall windows with shutters. One side of the house runs along a road now called the rue Camille Pissarro. Extending to the right is a high brick wall which also borders the road and gives privacy to the house and gardens. One of the outbuildings became Camille’s studio and features an enormous arched window giving views of the countryside, the Epte river, and beyond to the village of Bazincourt. For an Impressionist artist, the family home and its surroundings aren’t simply a place to live, sleep, eat—they’re rich material from which to create paintings, and the family home at Éragny was the subject of hundreds of paintings.

The Pissarro home in Éragny sur Epte

 After renting for 8 years, the house came up for sale in 1892, and Julie wanted it very badly. She had created roots in this house and did not want to move again. She went to great lengths to make the purchase happen, including paying a visit to Monet without telling her husband. Camille wrote to Monet:

‘Today I received a letter from my wife telling me that she went to see you to ask if you would consent to advancing us the necessary sum to buy the house in Éragny. I swear to you that I was absolutely unaware that my wife had the intention of going to Giverny and I suppose that she must have given you the details; you know my position: I have only made a start [in my career] and I’m not yet very sure of my success; but my wife is so attached to the house we live in that I can’t refuse this satisfaction to my companion who certainly merits it greatly.’

Monet did lend them the money, but this process was not without its difficulties. For one, the house became more expensive than they had expected because of some double-dealing by the owner and his solicitor. Another problem was that Camille was away for the entirety of this process, from late May till mid-August of 1892, leaving Julie to deal with matters all by herself. Camille was in London, helping to facilitate the marriage between their son Lucien and Esther Bensusan, whose parents were against the match. Julie’s isolation made her anxious and perhaps brusque. Camille wrote to Julie about a letter he had received from Monet, complaining of the way he was being treated:

‘My dear Julie, I’m sending you a letter from Monet who isn’t happy and who tells me that I treat him like a mere colleague who’s been transformed into a cashier, when he was acting as a friend. If there’s still time, after such a letter from Monet, we shouldn’t go ahead with the house business, such worries! I’m very embarrassed…’

But the purchase did go through on the 21st of July 1892 and the loan to Monet was paid back. So upset was Camille about owing money to Monet that even on his deathbed in 1903, while delirious with fever, he brought up the subject, convinced that he had not repaid the loan. Touchingly, Monet wrote to put his mind at rest.

Camille Pissarro (1893), Flood, White Effect, Eragny, private collection

There were certain downsides to life in Éragny, even for Julie. The further distance from Paris had a pointed effect on family life: whereas the train journey from Pontoise to central Paris was no more than an hour, from Éragny it was more difficult. First, Camille had to walk a half hour to the train station in Gisors, from where the journey to Paris was 2 hours. It was too far for him to travel to Paris and back in one day regularly, especially since he was carrying his painting materials. This meant that he had to spend extended periods in Paris, usually staying in a hotel.  The consequence for Julie was that she was often alone with the children and the many domestic responsibilities.

Julie was very particular about the housekeeping and an example can be found in the care she took over the family’s laundry. Camille’s English niece Esther Isaacson loved visiting the Pissarro’s in Eragny, and she gave this report in a letter to her friend Esther Bensusan:

‘Cocotte is a most intelligent and willing little worker. She darns beautifully and seems to know instinctively where to leave white stitches. She is so gentle that it is quite easy and pleasant to teach her. She is beginning already to be of use to her mother. On washing days, she has her little tub and her bar & her board & soap, and she is supposed or rather she supposes that she helps to do the washing! Which by the bye is an undertaking, as it is only done every two months, and Julie is so particular. It is so pretty to see the women rinsing the clothes in the River.’

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, when the family finally had enough money to pay someone to do the laundry, Julie persisted in doing it herself. On the 6th of December, 1901, Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘Your mother left [Paris] this morning for Eragny with Paul, she is going to stay there long enough to make our cider and to do the famous laundry that I still can’t convince her to give up’. No one else would have met Julie’s standards.

