Le Penitencier [The Reformatory], 1922

Part 2 of the Les Thibault series

Plot Summary

Here I present an overview of the main developments (with spoilers), but there are many small and beautiful details that cannot be captured in a plot summary. I do not, for example, mention the lovely little passages about the character Gise, the young half-Malagasy girl who lives with the Thibault family. Gise will become important in future parts of the series.

In this second novel in the 7-part Les Thibault series, the reader is again put in medias res (in the middle of the action). Antoine Thibault arrives unannounced at the Fontanin family home, where Daniel de Fontanin lives with his mother Thérèse and sister Jenny. It is one year to the day since Antoine collected his younger brother Jacques and Jacques’s classmate Daniel from the police station after the boys had run away from home only to be apprehended in Marseille and returned to Paris. The boys are now 15 years old and Antoine, a junior physician, is in his mid-twenties.  

Between the closing events of the first novel and the beginning of the second novel, Jacques was sent away to the provincial reformatory for wayward boys founded by his authoritarian father. He’s been there for 9 months and during this time, Antoine has neither seen Jacques nor had any contact. All information about him has been delivered by his father, who visits the reformatory once a month. His father says that visits are not permitted: “Dans le régime de ton frère, l’important, c’est la regularité de l’isolement” [“In your brother’s regime, the important thing is the regularity of the isolation”].

Antoine suddenly finds himself tortured by the idea of Jacques’s isolation and inability to communicate with the outside world: “cette idee m’est intolerable” [“that idea is intolerable to me”]. Antoine and Daniel had seen one another in passing the previous day and Antoine was struck by the fact that Daniel hadn’t asked for any news about Jacques. He surmised that Jacques must have written to Daniel which prompted his visit to the Fontanin home. Antoine explains the situation to Daniel and says “vous êtes le seul qui puissiez me rassurer- ou me faire intervenir” [“you are the only one who can reassure me—or make me intervene”].

In the Fontanin home, Antoine remembers the sensation that he felt when he was last there—a special warmth that encircled the mother and two children: “l’atmosphère où baignaient les Fontanin” [“the atmosphere in which the Fontanins bathe”]. Daniel is prompted by his mother to admit that he had received a few letters, each shorter and less detailed, and without a return address. Daniel believes that Jacques is living with a professor somewhere in the countryside, and has no idea of the truth.  Daniel shows Antoine the first and longest letter in which Jacques wrote that his father and brother visit every Sunday, a lie, and begged Daniel not to try to find him or write to him.

This letter, full of disinformation, upsets Antoine greatly and he decides that me must rescue Jacques as soon as possible, but how? He will visit Jacques unannounced and without his father knowing. He undertakes the 2-hour train journey to Crouy, a small town on the river Oise, north of the town of Soissons. It’s a beautiful spring day and the countryside is beautiful, a stark contrast to the high walls of the reform school with the words FONDATION OSCAR THIBAULT emblazoned in gold letters. All the windows have bars and Antoine is struck by its prison-like appearance. The staff are disconcerted by his visit and the Director finally arrives to greet him after a delay. Monsieur Faîsme is a fairly young man, very talkative and seemingly pleasant, but there is noticeable procrastination in letting Antoine see Jacques.  When he finally sees him, Antoine is surprised: “Etait-ce lui? Il avait tellement change, tellement grandi, qu’Antoine le regardait presque sans le reconnaitre” [“Is that him? He has changed so much, grown so much, that Antoine looked at him almost without recognizing him”].

The visit is unsatisfactory—on the surface everything seems well-run and agreeable, but Jacques is uncommunicative and Antoine feels that something is not right. He departs to catch his train back to Paris, but as he approaches the station, Antoine spontaneously decides to miss the train, return to the reformatory and spend the rest of the day with Jacques. M. Faîsme is flustered by his reappearance but receives permission to take Jacques out of the reformatory until 6pm. Antoine takes him for a long walk and lunch and finally, after a long silence, Jacques cries his heart out and reveals the truth of his unhappy existence: he receives almost no education and spends so much time alone that it’s having an effect on his physical and mental health. Antoine promises Jacques that he will get him out of the reformatory. Jacques hesitates, because of their father, so Antoine promises that he will look after Jacques himself.

Antoine must battle to get Jacques released. He speaks to his father and tells him about the visit to the reformatory, but M. Thibault is angered and obstinate. Antoine turns to Father Vécard, who had originally acquiesced to Jacques being sent away, but Antoine knows the priest’s help is his only recourse. Rather than spelling out an elaborate argument to the priest, he simply describes the day he spent with Jacques and says: “le sort de Jacques est maintenant entre vos mains, Monsieur l’abbé. Vous seul pouvez faire entendre raison a mon père” [“Jacques’s fate is now in your hands, Father. Only you can make my father hear reason”]. The priest is moved by Jacques’s plight and does know how to get M. Thibault to change his mind: not through fatherly love but instead through Thibault’s snobbery and ambition. Having a son in a reformatory might appear suspect to members of the French Institute, to which Thibault wants to be elected, and elections are fast approaching. The priest promises to help Antoine oversee Jacques, the boys will move to a different apartment within the same building and family meals will be taken together.

In the Fontanin home, there have also been developments. Thérèse receives a surprise visit from the daughter of her cousin Noèmie. Nicole is an attractive teenager who has endured the embarrassment of her mother’s scandalous love life. Noèmie is having an affair with Thérèse’s husband Jérôme, but has followed another lover to Belgium and Switzerland, dragging Nicole with her. Jérôme also followed and lived in a menage à trois with Noèmie and her lover. This is difficult information for Thérèse, hearing the depths to which Jérôme has sunk and knowing that this could affect her children. She invites Nicole to live with her on condition that the children don’t learn the truth, to which Nicole is all too happy to agree. Daniel, who looks older than is 15 years, is now fixated on his attraction to Nicole and tries aggressively to seduce her. She gently rebuffs him.

Pastor James Gregory, the British Christian Scientist, again intervenes in the Fontanin family. He has received a message from Jérôme which expresses the hope of being forgiven by Thérèse and allowed home. Gregory tries to persuade Thérèse to grant this. He uses religious arguments about forgiveness and justice. Thérèse, though moved by these points, explains to Gregory what Jérôme has done and how he has used large amounts of family money to pay off Noèmie’s debts. Pastor Gregory does not care about Jérôme’s past behaviour or his potential impact on the children. When Thérèse ultimately tells him ‘no’: “il se taisent, son regard, son visage exprimaient cette universelle pitié où se complaisant ceux qui croient être en possession de la Verité” [“he didn’t reply, his face expressed that universal pity by which pleasure is given to those who believe themselves in possession of The Truth”]. We are disappointed at the novel’s end when Thérèse changes her mind and writes an apology to Gregory and announces that she will stop divorce proceedings against Jérôme. Gregory has used his power over her in a way that will likely bring harm.

The next major development in the novel is the long-awaited reunion of Jacques and Daniel. Antoine brings Jacques to the Fontanin home (against the orders of his father) and they all spend the afternoon together. Although Antoine and Jacques still find comfort from contact with Mme de Fontanin, the afternoon is awkward: Daniel is obsessed with Nicole and Jacques is still recovering from his year of institutionalization; Jenny is turning into a young woman and doesn’t know what to make of Jacques, who is painfully gawky; and Nicole struggles with Daniel’s unwanted attention. Jacques is hurt by Daniel’s coolness: “De minute en minute son ami lui devenait étranger” [“Minute by minute his friend was becoming a stranger”]. As the Thibault brothers are about to leave, Daniel pulls Jacques aside and apologizes. Where will the friendship go from this low point?

Back in the boys’ apartment, Antoine struggles to balance his responsibilities as a junior doctor with his responsibilities towards Jacques. Jacques cannot go to school because he is too far behind in his education. Tutors come to the apartment to give him instruction, but otherwise he spends many hours alone, just like in the reformatory. He develops a relationship with the young attractive housekeeper, Lisbeth, a substitute for her aunt, the usual housekeeper, who is recovering from a fall. The novel finishes as Jacques and Lisbeth consummate their relationship just ahead of Lisbeth’s return home to Alsace.  So now, like Daniel in The Grey Notebook, Jacques is also secretly sexually experienced.

Some thoughts on Le Pénitencier [The Reformatory]

The novel is only 175 pages long, but is filled with huge dramatic pull as we gradually discover what has become of Jacques. The scenes of Antoine’s surprise visit to his father’s reform school are powerful and well-paced to ensure maximum anticipation from the reader. Is everything at the school not quite as it seems? Why is Jacques so subdued? Will Antoine be able to rescue him? Will Jacques and Daniel resume their intense friendship? In 2003, the television channel France 2 broadcast a mini-series based on Les Thibault, adapted by (among others) the celebrated screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, and one can see how the novel’s dramatic qualities are well-suited for a screen adaptation [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0327369/].

M. Thibault and Jacques at the reformatory. Still from the 2003 series, Les Thibault

Between the first and second novel Jacques and Daniel have gone from age 14 to 15, a time that is full of physical change for boys, and both have grown and matured substantially. Jacques had been smaller than Daniel, but when reunited, they are now the same height. Over the year of separation, their lives had moved in starkly different directions, but both are now secretly fixated on the young women who are under their roofs. During the passionate friendship depicted in the first novel, their feelings were poured out into the grey notebook, not in person. Are those feelings now subsumed within the romances they are pursuing at home? We are left unsure of what will become of their friendship.

It is noted that Daniel is now a student at the famous Louis-le-Grand school. Simply mentioning the name Lycée Louis-le-Grand would have significant connotations to French readers—it is where Voltaire, Molière, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Degas and Gustave Caillebotte (the subject of another of my articles) received their education, not to mention the many famous politicians, military officers and industrialists. It would be the British equivalent of Eton College. This is another way in which Daniel and Jacques have diverged, and it remains to be seen how they can find common ground. One feels bereft for Jacques, who was powerless to control the events in his life and is struggling to overcome the effects of institutionalization.

