Julie Pissarro: an Homage

Part 3 of 4

In Part 2 of this series, I focussed on Julie Pissarro’s busy life in Eragny sur Epte. In Part 3, I am going to discuss her interests beyond being a wife, mother and homemaker. I also want to dispel the image of Julie as ‘illiterate’, a word that is often used to describe her. Illiterate means unable to read or write, but we can see through the number of letters she wrote and received that Julie was literate. It is more accurate to say that she was not formally educated, so when she did not know how to spell a word, she would simply formulate a phonetic spelling. It is usually easy to understand what she was trying to spell by imagining the word spoken out loud. The use of the word ‘illiterate’ also suggests that Julie was unintelligent or not capable of engaging with ideas or culture, whereas nothing could be further from the truth.

Julie did read, and one reference is found in a letter from 4 October 1891 in which Camille tells Lucien and Georges: ‘I’m waiting for Maman to finish reading Les Aveugles [The Blind], it’s very short, a pretty little volume…It’s very dramatic, simple and cold and terrible and very modern, and also full of motifs…one must read the different scenes very attentively’. Les Aveugles was a play written by Maurice Maeterlinck, a protégée of the writer and journalist Octave Mirbeau. Julie’s interest in this play reflects her lifelong passion for theatre—she loved going to see plays—and the Pissarro letters contain multiple mentions of Julie attending the theatre in Paris, usually with Camille but sometimes with her niece Nini Estruc. Julie and Camille attended a performance of Les Aveugles in December of 1891. Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘I went with your mother and Monsieur and Madame Mirbeau to the performance of Les Aveugles, and a little play by Laforgue, the two plays done in a deplorable way… it was very crowded, everyone in the art world was there’. These comments show that attending the theatre wasn’t just entertainment, it enabled Camille and Julie to mix with important figures in contemporary culture. Because money was tight, Julie would ask Camille to obtain tickets through his various connections: Mirbeau, Maximilien Luce, the art dealer Georges Petit, and Camille’s cousin the playwright and novelist Jules Cardoze. In January 1884, Camille wrote : ‘I’m going to Paris tomorrow with your mother; we are going to see Pot-Bouille; Petit promised us some seats’. Pot-Bouille, often translated as Pot Luck, was an adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel of the same name, the tenth in his Rougon- Macquart series.

One of the most touching examples of Julie’s love of theatre can be seen after the death of her son Felix in November 1897. Julie had been with Felix in London during the final miserable days as he succumbed to tuberculosis, while Camille stayed behind in France to care for the younger children and make paintings to support the family. Julie returned home utterly bereft and her mourning worried Camille because of the depth of her grief and how long it continued. He wrote to Lucien on 6 January 1898: ‘I left Eragny very worried by your mother’s condition, what worried me a lot was to see her absolutely discouraged and in a state of nervous exasperation unlike anything I’ve seen before’. But almost a week later, Julie came up to Paris to join Camille, who was painting in a hotel. Camille wrote to Lucien on 11 January: ‘Maman made me write to Mirbeau about going to see his play that’s on at the Renaissance theatre! I would never dared have proposed it to her’. The play was Les Mauvais bergers [The Bad Shepherds], Mirbeau’s latest piece, and he did obtain tickets for the Pissarros. There is a letter from Camille thanking him: ‘Madame Pissarro and I thank you for the two tickets to the Mauvais bergers. It’s obviously the most remarkable revolutionary play that’s been done. The emotion we felt was poignant, the interest was sustained from beginning to end. It’s beautiful and grand’. This theatre outing—Julie re-joining the wider world—seems to have marked a turning point in her recovery from the trauma of Felix’s death because the letters no longer mention worries about her mental state.