Pissarro family photograph: from left to right is Camille Pissarro’s nephew, Alfred Isaacson, Julie Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, Jeanne “Cocotte”, Félix (sitting), Georges “Manzana”, and Paul-Emile on the knee of Lucien Pissarro.

The garden was entirely Julie’s domain and occasionally there was a little money to pay for the help of a gardener, but most of the work was done by Julie herself. This was back-breaking physical labour which sometimes left her vulnerable to accident or illness.  In 1888, Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘Your mother fell down the garden steps and she’s badly hurt her pelvis, I went to fetch the doctor; he didn’t find anything serious, but we must follow some precautions’.  Julie knew that Camille’s time must be spent painting; the family’s financial well-being depended on him completing a saleable body of work during each season of the year. She did, however, feel that the older boys could help occasionally with the heavy work. Lucien moved permanently to London (in 1891), but Georges and Félix (known as Titi) were at home with her. In their late teens and early twenties, they were often stubbornly uncooperative because they, too, were attempting to become artists.  Camille wrote to Lucien, describing the situation in Éragny in autumn of 1891: ‘so much difficulty with Titi and Maman about the garden. She hasn’t disarmed; I’m trying to convince Titi to be patient and to do everything possible not to bring about conflicts which benefit no one and undermine your mother’s health’. Félix, at the time of this letter was 17 years old and neither attending school nor in gainful employment, much to Julie’s consternation.

When Camille wrote that Julie hadn’t ‘disarmed’, he was referring to the subject that for years caused the most dissent and upset in the family, and provoked what was probably Julie’s greatest stress: that Camille wanted all the children to become artists. He spoke of being ‘a family of artists’ and of the ‘school of Éragny’, which reflected the particular style of the family’s art, which flowed from the influence of their Impressionist father. The children were encouraged in this project from childhood, and were given early access to art materials. Camille began to gather up their drawings in family collections sometimes called ‘Les Guignols’ and sometimes ‘Journal d’Éragny’. The children were indeed precociously talented in art and needed little encouragement to spend their time drawing or painting.  

The Pissarro family art album from January 1899. Pissarro Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

When the children were young, making art was encouraged by Julie who enjoyed the results, but as time went on, she wanted them to learn skills that would lead to steady employment. They had some education in local schools, but none of them persisted in academic studies. The first to pursue a career in art was their eldest, Lucien, who would focus on illustration, a path that was even more precarious and poorly paid than painting. Julie could see that Lucien was entirely financially dependent on the monthly ‘pension’ that Camille sent him, and there was little sign of him ever supporting himself. In this 1884 message from Julie to Lucien, who was in London, we can see her pleasure in the children’s drawing, her care for Lucien, and we can see that she has her sister’s company, but she is not sure when Camille will be home:

‘All the children are around the table drawing and they are making your portrait, I can assure you that you have a funny face. It is 8 o’clock at night and we are still waiting for papa for dinner; in the end, I no longer believe that he’ll come tonight. Tomorrow, if I haven’t had any news, I’ll leave for Paris to find out what’s going on. Goodbye my dear Lucien, make your preparations and come as soon as possible, we embrace you with all our heart, your mother and your brothers as well as your aunt, your little sister, making a portrait of “Vicin”.’

After the decades of living with financial fragility and uncertainty, Julie did not wish this on her children, nor did she want to keep supporting the elder children while there were still younger children at home whose future needs had to be considered. With their daughter Cocotte, Camille let Julie have her way; he did not steer her toward an art career, even though he would like to have. Julie eventually placed Cocotte in a girls’ boarding school in Paris in the hopes of procuring for her a more refined formal education, but this did not last because Julie missed her too much, and Cocotte became homesick.