The Lycée Louis-le-Grand

Another interesting detail that comes up regularly involves the town of Maisons-Lafitte, an affluent suburb west of Paris. In the novel, it is the tranquil location of country homes for Parisians wishing to escape the city on weekends or during the summer. It was formerly known as Maisons-sur-Seine [“Houses on the Seine”], but was renamed Maisons-Lafitte in 1882 after the banker Jacques Lafitte who established a housing development on the 17th century estate of Chateau de Maisons. In Les Thibault, both the Thibault and Fontanin families have properties in Maisons-Lafitte, and it was here, not in school, that Jacques and Daniel first became friends. It’s interesting to see that although the Fontanin family is no longer affluent, they must have possessed wealth and still have certain trappings and expectations.

Finally, I’ll return to a question I raised in my first piece on The Grey Notebook; I noted that Pastor James Gregory is a member of the Christian Science Church and wondered how common that would have been in 1904 (when the events of the novel begin). A little research has shown me that it would not have been very common, but the church was certainly making inroads in Europe. The Boston-based church was founded in 1879 by the Mary Baker Eddy. In 1896, 100 copies of Baker Eddy’s founding text Science and Health were ordered from Brentano’s Bookstore in Paris, giving an indication of the level of interest. Most early practitioners were a mix of Americans and English-speaking French people because the book had not yet been translated into French. Services were held in the Hotel Continental and it wasn’t until 1906 that 26 members created the First Church of Christ Scientist in Paris. We’ve seen how Gregory used a fervent Christian Science style of prayer when Jenny was seriously ill and how it appeared to have brought about her recovery. Gregory is developing a Svengali-like hold over Thérèse and it remains to be seen how he will use his power.

Next: Part 3, La Belle Saison [which has been translated as The Springtime of Life or High Summer] 1923

Walking in Their Footsteps: The Pissarro and Isaacson Families in Norwood and Crystal Palace

The view from Gipsy Hill

On 4 November 2021, Patrick Bernard (https://modernnature.productions/) and I took a trip to Norwood and Crystal Palace to walk in the footsteps of Camille Pissarro and his extended family. Patrick and I have done this before, when we walked in the footsteps of the eponymous hero of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, in which Jewish London features heavily. Following these urban footprints with all their ghosts and echoes brings about an experience which has been termed psychogeography—the intersection of psychology and geography—where the exploration of urban environments is done with an emphasis on interpersonal connections to places. Much can be learned by walking these streets in person, discovering perspectives that can’t be seen on maps or photographs. Like so many parts of modern London, the Victorian footprint is still clearly evident in Norwood and Crystal Palace despite the many changes and it is possible to get a strong feel for the neighbourhoods, routes, patterns and distances of the 1870s.

It is well known that Pissarro, his wife Julie, and their children Lucien and Minette, aged 8 and 6, fled the Paris suburb of Louveciennes during the Franco-Prussian War and spent 7 months living in London. They arrived in December 1870 and left in June or July 1871. Prior to their arrival, other family members had already escaped France for London: Camille’s older brother Alfred Pissarro, with his wife Marie and their toddler son Frédéric had arrived in October and his mother Rachel Pizzarro, in her 70s, followed in November. Camille and Julie couldn’t leave France until December because their infant daughter Adèle Emma had died on 5 November, an already distressing period for the family.

The Isaacson and Pissarro family residences in 1870/71

What seems to be less known is why the Pissarro family settled in Norwood. It is because Camille Pissarro’s brother-in-law Phineas Isaacson was already living in Norwood with his 5 children. The bi-lingual Isaacsons were able to help the Pissarro family with translation, with finding accommodation and generally help them find their feet after a fraught escape from the violence erupting in Paris. All the family settled within walking distance of one another, making visits easy; this must have been comforting during the upheaval of this year of exile. And in an age before telephones, it was reassuring to be in easy reach of their elderly mother Rachel.

Phineas Isaacson was the husband of Camille Pissarro’s half-sister Emma. Camille and Emma were very close—they were raised together in the town of Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands). Phineas Isaacson was originally from London. When he became a merchant [an ‘India Trader’] he did business in Charlotte Amalie where he met and married Emma and began working with the Pissarro family. Phineas and Emma had 3 children, and then in 1855, they and the extended Pissarro family relocated to Paris, where Emma and Phineas had 2 more children.

In 1865, the Isaacsons moved from Paris to London, settling first in the Strand area. Rachel Pizzarro was very close to her Isaacson grandchildren and felt the loss deeply, so after the move to London Emma would occasionally travel to Paris with the children to spend time with Rachel. Tragically, Emma died of a stroke on 19 January 1868 when she was only 47.  Camille, too, had been part of the lives of his Isaacson nieces and nephews, even after the Isaacsons moved to London in 1865. When he came to London for Emma’s funeral, he wrote a letter to Julie in which he said there was some discussion of bringing the Isaacson children back with him to Paris to live with Rachel—this did not happen. Phineas managed on his own or perhaps with the help of his London family.

Sometime between Emma’s death in 1868 and the arrival of the Pissarros in 1870, the Isaacson family moved from the Strand in central London to Norwood in southeast London. The ages of the 5 Isaacson children in 1870/71 were: Rodolphe (the eldest, age unknown), Amélie (20), Alice (16), Esther (13) and Alfred (10).  The children were fully bi-lingual, though the older children were more comfortable with French and the younger two were more comfortable with English. The younger boy, Alfred, attended prestigious Dulwich College, which perhaps explains why his Uncle Camille painted a picture of the school during his time in Norwood.

Dulwich College, 2021

The Isaacson family were Jewish, and as I discuss in my article on Esther Isaacson (who would later marry her cousin Georges Pissarro), it was somewhat surprising that a Jewish family would choose Norwood as a home since it didn’t have an established Jewish community or a synagogue. But the Jewish Orphanage in Norwood, established in 1866, did have a little synagogue for the children and perhaps it opened its doors to local Jewish residents. And in discussions I’ve had with Jewish friends, I’ve learned that a synagogue is not a required element for Jewish religious practice. Only men were expected to attend services regularly and these could be performed in someone’s home if there were 10 men present—what is called a Minyan. So, a community of Jews would be necessary. The Isaacsons were close friends with another Jewish family who had settled in that region, the Bensusans. Mr Bensusan was also a city merchant and I wonder if perhaps Phineas Isaacson had become acquainted with the Bensusans through business and decided to move his family near them for support after Emma’s death. In the years to follow, the Bensusan and Isaacson children became an important part of one another’s lives, and indeed Esther Isaacson introduced one of the Bensusan children—also named Esther—to her cousin Lucien Pissarro, and the pair would marry. Rachel Pizzarro was a practicing Jew, as was, I believe, her son Alfred. Camille Pissarro, although raised in the Jewish faith, had become an atheist when he reached adulthood.

When we began our walk around Norwood, something Patrick and I noticed right away is that there is a reason that so many roads in the area feature the word “hill”: Knight’s Hill, Auckland Hill, Westow Hill, Gipsy Hill, Sydenham Hill, etc.; having walked throughout the region, it’s impossible to avoid hills, and some of them are quite steep. Since Camille Pissarro was carrying his easel, canvasses and paints to work in that area, all the hills would have added difficulty to his journey.

At the heart of the Norwood and Sydenham region was the Crystal Palace, which had been built in Hyde Park for the very first International Exhibition. After the Exhibition closed, it was dismantled and re-erected in Sydenham, re-opening in 1853. The impact of the relocation of Crystal Palace to Sydenham was enormous. Norwood and Sydenham turned from a sleepy rural region into a commuter belt because of the introduction of the rail-line between Victoria and the new Crystal Palace Station created to serve the masses of visitors. There were also stops at West Norwood and Gipsy Hill.

Historic photos of Norwood show how Crystal Palace absolutely dominated the landscape from many angles—some of the images look as though they come from the future or from a science fiction film—such is the contrast between the monumental glass and steel structure and the Victorian homes and shops. It was similar in effect to the Eiffel Tower, which is set within a low-rise Parisian neighbourhood and can be seen for miles around. But the Eiffel Tower was not erected until 1889. Sadly, Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936, a real tragedy since it was an astounding piece of architecture which people would still enjoy. Today, the footings of the buildings remain, which gives some idea of the enormous scale of the structures. Also remaining are some of the massive sculptures and the surprising dinosaur exhibit, which feels as fresh today as it did 150 years ago.     

During our day’s travels, Patrick and I went to the site of 5 different residences, as well as Crystal Palace Park and what remains of the Jewish Orphanage. Sadly, none of the residences are still standing. All have been lost due to a mixture of damage from the Second World War and the sweeping redevelopments which took place after the war, though 2 of the properties were demolished and replaced before 1900. But in most cases, there are existing Victorian properties nearby that give an idea of what had been there.

Camille and Julie’s first residence was at Canham’s Dairy in a property next door to the Westow House pub (formerly The White Swan). Canham’s Dairy was at the intersection of 4 roads: Westow Hill Road, Anerley Road, Church Road, and Crystal Palace Parade. Today, an estate agent occupies the site of the Canham’s Dairy and it bears a blue plaque honouring the association with Pissarro. This address is in the bustling centre of Norwood and there are many shops in Westow Hill Road still inhabiting Victorian buildings. The Pissarros would have found it easy to find necessary provisions, though perhaps not the French foods which they were accustomed to, and Julie did not know English at all, so might have struggled to communicate with shopkeepers. Among the family, Camille and Julie lived closest to Crystal Palace which was just across the Crystal Palace Parade, where there is an entrance to the park. They would most certainly have seen the palace daily and I can image it making quite an impression on their children.

Their second residence was only a stone’s throw away in Palace Road, just off Anerley Road. Palace Road was opposite another of the park’s entrances, and directly opposite the Crystal Palace train station. The biggest difference for Camille and Julie would have been climbing the steep hill from Palace Road up to the shops in Westow Hill Road. At least they would have been going downhill after they’d done their shopping. From his little corner of Norwood, Camille was about 3 km from both his brother and his mother, about a half hour’s walk. Or he could take the train from Crystal Palace station to West Norwood Station and be a minute from his brother and 10 minutes’ walk to his mother’s.

The approach to the park and to Crystal Palace Station from Anerley Road.

Alfred Pissarro, his wife Marie and their son Frédéric lived at 13 Knight’s Hill. What’s at that site now is the Free Public Library, a handsome Victorian building constructed in the 1880s. Judging by the nearby buildings, 13 Knight’s Hill was probably within a terraced row, and would have had a shop on the ground floor level and dwellings above. This is right in the centre of West Norwood and would have been very convenient for the West Norwood train station and for the Jewish Orphanage, if Alfred wished to attend synagogue. It was also very convenient for visiting his mother Rachel, who was only about 10 minutes away.