1897 theatre poster for Les Mauvais bergers, by Louis Malteste

Julie was also interested in painting, and not simply as the wife of an artist. She maintained her own collection of paintings which is clearly referred to in the Pissarro letters. This was done with Camille’s blessing and she was permitted to do with them what she liked, for example, she could loan them to exhibitions. From 23 Jan to 22 Feb 1892, nine of Julie’s paintings were included in an exhibition at Durand Ruel. Camille wrote to Mirbeau: ‘My wife arrived in Paris yesterday, she wants to see her collection of paintings brilliantly framed and in good light, she won’t recognise them’. Julie was also allowed to sell her paintings if she wished. In a letter to Durand Ruel from June 1898, Camille wrote : ‘Madame Pissarro has asked me to tell you that she won’t accept less than ten thousand francs for her Pont de Rouen’. I’ve not yet come across any letters which describe how or why Julie chose certain paintings over the years, but it is clear that Camille thought highly of her collection, as can be seen in a letter to Lucien, where he described paintings of his that had been included in the Caillebotte legacy exhibition: ‘me, I have two of my best things from 1882, as good as those in your mother’s collection’. Here, he used Julie’s collection as a benchmark to indicate work he was pleased with.

Aside from Julie’s interest in culture, there was another aspect to her personality that needed a means of expression: she was very social and liked to have contact with people and enjoyed being a hostess. Her rural village was not very conducive to making social contact, and as I’ve described in Part 2 of this article, Julie could find herself isolated in Eragny while Camille was away painting or doing business in Paris. Sometimes Camille despaired of the friendships she attempted to form in Eragny. In 1896 he wrote to Lucien : ‘Can you believe that [Maman] asked me if it was a good idea to invite Madame Cucheté to the house, I told her to be on her guard, that we did not know them enough, that I was wary of them , well, she hastened to go with Cocotte to visit them. Naturally, here, they make themselves at home; your mother needs people she can visit, if it didn’t go further it would be half bad, but then again we hardly know them’. Camille was not being a snob, he simply realised that these sorts of friendships—formed out of convenience rather than common interests—would not last and the fallout would be awkward when the friendship inevitably faltered.

Camille had many colleagues, but not all of them were family friends or part of Julie’s life except on a casual or infrequent basis, but there were two men whose important friendships helped sustain Camille and Julie in good times and bad: Claude Monet and Octave Mirbeau. I note these two in particular because of the attention and care that they gave to Julie. Julie was the godmother of Jean Monet, the first child of Monet and his first wife Camille Doncieux. In the early years of the Impressionists, the two couples had much in common since they both had children before marriage and they suffered the disapproval of their families and extreme financial precarity.  As mentioned in Part 2 of this article, because Monet attained financial security earlier in his career, he was able to loan the Pissarros money to buy their home in Eragny, giving Julie the security she craved.

Octave Mirbeau and his wife Alice Regnault became part of the lives of the Pissarro family in the early 1890s. Mirbeau and Pissarro began a correspondence after the writer had championed Pissarro’s painting in his published articles. This led to invitations to one another’s homes, and Mirbeau responded strongly to the world the Pissarros had created in Eragny. Mirbeau was of a different socio-economic class to Julie; in his time, he was a well-known public intellectual, but there was an evident mutual respect between he and Julie and she revered him. Even when there was a falling out between the two men, leading to a rupture of several years, Julie maintained contact with Mirbeau, she simply ignored the reasons for rift and kept the door open for the eventual renewal of the friendship. Monet and Mirbeau would prove to be unfailing allies to Julie after Camille’s death in 1903, helping her to sell paintings and fairly distribute funds between her children while also looking after her best interests.

Claude Monet’s painting of Julie Vellay Pissarro with her godson Jean Monet, 1867

The Pissarros entertained artist and writer friends at their home when guests would make the journey to Eragny to visit them, and Julie generally enjoyed this very much. In August 1888, for example, family from London were arriving but Camille also wanted Seurat and Signac to visit, he knew that Julie could cope with a house full and find places for everyone to sleep. He wrote to Lucien: ‘Your mother hasn’t said anything about it, but you know that she always receives everyone well’.

The Pissarros hosted young families who enjoyed spending time in Eragny because Camille and Julie were so accustomed to children.  Some of their guests included Theo van Gogh and his wife and child; Theo van Rysselberghe and his wife and child, and Maximilien Luce and his wife Simone. One visit from the Luce family was particularly poignant because they had just suffered the death of their young son and Madame Luce was distraught.  They stayed in Eragny for two weeks, where they must have found much comfort and support. Camille and Julie had suffered the loss of three of their eight children, so would have been very empathetic. Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘Luce and his wife left yesterday, he did a lot of work here and took away a good little series of studies. His wife is well restored after the loss of her child, she left much more tranquil than she was when she arrived’.

