My first degree was a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Maine College of Art, and I continue to work independently in photography. My subsequent academic degrees were in 18th century French literature and culture, including a PhD from King’s College London. I have taught French literature at two London universities and my doctoral research was published by Peter Langin 2016.
In recent years, my attention has turned to 19th century French culture, and in particular the life of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his family, and his friend, the writer, Octave Mirbeau. I share my research on this site.
Since April 2020, I have been collaborating on the art project “London Walks” with the artist Marielle Schram:
On July 21st, my husband and I were in the picturesque town of Shaftesbury in Dorset, visiting his mother and step-father, who we hadn’t seen since before Covid times. They have lived in Shaftesbury for a quarter of a century and know it very well. We brought along a photocopy of a painting entitled ‘Shaftesbury’, made by Lucien Pissarro in 1916 while he was living nearby. We hoped that they could take us to the spot where Lucien would have worked, and to our pleasure, they recognized it right away. On foot, my mother-in-law escorted us to Great Lane, on a hot, sunny summer’s day. Certainly, changes have taken place between 1916 and 2021, but architectural landmarks within the painting, and even patterns of tree growth, remain recognizably the same. The line of houses running up toward the churches is the famous Gold Hill.
This selection of photographs was made in September 2020 as a visual accompaniment to a Resonance Radio production entitled An Epoch of Rest. I followed the show’s creator, Patrick Bernard, as he walked the 15 km along the Hogsmill River, a chalk stream and tributary of the Thames. The resulting audio essay was based on the walk from Kingston to the river’s source in Epsom, and covers our changing relationship to space, Victorian science fiction and the transformation of everyday life.
Photographs were taken with a Pentax K1000 SLR camera using Ilford FP4 black & white film. It was a dry but grey day, which gives a silvery light.
Here is a link to the resulting Resonance FM show:
In the last part of the article, I am going to focus on three notable letters that Camille Pissarro sent to his niece Esther Isaacson that broach the topics of anarchism, anti-Semitism and making ‘felt’ art. They are important because he shared significant thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that he had not shared with others or that he shared with her first. They date from December 1885, May 1889 and May 1890.
The first is the correspondence of 12 and 22 December 1885. I will treat the two letters as one exchange because the second letter continues the subject-matter of the first. Camille wrote to Esther three times that month, even though during the same period he did not write at all to his nephew Alfred Isaacson, who was about to move to America. He even said to Esther, ‘tell Alfred not to get upset with us if I don’t write to him much, that doesn’t stop us from thinking about him often, each time a discussion takes place, we ask ourselves what his thoughts would be’. The subject of the December 1885 letters to Esther was politics, and Camille might have given up writing to Alfred about politics after having sent him political literature and not getting the hoped-for response. As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, Camille wrote to Lucien in December 1883, asking: ‘Why doesn’t Alfred read the two little volumes on socialism that I lent him?’
By the time Camille wrote to Esther in December 1885, he was no longer interested in socialism—his attention had turned to anarchism, and the letters to his niece mark this important transition. In the Correspondance, Janine Bailly-Herzberg flags up this importance: ‘this letter brings a new element: the proof of the final political turn of Pissarro. […] It’s the end result of a long evolution’ (Vol. I, p. 361). What prompted the change? That very year Camille had read the newly-published book Paroles d’un révolté (Words of a Rebel) by Pierre Kropotkin, and it had transformed his thinking. Kropotkin was a Russian prince by birth, and a military officer, who abandoned his privileged origins to become a political activist. He helped found the anarchist newspaper Le Révolté (which became La Révolte in 1885, under Jean Grave’s editorship). In 1882 Kropotkin was sentenced by a French court to five years in prison for his affiliation with the International Workers’ Association. It was during his imprisonment that he produced his book, with help from another anarchist activist—Elisée Reclus. The December 1885 letters to Esther include Camille’s first mention of Kropotkin (spelled Kropotkine in the letters; the French add a final ‘e’). Camille would later become friends with Elisée Reclus, Jean Grave and other anarchist admirers of Kropotkin. He and his sons became faithful readers of La Révolte, and would contribute illustrations. As discussed in Part II of my article ‘Art, Anarchy and Other Dangers’, Camille’s open affiliation with anarchism put him in danger of arrest in 1894, when there were anarchist attacks in France and the President was assassinated.