Rachel lived at what was called 85 Park House, which was 100 Rosendale Road. Again, that property no longer exists, having been replaced by a block of flats. What one notices when visiting Rosendale Road is how wide the tree-lined avenue is, and the larger scale of some of the remaining Victorian homes. This was an elegant neighbourhood. Across the street from what would have been Rachel’s house is a row of Victorian-era shops, which would have made it convenient for Rachel to obtain some basic necessities, though she would have needed to visit West Norwood for a greater range of shops.  

Rachel Pizzarro’s residence was on the site now occupied by the block of flats on the right. But the Victorian property on the left might give an idea of her home.
The shops opposite the Rachel Pizzarro residence, which probably existed during her stay. One can see how wide and leafy Rosendale Road remains.

By coincidence 1871 was a Census year in Britain, and Alfred Pissarro and Rachel Pizzarro were included in it. Camille and family were not—perhaps they’d already returned to France when the Census was taken. One of the puzzles arising from the Census is that 4 of the Isaacson children are listed as living with Rachel at 85 Park House. All of them except the eldest, Rodolphe. Where were Phineas and Rodolphe Isaacson living? In the electoral registers from 1874-1877, Phineas Isaacson’s address was 12 Auckland Hill Road, Norwood. I have not yet been able to see the electoral registers from 1870 to 1873. My theory is that the Isaacsons were already living at 12 Auckland Hill Road and that the younger children went to live with Rachel during her year in exile to keep her company, and to free Phineas to focus on his work. Rodolphe, who would have been in his early 20s, was too old to go live with his grandmother and had probably started working. I will be visiting the London Metropolitan Archives in order to see earlier London electoral registers. Phineas and Camille might not appear in the 1871 Census because digitization is imperfect and things like incorrect spellings can interfere with searches.

The intersection of Auckland Hill Road and St Louis Road, near the site of #12.
Historic photo of Auckland Hill Road with Knight’s Hill and the Jewish Orphanage in the background

Patrick and I visited 12 Auckland Hill Road, but the Victorian dwelling has been replaced by a modern house. The neighbourhood is full of substantial Victorian homes which give a clue to the kind of family home which the Isaacsons might have occupied. Auckland Hill Road was just being developed in the 1870s and still had rural vestiges. It ran parallel to the railway and had Gipsy Road at one end, and Knight’s Hill at the other end. The Isaacson’s home was near the junction with Gipsy Road and to get to the town centre they would have had to walk the length of Auckland Hill Road—mainly uphill all the way, where they would have been near Alfred Pissarro’s residence. There at the top of the hill, there was also the West Norwood train station, convenient for getting to central London, and the entrance to the Jewish Orphanage.

Junction with Auckland Hill Road and Knight’s Hill, which gives an idea of how close the Isaacsons were to the Alfred Pissarro family.

The Jewish Orphanage, which has also been demolished, was a magnificent Victorian building occupying a large plot. From the street, one entered through impressive large gates. I’ve found pictures of the building and of the small synagogue, but all that remains now is the porter’s lodge. It has an illustrious history and it’s so sad that the building wasn’t preserved. On the site now is a leisure centre and children’s playground.

We did not visit the residence of the Bensusan family, 11 Mowbray Road, we simply ran out of time. I know that it is in the vicinity of the Palace Road home where Camille and Julie spent part of their year in London, in easy walking distance to Crystal Palace. Esther Bensusan was born in 1870, and would eventually attend the Crystal Palace School of Art.

What is clear from our day spent walking in the footsteps of the Isaacsons and Pissarros is that they all lived within walking distance from one another, enabling easy visits. The Isaacson and Pissarro children would have enjoyed spending time together during this year. One can imagine them walking in Crystal Palace Park, taking in all the marvels. Camille Pissarro’s letters from this time are few and far between, sadly, it would be interesting to read his observations on life in Norwood and what he thought of Crystal Palace. When he and his sons returned to London, they didn’t stay in Norwood; they followed the Isaacsons first to Islington and then to Bayswater. The Isaacsons always served as a base for their visits and their painting.

The pictures that Camille painted during his stay in Norwood are well known, and they are important, in part because they mark a particular moment when Norwood was in its transition from rural village to London commuter town. Some of his paintings capture things that no longer exist, such as Crystal Palace in its heyday; Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich; and the wide-open field seen in Near Sydenham Hill (Looking Toward Lower Norwood). Some paintings look remarkably similar to the present day, such as Dulwich College. Others are somewhere in between—they are recognisable, but modern changes—especially the car—force us to use our imagination to capture the gentility of the late 19th century: Fox Hill; The Avenue, Sydenham; All Saints’ Church, Upper Norwood; St Stephen’s Church. I’m intrigued by his painting Upper Norwood Under Snow, and would like to return to Norwood to see if I can locate his vantage point especially since, in one letter, he mentions having done a painting that captured the Jewish Orphanage. Could it be one of the large buildings on the horizon? This will certainly be an article that I amend as I find further information.

The view from a rail bridge between Dulwich College and Norwood. Bears similarities to the view in Pissarro’s painting of Lordship Lane Station.
Camille Pissarro, Upper Norwood Under Snow, 1871

Island Life: Thoughts on Closed Communities


This is a 4-part essay in which I discuss life on an island. This won’t be a comprehensive examination of this subject since I’ll be restricted to what I know: stories I have learned from friends, from tracing my family roots and from my own year living on an island. There are islands that are much more remote or extreme than I will ever experience, islands that are still uninhabited by humans because even now they are simply too inaccessible and offer no safe harbour. There are far-flung islands that try to protect ancient and fragile cultures. Islands can be an object of fantasy and the idea of being shipwrecked on a desert island is the subject of countless well-known books and films. In part 1 of this essay, I’ll be discussing Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the reasons that he loved his fantasy islands and how this can help us to think about island life.

I began thinking about this subject during the Covid lockdowns, which I used to do some genealogical research using the Ancestry website. I already knew the broad brushstrokes of my ancestors’ origins, but there were a couple of branches that hadn’t been fully explored. All of my ancestors came from north-western Europe, and all but one came from the British Isles. At various points between the 17th and 20th centuries, they left their homes, crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a ship and ended up in Maine, the most northerly state on the eastern seaboard of America. 

I knew that islands played a part in my ancestry; on the macro level there were the islands of Great Britain and Ireland; ‘this sceptred island’ and ‘the Emerald Isle’. Great Britain is the 9th largest island in the world, and Ireland is the 20th. On a much smaller scale, my paternal great grandfather, John Lacey, came from the tiny island of Inishbofin off the west coast of Ireland. Legend has it that he left home one day without telling anyone, using a rowboat to get to the mainland. He made his way to Derry, boarded the SS Parisian on 18 September 1909 and disembarked in Boston 10 days later. After his arrival in Maine, he met and married another Irish immigrant, Honora Louise Kineavy, who 9 years earlier, had left the village of Carna, only 60 kilometres from Inishbofin. They married in the busy shipping city of Portland in 1913 and had 5 children, among whom was my grandfather.

John Lacey and Honora Kineavy, on their wedding day, 12 August 1913

My new ancestry research brought to light an island from my mother’s family. I knew that my maternal great grandmother, Alice McMillan, though born in Maine, had Scottish parents. Her father was named Murdo McMillan (1850-1922), and I learned that he was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. His father before him was also named Murdo McMillan, and he had moved to Stornoway from the village of Uig on Lewis. Uig is the Norse word for bay. In Stornoway, he met and married Isabella Morrison and began a family. The young Murdo was only 5 years old when the family left their island home and emigrated to the United States, settling in Portland. In 1884 he married Jessie McLeod, who was also from Scotland, and my great grandmother was born in 1896, the 5th of 6 children. Murdo is listed in the 1888 Portland Directory as a fish curer, thus the McMillans had brought a distinctly Scottish skill with them to Maine.

Jessie and Murdo McMillan with their 3 eldest children—John, Katie and Harold. @1892

The link to the Outer Hebrides surprised me. I’d often heard that Scotland was part of my heritage, but I’d always assumed it would be Edinburgh or Glasgow, and that my ancestors had left crowded and grimy Victorian cities for a fresh start in the open horizons of America. In actual fact, they’d left a remote location of great natural beauty. The Outer Hebrides are off the coast of the northernmost part of Scotland and Stornoway is further north than all of Denmark. This newly-discovered island connection drove home to me the significance of islands to both sides of my family. My ancestors made the choice to leave their islands, their families and their way of life, but years later, in Maine, another island would come to have huge meaning to both sides of my family, a subject I will address later in this article.

Part 1

With both sides of my family having deep roots on islands I began to wonder if and how that shaped us, as individuals and as a family.  Because of my background as an Enlightenment scholar, I got to thinking about the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had such a persistent interest in islands. I wanted to remind myself why he had this fascination so that perhaps his theories could help me as I began to examine my family’s story. Rousseau was interested in islands and other circumscribed areas because of his lifelong focus on how political systems emerge and how they bind people together (for better or worse). This is what he called ‘the social contract’, whereby members of a society agree to live by a certain code for the greater good of their community. They agree to forgo certain liberties (in other words, to abide by the laws) and to take on certain duties (like paying taxes). In return, their government will assure their safety and security.  No single formula suits every group of people. Rousseau thought that the size of the territory should determine what kind of government it would need. In a larger territory, the bonds between the people are more abstract, and a powerful leader or figurehead is required to bind the people together. In a smaller territory, there were strong bonds of affection between the people so less authority was required to ensure their commitment to the social contract. When you know the people with whom you are creating a community, the obligations seem less onerous because you can see and feel what you are building together.

Rousseau admired the walled republic of Geneva and the closed city-state of Sparta, but islands were even better because water provided a more definite and natural barrier against outsiders. The island’s flora and fauna also benefitted from the isolation. Rousseau even believed that the development of language in humans first originated on islands because the inhabitants, being closely grouped together, would have needed a common language sooner than the early humans still wandering the continents.