There were occasions, however, when an excess of social obligations created too much stress for Julie, such as the time when Mary Cassatt was bringing a group of American ladies to Eragny with hopes of setting up an art colony nearby. At the same time, Georges was due to return home and the newlyweds Lucien and Esther Bensusan would also be arriving. All of this would add to Julie’s work load and, in her experience, she could not count on much help. Camille wrote to Julie in August 1892, trying to pacify her: ‘We will take care to not bother you too much. What do you want me to do, I can’t push away the young newlyweds, you yourself wouldn’t do that to less close relatives. Don’t worry, I’ll find a way to reconcile all […] a few good paintings will take care of everything, but for God or the devil, no impatience, and let’s be calm’.  About the Cassatt visit he said to Julie: ‘If these people want to stay in Eragny or elsewhere, that’s their business, let’s be friendly neighbours, as is your habit, and everyone will be fine. Don’t torment yourself about this either’. Take note that Camille wrote this letter from London, while Julie was handling the purchase of the Eragny property all by herself; it is not difficult to see why she felt pushed to her limits.

Sometimes a lack of money frustrated Julie’s ability to entertain visitors in the manner she wished: In January 1888, for example, Camille wrote to Lucien to say that they had no money in the house whatsoever, not even enough for the train fare he needed to take him to Paris. What was worse, Julie’s friend Marie Murer was visiting Eragny, and the family’s financial straits limited what Julie could offer her guest. Camille wrote: ‘You can see from here your mother’s embarrassment; it’s fatal’. Camille asked Lucien (who was in Paris) to try to procure a few francs to send to Julie.

Portrait of Marie Murer by August Renoir, 1877. In the Chester Dale Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

There were times when Julie not only longed for adult contact, but also a break from all her household obligations. In November 1891 Camille told Lucien that Julie had announced the need for two weeks away, he added ‘she really needs it; I well understand that it’s not fun to be here, without getting out, without seeing another living soul except for father Kimi and mother Fieu, that’s not much…and not diverting!’ On these occasions she would usually spend time with her sister Eugenie Estruc at her home in Paris, or perhaps with friends such as Eugene Murer and his sister Marie. The relationship between the Murers and the Pissarros was complicated, and could be the subject of a separate article.

The Pissarro family finances improved considerably from the middle of 1896 after Camille enjoyed a series of more successful exhibitions and sales. Before this, Julie rarely had what could be called a vacation. Apart from the odd weekend visit to Rouen, the only vacation of note was her trip to Belgium with Camille and Felix in June 1894.  She spent eight days with her husband and son, where they were escorted around Belgium by Theo van Rysselberghe and his wife, who were generous hosts. But poor Julie, the moment she returned to Eragny she was bitten by a cat who she feared might be rabid. Then, she found that her sister Eugenie had not stayed in Eragny to take care of the children, as planned. Eugenie had sent her daughter Nini to replace her, but Nini had already returned home and left the children with a housemaid, who, Julie suspected, had been drinking.  Julie must have felt that the price of her vacation was very steep. Again she was alone with all the household responsibilities because Camille did not return to France until October due to his concerns about being denounced as an anarchist.

In the 4th and final part of this series on Julie Pissarro, I will talk about her final years with Camille, when the family were able to fully enjoy their greater financial stability. I will also discuss Julie’s life in the aftermath of Camille’s death.

Part 1 and Part 2

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

7 thoughts on “Julie Pissarro: an Homage

  1. Hello,
    I am really enjoying reading about Julie Pissarro. She most have been a remakable person. Thank-you so much for these delightful and insightful musings. Most touching is the discription of Feliz Pissarro’s death and the subsequent struggle Julie Pissarro faced after his passing. Filix Pissarro has a special place in my thinking, given his striking resemblence to to my Son R. at same age of 7. Cheers, cathia

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Cathia, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts, much appreciated. I think Julie was a remarkable person, and it’s been a pleasure to try to look at her life more closely. I love that your son resembled Felix.


  2. I really appreciate this articles about the Pissarro’s, I enjoy them so much. Thank you for share your research with us!


  3. I really appreciate this articles about the Pissarro’s, I enjoy them so much. Thank you for share your research with us!


    1. Thank you so much, Anna! I’m so happy to hear that you are enjoying this series. They were such an interesting family, living in important times, and I so enjoy trying to bring their story to light.


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