The greatest family discord occurred when Georges and Félix Pissarro were coming of age; their adolescence and young adulthood was turbulent and the boys could be very recalcitrant, and, as noted earlier, Julie was often alone with them. Camille was juggling many conflicting personalities within his own family and always trying to keep the peace, while at the same time continuing to encourage the children to become artists no matter what. But even he could see that the boys’ behaviour made his campaign difficult. He wrote to Lucien:

‘Georges, after having made several painted panels, rests while waiting for the wood that I bought in Paris to arrive by messenger, I hope that this sort of dawdling will stop, Titi follows his example, however they very much need to be drawing, but there is no point in giving advice, neither one of them listens to me!’

From Julie’s point of view, her niece Nini Estruc had jobs, such as working in a doll making factory; why shouldn’t her children work? Julie wasn’t pressing for the boys to do menial labour, but she did feel that they could gain regular employment within the art world. She thought Felix, for example, could work for Paul Contet, a supplier of art materials, who also sold paintings and prints in his Paris shop. Georges could use his training to work in ‘décors’, making furniture, screens, murals, ornaments for interiors. Or he could use his interest in three-dimensional art to gain employment in a sculpture studio. Camille admitted to Lucien that he could see the truth in what Julie was saying, but he still didn’t think it was a reason to give up his plan:

‘In her last letter, there was nothing she wouldn’t say to convince me [to put the boys in employment] ; I’m all the more aggrieved because I recognise the truth in certain things, such as the restive side, the stubbornness of Georges ; he is sometimes so stupidly clumsy, knowing our current difficulties, but after all, it’s not a reason to abandon everything.’

The situation with Georges and Felix did not change significantly until Felix became ill with tuberculosis. That story is detailed in my articles Art, Anarchy and Other Dangers: The Premature Death of Felix Pissarro, Parts I-III, which are also published on this website. This was a terribly upsetting time for the family during which Julie demonstrated great devotion and strength.

Félix Pissarro, untitled and undated sketch of his mother Julie. Pissarro Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In Part 1 of this article, I noted that I would like to draw attention to certain overly-harsh criticism of Julie and even correct it. Now that we can see what Julie’s life was like during these Eragny years, there is a criticism of her made by one author that I found particularly egregious.  In her biography of Camille Pissarro, the author blamed Julie for not allowing Vincent van Gogh to move into the Eragny home after a request from Theo van Gogh. The author wrote:

 ‘Julie had objected to the hunch-backed de Haan, and she now objected even more vigorously to the idea of having van Gogh, freshly emerged from an asylum, in the house with the children. Pissarro had to tell Theo that the proposed arrangement would not be possible. Theo commented to Vincent: ‘I do not think he has any great authority in his own house, where his wife wears the pants’.’

In this passage, we see first the notion that Julie objected to de Haan because he was ‘hunch-backed’ and then the suggestion that Camille would have welcomed Vincent van Gogh into the family home with his wife and young children, were it not for Julie’s objections.  The author gives us no background material about the de Haan story and I find none in the Pissarro letters. Regarding Vincent van Gogh, let’s be clear that he was extremely mentally ill and had by that time severed his ear with a razor. Camille Pissarro had already told Theo van Gogh that it was not possible to lodge Vincent at Éragny before Julie even knew of the matter. In a letter to Julie dated 28 September 1889 he explained : “[Theo] van Gogh asked me if it would suit us to have his brother with us until next spring…I told van Gogh that this wouldn’t be possible for us, that you have a lot of trouble with the children…”

Camille Pissarro was very conscientious about the safety of his family, particularly because he was away for long stretches at a time. The family home did not get a telephone until 1898. He did not like to leave Julie and the younger children alone when one of the older boys could not be at home with her. He wrote, for example, in 1895: “I have to leave Maman alone again at Éragny with Cocotte. This bothers me a lot, I don’t like to keep or to leave my loved ones alone in our property, the more I go, the more I’m bothered by it! One day or another we must find a solution!” He certainly would not have left his wife and children alone with a mentally ill man, however much affection they held for the van Gogh brothers. The solution to the problem of leaving Julie alone would finally come when the family had enough money to rent a large flat in Paris during the winter months. That phase of their lives will be detailed in the subsequent parts of this article.

Part 1

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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