Rousseau was extremely famous in his own lifetime and his best-selling novels Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) and Emile (1762) were considered scandalous by the European establishment. In Emile, Rousseau described in detail the ideal education for raising a man to be as natural as possible, to escape the influence of society’s corrupting ways. (Imagine what he would have thought of social media.) One instruction was that the boy, Emile, was not to be given a novel until he reached age 14, and it was to be one particular book: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). This was one of Rousseau’s favourite novels, and one that he referred to often in his writings. Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on a desert island without any of the luxury items to which he was accustomed. He had to learn to subsist by making things himself from whatever was to hand and had to create a new form of well-being that was as much mental and spiritual as it was physical. Rousseau wanted Emile to imagine himself as Robinson Crusoe and reflect on which skills he would need to survive on an island. With regard to Emile’s choice of future profession, he was instructed to choose something that would have benefitted Crusoe on his desert island, something ‘useful’.

Frontispiece to the 1720 French edition of Robinson Crusoe, the version Rousseau would have read.

We can already see things that Rousseau liked about (fictional) islands: they were cut off from the rest of civilization with no access to modern conveniences, leading naturally to the development of independence, self-sufficiency and a distinct culture. His disdain for luxury and his love of utility is clear. He hated luxury because he believed it weakened people by making them physically feeble, but also by making them slaves to luxury. He loved utility because it was closer to the natural origins of humans, living simply and in tune with the earth. And it is liberating to know how to do things oneself, without the need for others. But as Rousseau rightly pointed out, Robinson Crusoe was all alone on his island (until the arrival of the freed prisoner, Friday), thus Emile could only imitate him to a certain point and would eventually need to learn how to live in society.

Toward the latter part of his life, Rousseau had the chance to live on a real island. Ironically, it was due in part to his novel Emile. The chapter on religion had caused such a scandal that he had to flee France to escape an arrest warrant. He went to the Swiss town of Môtiers where he sheltered for a couple of years, but eventually, when the citizens of Môtiers were told about the contents of Emile, and the local vicar had whipped them into a frenzy, they began to persecute Rousseau by throwing stones at his house, sometimes breaking his windows, and generally frightening he and his wife. The unrest over Rousseau’s presence in Môtiers grew and he was forced by authorities to leave. He took shelter on St. Peter’s Island in Lake Bienne. He was alone on the small island except for his wife, Therese, and the island’s keeper and his family. He spent his days walking, studying botany, contemplating.

This period of his life is the subject of the 5th chapter of his final book, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire [Reveries of a Solitary Walker]. Living on an island suited him perfectly, cut off from the world, alone with his thoughts. He described how it was impossible to leave the island without help, or without being seen. Given that there were people who wanted him imprisoned, he asked if he could remain confined there for the rest of his life, where he could forget the existence of the outside world and everyone could forget about him. But sadly, this wish was not granted and he was forced again to flee by the Bernois authorities.

Illustration of Rousseau and his wife and companions on a boat trip. They brought a pair of breeding rabbits to an uninhabited island nearby, where a rabbit colony could not harm crops.

Like Robinson Crusoe’s island, St. Peter’s Island was barely populated, so the aspect Rousseau enjoyed most was the peace and sanctuary it had offered. Where does Rousseau really discuss relations between people in a small, defined area? For that, we have to look at his other famous novel, the aforementioned Julie, or the New Heloise, where a small group of people build a society together. The community is called ‘Clarens’, and although it isn’t an actual island, it might as well be; it is on an estate nestled deep in a Swiss valley, surrounded by tall mountains and lakes, and there are multiple references to its similarity to an island.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a utopia as “a perfect society in which people work well with each other and are happy”.  At Clarens, Julie and her much-older husband Wolmar create what could be called a utopia with their goal of happiness for all the community. They put in place systems for every aspect of life, no detail is too small; the raising of the children, the organisation of the household and staff, the daily schedule. Everything possible is grown or made at Clarens, making them so self-sufficient that money is rarely used because whatever they don’t make themselves can be obtained by barter within the larger community.

An artist’s rendering of Clarens, nestled between high mountains and a lake.

Julie and Wolmar had set out to build something purposeful together, a true community with moral cohension, and they can do this because Clarens is enclosed. But it needed continual oversight. Julie mentions that Wolmar’s greatest pleasure was to observe people. Wolmar himself says “if I could change the nature of my being and become a living eye [un oeil vivant], I would voluntarily make that change”. He has a natural taste for order and likes to use the information he gathers from watching people to make judgements. While reading the novel, this comes across as oppressive and disturbing, almost dystopian when thinking of the image of the ‘living eye’.

Years later, when all the systems at Clarens are firmly established and Julie and Wolmar have two sons, they make the radical decision to invite Julie’s former lover, Saint-Preux, to be the tutor for their boys. Wolmar seems to welcome the challenge of inviting this dangerous element into their home. At first, Saint-Preux is able to fit into the little society at Clarens and bend to Wolmar’s will, and Julie is able to supress her feelings. But eventually it all becomes too much, and Julie knows that she can’t carry on. She confides to Saint-Preux that “le bonheur m’ennuie” (happiness bores me). It’s boring to live in a passionless utopia. She jumps into a cold mountain lake on the pretext of saving her son from drowning, and then dies of pneumonia a few days later. In her final words she admits she’d never stopped loving Saint-Preux. Everything had been a sham.

All of this is a very dramatic and unexpected conclusion to a lengthy novel. It came after hundreds of pages detailing the happy life established at Clarens, all of which seemed to have brought to life the kind of perfect existence that Rousseau idealised. Rousseau had created a fictional utopia and then destroyed it, and human passions were to blame. Human passions are the factor that philosophers struggle to fit into their various theories and systems and Rousseau recognised this.

Concluding this section on Rousseau and islands, what do I take away from the messages within the story of Clarens? Individual people matter and the smaller the community, the more they matter. For the better or the worse. Small communities are perhaps familiar with the idea of a particular resident who enjoys overseeing the community, being the all-seeing eye. But any system that needs continual oversight is doomed to failure, especially if there is no allowance for the human passions that make up real life. While Clarens was a model of self-sufficiency, it was intriguing to think of how an independent existence could be established on an island and how it could benefit its inhabitants. I believe that being cut off from civilization does create a more hardy, self-sufficient breed of person.

After Rousseau’s death in 1778, he was buried on an island—the île des Peupliers in Ermenonville, in France. It would have pleased him to know that he had finally found an island home. But once again circumstances conspired to remove him from his sanctuary: in 1793—during the height of the French Revolution—Rousseau’s remains were transferred to the Pantheon for political reasons. No longer a pariah, he was now a symbol of Revolutionary France. Rousseau’s fate seems to demonstrate that an island can never truly offer shelter from events taking place in the wider world, a question I’ll be revisiting throughout this essay.

In the next part of this essay, I will discuss my family’s attachment to an island in Maine.


Commentary on works of French literature

Book 1: Les Thibault (1922-1940) by Roger Martin du Gard

This is the first in a new series in which I write commentaries about notable works of French literature. I’ll have a particular focus on works from the late 19th and early 20th century because I’ve spent the past 5 years studying the letters of Camille Pissarro and have developed an understanding of the history, culture and even the vocabulary of that period. I’ll be reading the books in French and commenting in English, but many of the books that I’ll discuss are available in English translation. When I use French quotes from the books, I will give an English translation. Unfortunately, there do not seem to be any modern English translations of Les Thibault, but there are some old editions that can be found on sites such as Abebooks, some are translated by Madeleine Elise Reynier Boyd and others by Stuart Gilbert.

In my Pissarro writings, I presented an essay on the novel Jean Barois (1913) by the author Roger Martin du Gard. (see link) This was his second novel, but the first to earn him wider critical attention. I was drawn to the novel because of the detailed focus on the Dreyfus Affair which corresponded closely with the events described in Camille Pissarro’s letters. Even though I have a doctorate in French literature, I’d never heard of Roger Martin du Gard, and I was intrigued to learn that he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937 for his novel series, Les Thibault. How could such a celebrated series of novels be so little-known today? Martin du Gard was a friend of André Gide and Stefan Zweig, both of whom continue to be popular. In his book The World of Yesterday: Memoires of a European (1942), Zweig wrote so beautifully of how life in Europe was changed forever by the First World War, and I wanted to see how Martin du Gard dealt with this subject. He began writing his Les Thibault series just three years after the end of the war, and finished it under the cloud of Nazi Europe.

Les Thibault is what the French call a “roman fleuve”—a series of novels that feature a family or large group of characters and which unfolds over several generations. Some well-known examples are Balzac’s La Comédie humaine (1829-1848); Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893) ; and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927).

I’m reading the modern Gallimard edition of Les Thibault which divides the seven novels among three large volumes under the headings Les Thibault I, II and III. Each novel was originally published separately, about one per year or so, until 1929 when Roger Martin du Gard and his wife were in a serious car accident. He’d written a draft of the next volume, but while recuperating from his injuries he decided to destroy the manuscript, unhappy with the direction he’d taken. He wrote new material which was published in 1936, and he must have been enormously gratified by his decision because he received the Nobel Prize the following year. He published an epilogue in 1940. In this first commentary, I’m going to talk about the first novel in the series: Le Cahier gris [The Grey Notebook], published in 1922.

Plot summary, Le Cahier gris

The setting is Paris and the action begins in 1904. We are presented with the two central characters and their families. Jacques Thibault and Daniel de Fontanin are both 14-year-old school boys. The Thibault family is comprised of Jacques, his brother Antoine, who is 11 years older and their father Oscar, a moralizing politician and the benefactor of a charity for troubled children. He was widowed when his wife died after giving birth to Jacques. The family are wealthy Catholics and Monsieur Thibault hopes to be elected to the prestigious Institut de France. He is a very severe father to his sons, but especially to Jacques who has little self-restraint. Antoine is a dedicated medical student and knows better how to manage his father. The household is looked after meticulously by “Mademoiselle”, a middle-aged housekeeper who has raised Jacques from infancy. Also in the Thibault home is 10-year-old Gisèle, the orphaned daughter of Mademoiselle’s military officer brother and his Malagasy wife who both died of illness in Madagascar. Gisèle, known as ‘Gise’, is raised like a sister to Jacques.

The de Fontanin family are Protestant and not wealthy, though they aren’t working class. Money is tight because Daniel’s father Jérôme is a womanizer who squanders his money on high living. He comes and goes after long absences from the family home. Daniel, who functions as the man of the house, lives with his mother Thérèse and his sister Jenny, age 13. The bond between Therese and her children is strong, she is a warm, loving mother who lives for Daniel and Jenny. Jenny is a sweet girl with delicate health, but she is capable of strong moral conviction. A frequent visitor to the house is James Gregory, a British Christian Scientist minister who is disliked by Daniel. He’s a disturbing character who seems to exert a strong moral hold over Thérèse.