Why did Camille address the subject of anarchism to Esther? He had seen Esther in late summer of that year when she had come to France to spend time with the extended family in Villerville, on the Normandy coast. Her other uncle, Alfred Pissarro (Camille’s brother), rented a house by the seaside and invited the whole family; Lucien and Georges Pissarro attended, but not Camille or Julie. After Villerville, Esther made the journey to Éragny to see Camille and the family. Their visits were full of lively, philosophical discussion and this often overflowed into the subsequent letters.
In late 1885, Esther had presented Camille with the opportunity to discuss politics when she wrote to him to express her disappointment that a candidate she admired—Edward Spencer Beesly—had not won a seat in the British Parliament. Beesly (1831-1915) was a history professor at University College London and a proponent of trade-unionism who ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal party candidate in 1882 and 1885. We do not have Esther’s letter, but Camille made the subject evident when he wrote to her on 12 December: ‘you were astonished by the English elections, but if you were to read the book by Kropotkin, the chapter “Representative Government”, page 169, you would be very indifferent as to whether Professor Beesly was elected or any other, whether it be Chamberlain, the so-called radical, or the Grand Turk, it brings about the same result for the people who work hard and die of hunger. Know this, my little Esther, that the best way to be free is not to delegate your powers to anybody’. He did not elaborate further on anarchism in this letter.
When Camille wrote to Esther again on 22 December, it was because she had replied and had confessed to knowing little about anarchism. He wrote: ‘My dear niece, I understand quite well that you are not very aware of political things, nothing astonishing and completely natural’. He then gave a fuller explanation of his new politics, beginning with the idea that universal suffrage did not work. In 1885, Esther, as a woman, did not even have the right to vote, but Camille said to her: ‘universal suffrage, the instrument of domination of the capitalist bourgeoisie […] it has had his day’. He mentioned the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as the political philosophers John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, saying that they had each declared universal suffrage to be ‘absolutely defective and harmful to the working classes, it effectively serves only the bigwigs!’. Camille told her that society needed a ‘new mode of political organization, based on a completely different principle from that of representation’, adding ‘it is the logic of things that imposes it’. In these sentences, Camille was borrowing language directly from Kropotkin.
Paroles d’un révolté was a 342-page book comprised of 19 chapters, with an introduction by Elisée Reclus. Camille repeatedly referred to a chapter titled ‘Representative Government’, which I will try to briefly summarise. It’s important to note that in 1885, France was only four years from the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, a date which was beginning to turn attention to the status of the country. Were the French people better off now than they were a hundred years ago when they’d stormed the Bastille and fought to bring an end to a repressive monarchy? Representative government was an ideal that had resulted from the Revolution, but Kropotkin argued that it no longer served its intended purpose and its new role was to keep the omnipotent bourgeoisie in place. He felt that representative government was now as repressive as the absolute monarchy—perhaps even more so—but it operated under the illusion of freedom and choice. And, it had greater resources: if Louis XVI had about 12,000 functionaries, France’s representative government had hundreds of thousands to do its bidding. The people, he argued, falsely believe that representative government gives us our freedoms, when actually all the freedoms we have were taken by force, wrenched from the official powers by agitation or general insurrection. This quote from the chapter is typical of Kropotkin’s style:
‘The mission of the state—we have been told (all the better to blind us) —is to protect the weak from the strong, the poor from the rich, the working classes from the privileged classes. We know how governments have fulfilled this mission: they have understood it backwards. Faithful to this principle, government has always protected the privileged from those who seek to free themselves. In particular, the repressive government has organized its defence with the complicity of the people; all the privileges of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie against the aristocracy on the one hand, and against the exploited on the other – modest, polite, well-brought up towards the first group, ferocious against the second’.