Le Cahier Gris opens dramatically with Monsieur Thibault having been called to Jacques’ school because the boy had not turned up to school that day. Antoine accompanies his father to the meeting, and no one can quite remember when they last saw Jacques. The head of the school, abbé Binot, explains why there are worries for Jacques’ safety. A few days earlier the school had confiscated a notebook from Jacques’s desk and found an exchange of messages between he and another pupil, Daniel. Binot suggests that the messages reveal a ‘suspect’ relationship between the two boys. When Jacques and Daniel find out that their secret notebook has been discovered, they run away from home, heading to Marseille.

These actions bring the Thibault and Fontanin families into contact. Monsieur Thibault and Madame de Fontanin want to find their sons, but Monsieur Thibault is more concerned with avoiding scandal, while Madame de Fontanin refuses to believe Daniel is guilty of anything inappropriate and simply wants him home safely. Thibault is a snob who looks down on Thérèse and treats her offhandedly. The strain of Daniel’s disappearance has caused Jenny to become seriously ill. When Antoine visits Thérèse to discuss the situation, he ends up caring for Jenny and doesn’t think she’ll survive. Pastor Gregory appears and challenges Therese to have greater faith. They pray together intensely for hours and Jenny recovers. Antoine is captivated by Madame de Fontanin’s sincerity and grace, but he, too, dislikes Pastor Gregory.

While in Marseille, the boys have important experiences. Because the sight of two boys without adults is suspicious, they pretend to be brothers who are awaiting the arrival of their father. They spend one night in a hotel, but sleep with their clothes on, back-to-back. They try to obtain passage on a ship to Africa, but the sailors don’t believe their story. They run away in fright and get separated and cannot find one another. Jacques sleeps outdoors all night, hidden among some boxes, while Daniel is taken in by a seemingly sympathetic young woman to whom he loses his virginity. When he’s reunited with Jacques, he does not tell him what happened. The boys are found by the police and brought back to Paris. Antoine collects them and delivers Daniel to his mother. Both Antoine and Jacques are struck by the affectionate reception that they all receive from Madame de Fontanin.

Jacques does not receive a similar reception from his father, who locks the boy in his room after he fails to demonstrate absolute contrition for his actions. The Cahier Gris ends with Jacques learning that he is to be sent away to live at his father’s institution for wayward boys. He writes a farewell letter to Daniel, telling him not to look for him, which he throws out the window to the pavement below, hoping that a passer-by will post it for him. Which they do. We are not given Daniel’s reaction to reading the letter.

Some thoughts on Le Cahier gris

First and foremost, the reader tries to understand the relationship between the two boys. From the opening pages we learn of the apparently inappropriate messages they’ve exchanged in the grey notebook, but it is difficult for the reader to trust the judgement of the priests, who are so reactionary. For example, before they find the notebook, they find two books which they perceive as scandalous: Rousseau’s Confessions and, says Father Binot, “ce qui est plus déshonnete encore, un ignoble roman de Zola: La Faute de l’abbe Mouret” [“what is even more dishonest, an ignoble novel by Zola: The Sin of Father Mouret”].  It is amusing that Rousseau’s Confessions is still a byword for scandal, more than 100 years after it was published. The fact that Jacques’s desk was searched and his notebook confiscated is a terrible invasion of privacy. We the readers don’t see the content of the grey notebook until more than 50 pages in, and it is, frankly, quite surprising. They are passionate messages in which they pour out their hearts and speak of their love for one another. Jacques finishes one message with the following words: “Et souvenons-nous éternellement que nous avons l’un dans l’autre l’objet passionné de NOTRE AMOUR !”[ “And let us forever remember that we have in one another the passionate object of OUR LOVE!”] Perhaps they are attracted to one another and have run away to be together and act on their feelings.

But the grey notebook material is followed immediately by the story of their adventures in Marseille, where their behaviour toward one another doesn’t correspond at all with what they’ve written. Physically, they are chaste and do not so much as touch one another. As I noted, they even sleep with their clothes on. Daniel begins to feel a certain annoyance with Jacques and wishes he’d not run away from home—he thinks of his mother and Jenny and longs to be with them. The novel is written in the present tense from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, and we read Daniel’s thoughts as he remembers how he and Jacques became unlikely friends. Daniel, the model student and Protesant, Jacques, bottom of the class and Catholic. Daniel describes being attracted to Jacques’s magnetic personality and his obvious longing for freedom. Daniel describes himself as “ardent” and with a similar leaning toward freedom and rebellion. When they became friends they were finally able to express their innermost feelings:

“Amour chaste, amour mystique, où leurs deux jeunesses fusionnaient dans le même élan vers l’avenir ; mise en commun de tous les sentiments excessifs et contradictoires qui ravageaient leurs amés de quatorze ans” [“Chaste love, mystic love, where their two youths were fused together in the same enthusiasm for the future ; putting together all the excessive and contradictory sentiments that ravaged the souls of fourteen year olds.”]

The feelings Daniel and Jacques have for one another were born out of the need to express their inner hopes and desires. Being suddenly permitted to disclose them in the grey notebook brought an outpouring of passion. When they are face to face with one another, they are unable to speak so intensely. The way in which Daniel loses his virginity while in Marseille, and the subsequent secrecy, adds another factor for the reader to consider while trying to understand the nature of the boys’ friendship. I’ve read that Les Thibault was an inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with the friendship between stoic Protestant Charles Ryder and troubled Catholic Sebastian Flyte.

The second aspect of Le Cahier gris that I want to discuss is the portrayal of religious figures.  There are a number of Catholic priests who take part in events, both at the school, and in the Thibault family home. In general, they cannot be described as admirable figures since their foremost goal is to placate Monsieur Thibault because of his wealth. The worst example is when Madame de Fontanin arrives unannounced at the Thibault home to see what can be done to find Jacques and Daniel. Monsieur Thibault was discussing the situation with a group of priests when she enters the room; all of them treat her poorly, which she finds inexplicable and hurtful. After she leaves, a priest refers to her disparagingly as ‘La huguenote’ [‘The Hughenot’], a comment accepted by everyone except for Father Vécard, who makes an expression of reproach. We shall see if Father Vécard features in the subsequent novels.

Madame Fontantin’s Father Gregory is a disturbing character with his insidious way of controlling her. His intentions do not seem sexual, but it is too early to determine. The scene in which his fervent prayer seems to cure Jenny is quite remarkable. But it served to give him further dominion over the family. It is interesting that he is British and that he’s a Christian Scientist rather than a more typical Protestant denomination. I am curious to see how Roger Martin du Gard uses these factors as he develops that character. As I carry on reading the novels, I will undertake some research on the appearance of the Christian Science church in France in that period so that I can see how unusual (or not) this practice was in Paris at this time.

The next novel in the series is called Le Pénitencier (1922) [The Penitentiary or The Reformatory]

‘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.


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

The Pissarro Letters and the Caillebotte Legacy

Note from the author: all the translations are my own.

While reading the letters of Camille Pissarro, I encountered many references to the ‘legs Caillebotte’ (the Caillebotte Legacy) between the years 1894 and 1898. In this article, I wanted to put together the material from the letters and have a closer look at this interesting episode from the history of the Impressionists. I will be presenting the way in which the events were interpreted by Pissarro as he was reacting to developments.

Gustave Caillebotte, Self-Portrait (1892), collection of the Musée d’Orsay

Gustave Caillebotte was both a member of the Impressionists and a generous patron of the group. He was from a well-to-do Parisian family and inherited a sizeable sum from his father, allowing him to paint without having to worry about sales. Caillebotte is one of the least-well-known of the Impressionists, despite leaving behind a number of important paintings. His chef d’oeuvre Les Raboteurs de parquet [The Floor Planers] (1875), for example, now in the Musée d’Orsay, will be known to many, while his name continues to be unfamiliar. His painting Jeune homme à la fenêtre [Young man at his window] (1875) adorns the cover of the modern edition of the novel Jean Barois (1913) and perfectly captures the energy of a young man looking to the future.

Caillebotte was an unselfish, enthusiastic man and well-liked by his colleagues. He helped to support his fellow-Impressionists by purchasing a number of their paintings over the years. The benefit of this assistance cannot be overstated. Camille Pissarro wrote to Monet around 1879, telling him that he’d only made a few small sales recently, and was ‘very happy to have had Caillebotte to help me get through the Cape of Summer, without him my sales would certainly not have saved me from a shipwreck’. Pissarro knew that Monet would understand since he, too, had received crucial help from Caillebotte during difficult times.

But Caillebotte only bought pieces that he genuinely liked, and as Pissarro noted, he did not like pointillism and therefore didn’t buy any neo-Impressionist work. In a period in which Pissarro owed money to Caillebotte, he explained to his son Lucien: ‘at that time, I was doing pointillism and I knew that he hated it, to the extent that I did not feel able to offer him what I’d done’.

Tragically, Caillebotte died of a stroke on 21 February 1894, only 45 years old. This was very sad news for all the Impressionists. Camille wrote to Lucien on 1 March 1894: ‘we have just lost a sincere and devoted friend, Caillebotte died suddenly of a stroke. Here is someone we can mourn, he was good and generous and, on top of that, a painter of talent’. I do not know if Pissarro was aware that Caillebotte had left a will stipulating that his collection of 67 paintings (all Impressionist works except for 2 pieces by Millet) be given to the State on condition that they would be displayed in the Musée du Luxembourg, with the expectation that they would one day be in the Louvre. The paintings were not to be divided up, were not to be sent to a provincial museum and were not to end up in the State’s ‘loft’. The executors of his will were his younger brother Martial and the artist Auguste Renoir, who both worked diligently to have the terms honoured. In the meantime, there was a retrospective exhibition of Caillebotte’s work held at the Durand-Ruel gallery from the 4 to 16 June 1894.

Even though 1894 marked twenty years since the first Impressionist exhibition, and great strides had been made in terms of their acceptance, the Caillebotte Legacy caused controversy. The terms of the bequest attracted attention and negative pushback from certain corners of the art establishment and made the work of the executors very difficult; it wasn’t long before it became known as ‘l’Affaire Caillebotte’. On 19 January 1895, Pissarro wrote to Lucien:

‘It seems that the State has definitively refused the Caillebotte bequest! How about that? What a pity that Caillebotte did not have the idea of offering his legacy to a foreign country if France did not want it. That would be quite a blow’.

With this suggestion, Pissarro was making reference to an ironic piece published by his friend Octave Mirbeau in the Journal on 24 December 1894. Mirbeau wrote in the guise of an ‘art collector’ who explained that his collection had been acquired carefully and at great expense and since he wouldn’t want it dispersed haphazardly after his death, he’ll bequeath it to London’s National Gallery, where the works will receive the honour they merit. Mirbeau added: ‘ungrateful homeland, you may have my bones, but you won’t have my paintings’. This was a satirical re-writing of the inscription on the tomb of the Roman general Scipio Africanus ‘thankless country, though shall not possess even my bones’.

The French state did not definitively decline the entire Caillebotte legacy, as Pissarro stated, but negotiations were fraught and the collection wasn’t taken in its entirety.  The executors had to accept having it broken up, with the following allocation admitted to the Musée du Luxembourg: 7 Degas, 2 Manet, 4 Cézanne, 8 Monet, 6 Renoir, 6 Sisley and 7 Pissarro. The 2 Millet paintings went straight to the Louvre. The remaining paintings were kept by the Caillebotte family. On 14 February 1895, Pissarro wrote to Lucien:

‘Did I tell you that I’d received a letter from the curator of the Luxembourg asking me for my advice on the 6 paintings that they chose for the Caillebotte collection, but he added that’s in the event that all the parties involved reach an agreement. What a bunch of idiots! I replied that I will give a response when I come up to Paris and see this collection, which I haven’t seen for 15 years’

Even as of this date, almost a year after Caillebotte’s death, the details of accepting the legacy had still not been formalised. Pissarro, for example, mentions 6 paintings, though they eventually take 7 of his works. But a week later, he wrote again to say: ‘I’m awaiting your mother who will be here tomorrow to go see the paintings in the Caillebotte collection’. The formalities were advancing. It is interesting that Pissarro took his wife Julie with him to view the paintings. The letter doesn’t reveal whether this was at her request or his; he might have wanted her opinion, or she might have wanted to see behind the scenes at the Luxembourg.

The unveiling of the exhibition had to wait a further two years while the museum underwent a refurbishment, including the preparation of a new annexe which opened on 9 February 1897. ‘La petite annexe’, as they called it, had 3 rooms, with the ‘legs Caillebotte’ occupying one of them.  On 18 February 1897, Pissarro wrote to Lucien: ‘Did I tell you that the musée du Luxembourg, the annex, has opened? Crowds, it seems, howling! in front of the Impressionists. Besides that, the room is poor, narrow, badly lit, ugly frames and idiotic placement’. After all of the publicity surrounding the Affaire Caillebotte, curiosity attracted large crowds, though not all of them were sympathetic to the Impressionists.

Even at this stage, certain members of the Académie continued to complain about the inclusion of the Impressionists in the Luxembourg, and did so vocally, in the press. Pissarro had not yet been to the exhibition, but on 10 March 1897, he wrote to Lucien, giving a wonderful summary of the events:

‘About the Caillebotte collection, we don’t complain about the quality: Renoir has his ball, which is a masterpiece, Degas has some very beautiful things, Monet has his railway station, Sisley doesn’t have his best pieces, but they’re interesting, me, I have two of my best things from 1882, as good as those in your mother’s collection. The only problem is that they’re stupidly placed and horribly framed, that’s it. Some young artists and good collectors have paid me the biggest compliments. But there is the battle, the battle against the School. Some of them don’t understand anything. […] No, very rare are the true painters and those who understand; I haven’t had the time to go to the exhibition, but Degas told me about it; he finds that although it’s not complete, it’s very good, and that the Renoir is admirable. I’m sending you some newspapers, L’Eclair, which has an interview with Gérôme. The Institute has protested to the Minister of Fine Arts: and he says not to confuse Renoir with Renouard, who really knows how to draw and has talent!!!! That takes the cake! […] We don’t mind all of this; basically, they rage and we’re in the right, at least I’m convinced of it. Be sure of it, all this does us considerable good; this protest was an event and it will continue, you can be certain’.

Jean-Leon Gérôme was the supreme example of the status quo in the art establishment. He worked in the academic style and was a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. He was a member of the prestigious Institut de France, which Pissarro mentions. He was a chevalier in the Légion d’honneur and even an honorary member of the British Academy. Over the years, he had consistently attacked the Impressionists, and during the Affaire Caillebotte, he was especially vocal in protesting their admission to the Luxembourg. Pissarro wrote to Lucien: ‘Gérôme treats us like pimps!’ The Impressionists had their supporters too, and it was in this period that Pissarro received a letter from a collector named Eugène Blot, a member of the newly-founded Société des amis du Luxembourg (Society of the Friends of the Luxembourg), created in part to defend the Impressionists against their critics.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso (1872), collection of the Phoenix Art Museum

By 29 April 1897, Pissarro had finally been to see the exhibition in person, and he was pleased with his work; he wrote to Lucien:

‘Did I tell you that I have been to the Luxembourg? I was quite satisfied with my paintings; I believe that I am very well represented. Though it is presented as only officials can do: with horrible ugly frames, in a corridor, with the paintings stuck one against the other; you won’t be surprised, experience has shown us the general bad taste of French museums!’

Despite these comments, it’s clear that Pissarro also took pride in having his paintings displayed at the Luxembourg. Later, Pissarro will refer to a piece in the Caillebotte collection when he discusses his Pontoise series: ‘a painting like the red-roofed house, now at the Luxembourg, perhaps the best I did’. One can sense the satisfaction in his tone. The piece was Les Toits rouges, coin de village, effet d’hiver, now at the Musée d’Orsay.

Camille Pissarro, Les Toits rouges, coin de village, effet d’hiver (1877), collection of the Musée d’Orsay

Pissarro was correct that the Caillebotte Legacy and the furore surrounding it would have a lasting influence, to the extent that it is beyond the scope of this article, where I’m simply looking at the way in which the events were interpreted by Pissarro in his letters. This article from Le Monde in May 2007 shows that the controversy surrounding the State’s treatment of the bequest continues:

Gustave Caillebotte’s final act of generosity had helped his Impressionist colleagues to gain a foothold in an establishment museum, and, he had not included any of his own works in the bequest. Finally, the Caillebotte Legacy would become part of the permanent collection of the Musée d’Orsay.

‘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:


The Paris of Pissarro, the Paris of Lupin

[Warning to viewers of Lupin: this article contains plot spoilers]

In 2021, Netflix broadcast a new French language series called Lupin, a modern reinterpretation of the Arsène Lupin books written by Maurice Leblanc beginning in 1905. Arsène Lupin was a ‘gentleman burglar’ and a master of disguise, and though he was a thief, he was on the side of good and used his talents to assist the police and to undermine more nefarious criminals. The modern re-telling is set in present-day Paris, with flashbacks to the 1980s and 90s, where we see the childhood of the central hero, Assane Diop, the son of African immigrants. His mother is deceased and his father, Babakar, works as a chauffeur for the powerful Hubert Pellegrini and his family. Pellegrini encounters financial difficulties and decides to solve them by faking the theft of a priceless necklace. He frames Babakar so that he can claim the insurance. Babakar is convicted for the crime and dies in prison. Assane loses his beloved father and is forced to leave their home and go into foster care. While sorting through his father’s belongings Assane finds an Arsène Lupin novel, which he takes and reads, becoming captivated by the stories. Eventually he will model himself on Arsène Lupin as he plots to take revenge on Hubert Pellegrini for disgracing and killing his father. Adult Assane is played by the charismatic Omar Sy, a rising star who is very compelling in the role.

In episode 8 of the Lupin series, a painting by Camille Pissarro takes centre stage. We see Assane in the present day, in his 40s, inside the Musée d’Orsay, standing in profile against the iconic clock in the museum’s Café Campana. He sees Juliette Pellegrini, the daughter of his father’s former employer and pretends that their meeting is coincidental. She is portrayed by the actress Clotilde Hesme. Assane and Juliette are the same age and had known one another well in their youth, even enjoying a brief romance until Mr. Pellegrini forbade it. Juliette works for an arts charity and is at the museum to organise an event. In this scene, we see the Pissarro painting La Seine et le Louvre come into view several times.

The position of the painting is unusual as it seems to be in a corridor between the café and the bookshop, rather than its normal home, room 32 of the Galerie des Impressionstes. This, I imagine, was done for the purpose of shooting a scene in which two characters are meant to meet by chance as Juliette is about to leave the building. It also has the effect of making the painting the object of our complete attention because it is the only painting on the wall, and there are moments that the camera fixes directly on it. The painting is also signalled when a tour guide walks past with a group of visitors and tells them to look at the Pissarro masterpiece. At the end of this scene, Juliette tells Assane that despite their continuing attraction it is not possible to recapture their youth. Secretly, he has hatched a plan to prove to her that he still possesses youthful daring.

When Juliette arrives home, she receives a parcel and is stunned to find the same Pissarro painting that she’d seen earlier with Assane. She seems both delighted and terrified. There is a note that says simply “On peut parfois arrêter le temps. A.” [“Sometimes one can stop time. A.”] As she looks at the painting, news bulletins about the theft begin to flash on her computer and phone screens. She watches what appears to be an interview with a curator of the museum who says that the importance of the theft goes beyond the worlds of art and culture, “all of France was wounded today”. In another newsflash, the painting is estimated to be worth 17.5 million euros. Police then arrive at her door and ask whether she saw anything unusual during her visit; she nervously replies that she did not. Later, she meets Assane and tells him that she cannot keep the painting, and sometime later, another newsflash appears on her phone, saying that the painting was returned.

Each episode of Lupin follows the same format: we witness Assane’s schemes play out, but we don’t learn how they are executed until the end. Like Juliette, we believe that Assane had managed to steal a Pissarro painting from the Musée d’Orsay in broad daylight. In the denouement, we learn that Assane and his best friend Benjamin had worked together to make it appear that the Pissarro painting was stolen, when in fact it had never left the museum. Benjamin, played by the actor Antoine Gouy, owns an antique shop in Paris; he is very cultivated and multi-talented, to the point of being able to make a convincing copy of a Pissarro masterpiece. All of the newsflashes were photoshopped by Assane and sent to Juliette by Benjamin. The supposed police officers were, in fact, friends of Assane’s, in disguise.

So, we are expected to suspend our disbelief regarding Benjamin’s ability to forge a Pissarro painting, but let’s not question the show too intensely. It was a pleasure to see a Camille Pissarro painting used so prominently in a modern and very popular television series. Lupin is the first French series to make Netflix’s top 10 list and another series has already been commissioned.

The painting, La Seine et le Louvre, was made in 1903, the year that Pissarro died. It was done from an upper floor of 28 place Dauphine, the view from which allowed him to paint appealing outdoor cityscapes. Since the end of 1898, the Pissarro family had been letting apartments in Paris during winter, in order to escape rural Eragny during the bleaker months and also to provide the opportunity for Camille to paint indoors because his recurring eye affliction was made worse by working outdoors. From 28 place Dauphine, Pissarro could look down directly at the Pont Neuf and the Square du Vert Galant. And just beyond, he could see the Pont des Arts and the Musée du Louvre, which were the subject of the painting featured in Lupin. It is a wintery and misty scene, with a pink glimmer on the horizon. There is a romance and mystery to the atmosphere, as we see one couple stroll arm in arm by the river, and another pair of shadowy figures lean against a railing while watching a boat pull a barge loaded with freight. The painting exudes the quiet beauty of winter in an area of central Paris in which warmer weather would draw crowds.

Why was the painting chosen for this storyline in Lupin? Paris itself is a central character in the show and the series creators make full use of its famous landmarks and unique beauty. Many scenes are shot by the river, along its famous quays, and in particular the stretch along the Right Bank between the Louvre and the Hôtel de Ville. In other words, in the area in which Pissarro was living and painting. The iconic Paris of La Seine et le Louvre is as recognisable today as it was in 1903, and the prominence of the river and the Louvre make the subject matter of particular appropriateness to the storyline. In episode 1 of Lupin, Assane stages a dramatic robbery at the Louvre during an auction which Juliette had organised and attended. And, importantly, since their youth, Assane and Juliette habitually meet beside the Seine, near the Pont Neuf, with the Pont des Arts in the distance. This is their special place. The lone couple in Pissarro’s painting echo this. Camille Pissarro’s sweeping and timeless cityscape captures a Paris that Lupin’s creators revel in exploring.  

Camille Pissarro, La Seine et le Louvre, 1903, collection of the Musée d’Orsay

“Your Charming Drawing”: Camille Pissarro & Esther Isaacson and the Story of a Painting

In this short article I want to have a look at an exchange between Camille Pissarro and his niece Esther Isaacson in which he asks for her help to complete his painting, Le Pont de Charing Cross, Londres, 1890.

Camille Pissarro, Le Pont de Charing Cross, Londres, 1890, National Gallery, Washington D.C.

From late May until late June, 1890, Camille and Lucien Pissarro visited London, staying with the Isaacson family at their home in Bayswater. Georges Pissarro was also there and had been living with the Isaacsons since June of the previous year while he attended The Guild and School of Handicraft at Toynbee Hall. He’d had a very successful year and had enjoyed living with the Isaacsons and life in London generally. Camille and Lucien came to London to paint and to take Georges home with them at the end of the visit. Camille would turn 60 on July 10th of that year.

Upon the return to France, Camille set to work finishing his London paintings. He wrote to Esther on 22 July 1890:

“My dear Esther,

I began the views of London. Kensington gardens, with the Queen’s palace. Charing Cross bridge with Parliament, a fog effect in Hyde Park, along the Serpentine, I will continue the series. I work hard day and night, even with family visits, I do not move from my chair, Julie complains that I wear out chairs by sleeping in them!!”

But after this letter, Camille became frustrated while working on his painting of Charing Cross Bridge, and felt the need for further detailed sketches. How could he get this information? In a subsequent letter to Esther (which I have not seen, or which no longer exists), Camille must have asked for her help getting additional specifics about the bridge, because she sent him a drawing made in accordance with his requirements.  In a letter, she told him that she’d made the drawing from Waterloo Bridge while listening “to the sweet sound of the blind man”. Was the blind man singing or playing an instrument for money? She said the blind man, not a blind man, suggesting that perhaps they had heard the blind man before, together, during Camille’s visit. Camille had sent Esther a sketch of the bridge, because she referred to this in her letter when she wrote:

“Your pillar no. 1 is in the right place, but the 2nd and 3rd are a bit too close together; in my sketch I did my best to place everything well. I think it’s accurate in terms of height of the houses, line of the quays, etc. I think that Westminster Abbey looks so nice in the background. I hope that you’ll be able to introduce it into your painting. My sketch is, as you see, of the tower of Big Ben up to the Obelisk which is near the station.”

Picture postcard of old Waterloo Bridge from 1907.

Today’s Waterloo Bridge was opened in the 1940s. Camille and Esther made their sketches from the old Waterloo Bridge, which was built in 1817 and demolished in the 1930s. Esther would have had to find the precise spot from which Camille had worked, and from there, looking west, there was an unobstructed view of Charing Cross Bridge (also known as Hungerford Bridge). This is a rail bridge which was built in 1864 and still exists, carrying trains in and out of Charing Cross Station, but now it is flanked on both sides by two busy pedestrian bridges named the Golden Jubilee Bridges, which opened in 2002. The view in Camille’s painting remains highly recognisable because of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, but now, the same view is dominated by the Millennium Wheel and by the imposing St George Wharf Tower (also known as Vauxhall Tower), a 50-storey skyscraper that is the eighth-tallest building in London.

Charing Cross Bridge today, flanked by the Golden Jubilee Bridges, and with the new Waterloo Bridge in the background.
The view from Waterloo Bridge today. ©Paul Murphy

In August of 1890, after Camille had received Esther’s drawing, he replied:

“My dear Esther,

I did not respond immediately to your kind letter because, being in Paris on business, Lucien had only sent me your letter [from Eragny] without including your charming drawing for fear it would be damaged by the trip. I thank you very much for the information, I could perfectly paint my picture, however I still lack a little information that I did not mention in my letter and that I thought I could easily find here: it is a drawing of the small steam boats with wheels covered by a white drum. I looked all along the Seine for the boats that do the tug service without being able to come across any, I went to photograph dealers, nothing but propeller boats. If I were rich, I would take the train to Calais or any seaport, in search of my boat, but that’s the difficulty, it will have to be invented. What bothers me are the small spots formed by thousands of objects which are on the deck, and which form a set of spots which gives a very particular appearance to these boats. Especially considering that it will be in the foreground as seen from the Waterloo Bridge and we will see it from a bird’s eye view. This is what it is not to have foresight, I had the idea of ​​going back there or looking for a photograph in London, but so many things occupied us then. As soon as I can I will send a list of my works to Mr. Lauser, thank you for your effort.

When you get here, I hope we can all work together, if you keep your promise; we will see if you will have the courage, because this little drawing of yours confirms me in the opinion which I always had: that it was a pity not to pursue further your artistic studies.

Your affectionate uncle”

It’s always interesting to gain insight into an artist’s creative process, and in this case, we can see that the more Camille Pissarro developed his Charing Cross Bridge painting, the more detail he desired. He was in the frustrating position of being unable to simply return to the source material, and he worked in a time before artists carried cameras with them. When looking at the finished painting, at first glance it seems that his solution to depicting the objects on the decks of the boats was to give them the appearance of people, rather than cargo. But when I look more closely, I believe that Camille was painting cargo, but did so using a colourful range of spots. It would be interesting to know what kind of cargo he was imagining. Reader, what do you think is in the boats? In Victorian times, watermen carried all manner of goods up and down the Thames, including coal and even rubbish. The painting is now in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., which I shall be visiting in May of 2022, and I look forward to seeing it in person and looking at the boats and cargo more closely.  

Detail from Le Pont de Charing Cross, Londres, 1890.

Camille had known that Esther was capable of making a drawing that would help him because she was an art teacher and he’d seen her own art pieces. Earlier that year, for example, she had contributed a drawing to the Pissarro family art album. At the end of the letter, Camille referred to Esther’s upcoming trip to Eragny, where he hoped that she’d have the courage to make art alongside him, something she’d been too shy to do before. Imagine drawing or painting alongside a member of the Impressionists, even if he was your kind and loving uncle? I do not know where Esther, who was 32 years old at the time of this exchange, received the art training that permitted her to be an art teacher; perhaps she’d had private tutoring, or perhaps, like her friend Esther Bensusan, she’d attended Crystal Palace School of Art, which was near the home in Norwood that the family occupied while she was growing up. In the course of further research, I hope to find one of Esther’s drawings and further information about her education. Camille was very much looking forward to her visit, and in another letter wrote: “We all await you, you can prepare your paint brushes, we will watercolour till the death.”

Esther did visit Eragny that September, before her teaching schedule recommenced in October. Did she draw or paint alongside her uncle Camille? She wrote a letter to Esther Bensusan from Eragny, explaining “I’m supposed to be working, but I don’t do much. It is so very difficult to apply their theory.” Perhaps, in the end, she did feel too daunted to work right beside Camille and his sons, especially if she felt that she had to work in a particular manner. But, she did say to Esther Bensusan:

“I am teaching Cocotte to do embroidery. Lucien has drawn a very pretty design, I think you have seen it, a girl’s head in a circle, & daffodils on either side, well, we are darning the back ground pale blue & working the outline of the flowers & leaves in yellow, of course, & green. Then the ground of the circle will be darned in pale yellow, & the girl’s head will be blue, & of course a darned frame all around. Cocotte is a most intelligent & willing little worker. She darns beautifully & seems to know instinctively where to leave white stitches. She is so gentle that it is quite easy & pleasant to teach her.”

Cocotte was the nickname of Camille and Julie’s daughter Jeanne, who would have been 9 years old at the time of Esther’s visit. This passage describes a lovely moment of joint creativity between the two female cousins, where Esther is able to use her experience as a teacher as she instructs Cocotte in stitching and they make decisions about which colours best suit the design given to them by Lucien. I do not know if this piece of embroidery still exists. I wonder if Esther was able to view the finished painting Le Pont de Charing Cross during her visit? She would have been pleased to see the inclusion of Westminster Abbey, and to know that she had contributed something to her beloved uncle’s work.

Author’s note: the letters from Camille were in French, and the letter from Esther to Camille was in French. All translations are by me. The letter from Esther Isaacson to Esther Bensusan was in English. Further information about Esther Isaacson’s relationship with her uncle, Camille Pissarro, can be found in my article, “My Dear Niece: The Life of Esther Isaacson Pissarro”, found on this website.

Pissarro Research Update

After having written articles on two members of Camille Pissarro’s family—Félix Pissarro, his third son, and Esther Isaacson Pissarro, his niece and eventual daughter-in-law—I’ve been pursuing two avenues: 1) preparing to unite these two articles in one little book, and 2) searching for answers to questions raised in these articles.

A book needs an introduction, and I felt that in order to write a good and proper one, I would need to be able to explain the importance of family to Camille Pissarro—the central and unifying figure in the Félix and Esther articles. My primary source of research is always the Pissarro letters. They are plentiful, they are beautifully written, and they tell me almost everything that I could hope to know and more. Whereas in my previous research I’d focused on letters specifically pertaining to Félix and Esther, for the purposes of the introduction I needed to read more broadly. So, I have spent the past few months reading all of the letters in all 5 volumes of Janine Bailly-Herzberg’s Correspondance de Camille Pissarro series. This has taken me on an immersive journey as I’ve traversed Camille Pissarro’s life from 1865 to 1903, in his own words, and in the present tense. As I got closer to autumn of 1903, I found myself reading more and more slowly to put off the inevitable heartbreak.

The Correspondance de Camille Pissarro volumes are a remarkable resource. Janine Bailly-Herzberg (1920-2005) compiled letters from the Ashmolean collection, but also from a wide variety of different archives to which I have not (yet) had access. The scholarship of the notes is masterful and also full of affection for Camille Pissarro. There are moments where she allows herself to expresses a personal view on events in his life from a perspective of deep understanding of his character, and that of Julie and the different children. Bailly-Herzberg also puts brackets around all the material that was left out of the John Rewald book Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien (1943), nearly all of which was content about the family. The focus of the Rewald book was on art, which is understandable, but on its own it would give a skewed idea of the Pissarro family life. There is one thing upon which Bailly-Herzberg and I are particularly in agreement upon: for Camille Pissarro, his family were of central importance to his life, and they were his reason for carrying on when the business of art lowered his morale. The sole limitation of Janine Bailly-Herzberg’s series is that it presents only Camille’s letters (although there are certain other correspondents quoted at length in the notes). At the Ashmolean, I was able to look at letters from Félix, Esther and other family members and friends.

Since completing the Félix Pissarro article, and now, having read all of the Camille Pissarro letters, I’ve developed a greater recognition of the effect of Félix’s death on the family. One such effect was a heightened nervousness about the remaining children. Rodolphe wanted to make an extended visit to London less than a year after Félix’s death, but Camille and Julie were very apprehensive. Camille wrote to Lucien: “J’espère que l’Angleterre ne lui sera pas aussi néfaste qu’a notre pauvre Félix” [“I hope that England won’t be as harmful to him as it was to our poor Félix”].  After a minor health complaint, they urged Rodolphe to come home, which he did. Camille himself never returned to England, and in subsequent years Lucien would ask him why he didn’t visit them, but Camille would put him off by saying ‘next year’ or explaining that he needed the guarantee of extended good weather in order to complete a series of paintings.

Through reading all of the letters, I also perceived another and unexpected effect of Félix’s (and Lucien’s) illness. Camille had to work exceptionally hard during this period because he had to support the entire family while none of his elder sons could work; even Georges was too busy caring for Félix to paint. In addition, Camille had to provide for Lucien’s wife and child and Georges’ child, and on top of this were the many medical bills. Camille, always a hard worker anyway, had to redouble his efforts, to the extent that Julie, somewhat cruelly, accused him of being insensitive to Félix’s death. By early April 1898, just over four months after Félix had died, Camille had finished his latest series and Durand-Ruel had taken everything. This group of paintings consisted primarily of his Paris series, especially the views from the windows of the Hôtel Garnier and the Grand Hôtel du Louvre, done during months of extreme mental anguish. An example is his Avenue du l’Opéra, effet de brume, done in the months immediately following Félix’s death. His work was shown at Durand-Ruel from 1-18 June, where he had an entire room to himself, with other rooms given to Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Puvis de Chavannes. His work was a success, as he wrote to Lucien on 6 June: “Décidément, c’est un succès, mon exposition” [“Definitely a success, my exhibition”]. It’s a question that I now ponder: did the emotional duress under which Camille was working manifest itself in the paintings themselves, giving them a certain intensity?

As a consequence of this success, toward the end of 1898, just a year after Félix’s death, Camille and Julie were able to sign a contract to rent a flat in Paris for the winter at 204 rue de Rivoli, overlooking the Tuileries. It is sad to think that Félix didn’t live to experience the greater financial ease that permitted the family to live in Paris for part of the year, which he certainly would have enjoyed. As Camille wrote to Lucien on 16 November, “j’espère qu’ainsi ta mère, Cocotte et Paul s’ennuieront moins à rester seuls a Eragny, qui n’est vraiment pas gai en hiver” [“I hope that this way, your mother, Cocotte and Paul will be less bored than staying alone in Eragny, which is really not cheerful in winter”.]

Since completing the Esther Isaacson Pissarro article, my focus has been to learn more about the typical experience of young Jewish women in Victorian London, and to better understand Esther’s Norwood years (1868-1879), when she would have come of age. I’ve received a great deal of help with my questions from people acquainted with Jewish history and practice: Rabbi Johnny Solomon, who took the time to phone me from Israel, for which I’m very grateful. I also had the pleasure of speaking with three members of the Kingston Liberal Synagogue—Sara Alston, Carolynne Farrer and Mary Regal—who were a wealth of information. I learned that my fixation on the idea that Esther would have needed to attend synagogue weekly, or even regularly, was misguided. Only men would have been expected to attend religious services regularly, and what constituted religious practice (for both men and women) did not need to take place in a synagogue. Service could take place in a private home as long as there was an assembly of at least 10 men, known as a Minyan. Rabbi Johnny pointed out that for a Jewish woman from an orthodox family, the need for a Mikveh was more important than a synagogue. The Isaacsons were close friends with the very orthodox Bensusans, who were also resident in Norwood, and one wonders if they had a Mikveh? Although there was not a large concentration of Jewish families in Norwood, there would have been enough to form a Minyan.

Also, the Jewish Orphanage at Knight’s Hill in Norwood, which opened in 1863, had a small synagogue for the children, and one presumes that local people might have been permitted to attend, though I have not been able to confirm this, and the building was demolished in 1962. The archives were transferred to the University of Southampton in 2020, but initial inquiries have not turned up this kind of information.

I learned that one likely explanation for the fact that Esther’s sisters never married (and remember, Esther only married late, eloping with her cousin Georges Pissarro), is that their mother Emma had died when they were young. Jewish marriages were usually arranged by match-makers, but the mother is an important figure in this process, and Phineas Isaacson does not appear to have taken a lead in seeking out marriages for his daughters. Perhaps he enjoyed having them at home, where they organised the running of the household, leaving him free to tend to his business matters? While I now have a clearer picture of Esther’s adolescence, I’m still hoping to find out where she received her education. Did she also go to the nearby Crystal Palace School of Art, as Esther Bensusan had done? Unfortunately, the school was destroyed in the same fire that consumed Crystal Palace in 1936 and I have been unable to locate any surviving archives. I’m also hoping to find where her mother (Camille’s sister), Emma, is buried.

I learned that it was likely that only men attended Jewish funeral services in the Victorian period. Funerals take place in the burial grounds, and after the burial the family members sit Shiva for a period of 7 days. We know that Shiva was observed after the death of Camille’s sister Emma, because he mentions this in a letter to Julie, so we can presume the family sat Shiva for Esther. I am imagining Esther’s funeral at the West Ham Jewish Cemetery, Phineas Isaacson without the support of his daughters or his close friend Mr. Bensusan, who refused to attend because he disapproved of Esther’s marriage. Georges must have attended, but he would have been hopelessly out of place is such a religious environment.

Why do I care so much about Esther’s Jewish family life? Because Esther and her uncle Camille were extremely close, and through their shared Jewish origins there would have been things that Esther understood better than Julie or the children. Although Camille had become an atheist, he was still a member of an extended and close-knit Jewish family, and the extent of his ongoing feelings of Jewishness would become apparent during the course of the Dreyfus Affair. And certainly, the world around him never let him forget that he was Jewish. After his death, the art critic and poet Fagus (Georges Faillet) wrote an obituary for La Plume, which said of Camille: “Il fut le bon juif (cela existe encore): le don de s’assimiler l’amour du réel, du tangible, de l’immédiat, une indifférence pour tout le reste, une quiétude comme orientale” [He was the good Jew (this still exists): the gift of assimilating the love of the real, the tangible, the immediate, an indifference for all the rest, an oriental quietude”]. Fagus was at once calling attention to Camille’s Jewish origins and seemingly ‘absolving’ him of them. Four of Camille’s children were living in France during the outbreak of World War II, and I wonder what steps they had to take to avoid persecution, since they would certainly have been perceived as Jewish.

Reading all of the letters has given me a true feel for the yearly rhythms of the Pissarro family life, as well as a better understanding of the personalities of all the children, and a fuller appreciation for Camille’s enduring partnership with the indefatigable Julie, whose judgement he valued highly.  I was also able to enjoy the renewal of the friendship between Camille and the writer Octave Mirbeau, which had beneficial consequences for Julie and the children, especially Georges. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this friendship, about which I plan to devote an article. Via the articles that I have already shared, I have had the pleasure of meeting Ann Saul, an eminent Pissarro scholar who has published significant books on Camille’s art. It has been wonderful to speak with her and share our mutual interest and enthusiasm and I hope to meet her in person in 2022. And finally, I am currently working with the radio producer & presenter, Patrick Bernard (https://modernnature.productions/), on a programme about the connections of the Isaacson and Pissarro families to London, and we will be making our first recce visit to Norwood and Crystal Palace on Thursday, November 4th. Stay tuned!