Kropotkin argued that the concept of representation is unattainable. For one, we ask the electorate for the impossible; we ask many thousands or even millions of people—people who don’t know one another, who never see one another, who never meet over common concerns—we ask them to agree on the choice of one candidate. This candidate must be good at everything, must legislate on every kind of issue, and his decision will be law. Well, this omniscient candidate doesn’t exist, and furthermore, Kropotkin argued, the honest citizen cannot get elected because he doesn’t seek attention and disdains the means necessary for attracting it. By contrast, lawyers, journalists, smooth speakers and slick writers get elected. They know how to talk convincingly about things they don’t understand at all. Or business men, who are willing to spend their own money to become known. But worst of all are professional politicians, whom Kropotkin called ‘ce ramassis de nullités’ (‘this bunch of nobodies’), who have never declared themselves insufficiently knowledgeable to legislate on crucial issues. How we can we expect such people to represent our needs? Kropotkin believed that this situation could not be remedied and needed to be replaced, just like 100 years ago, with a better system. He looked back idealistically to the independent cities of the feudal period, where smaller groups of people, with similar needs and interests, joined forces to act on their own behalf.
In Camille’s letter to Esther, it is clear that he had wholeheartedly adopted Kropotkin’s thinking and he, too, had come to believe that it was absurd to suppose that one man, no matter how excellent, could represent the interests of a large, diverse group. Esther suggested that Beesly would have been an honest representative, but Camille replied that the idea of representation itself was unattainable, ‘a utopia’: ‘A man, however honest he might be, cannot represent the thousands of interests of an entire class. This man would have to be universal, and, as a consequence, superficial, therefore it is absurd’. He used his own situation as an example, writing to Esther:
‘Suppose that I, a painter, select the very honourable Beesly, I ask you to tell me in what way he can serve me, he will never understand, he, a professor, the necessity to pull to the ground these bastions of art, the Schools of Fine Arts, the academies, the coalitions of large merchant capitalists who make reputations, non? Isn’t it so? It’s necessary that I do it myself, helped by my corporation, and the same for all the professional bodies, be convinced that this idea of representation has served only the class which does not produce anything!’
Throughout his letters, Camille always disparaged the kind of training offered by art schools, which, he felt, only taught students how to execute the sanctioned style of art favoured by the official Salons. I will expand further on this subject later in this article when I discuss his third important letter to Esther.
Camille also accepted Kropotkin’s view that anyone elected—no matter how well-intentioned to begin with— becomes part of the system and uses their position to support the bourgeois status quo. He referred to examples in France: the Paris Municipal Council, comprised of radicals and socialists, had not granted the working class the eight-hour working day which it had urgently demanded: ‘how do you expect the bourgeoisie to make laws that go against the capitalists?’ Camille used another question from Esther to explain how the political system hurt artists:
‘You asked me for news about Durand, well! There are a few innovative painters with more or less talent; Durand, a small capitalist, like a wise man, monopolizes their works; the big capitalists, with the scent of possible future gain, unite themselves to bring him down, and who is hit by this storm? The unfortunate innovative painters. Who is the Beesly who can put an end to this?’
It would be interesting to draw Camille further on this subject, to know more specifically if he was suggesting that particular artists had been poached from Durand-Ruel by bigger galleries? And what does he mean by the impact on the ‘unfortunate innovative painters’? Is he arguing that people like Durand would either hesitate to take on new artists or not have the funds to do so? I would like to hear from present-day art gallerists to learn if this is still largely the way the art world operates. Would Camille be discouraged to find that nothing has changed or, indeed, that the situation is worse?
Camille concluded his discussion of anarchism as follows: ‘thus no government, no state, no capitalists and consequently no universal suffrage’, and he argued that universal suffrage, the ‘means for the bourgeoisie to dominate the economic situation’, would disappear in 10 or 20 years, ‘perhaps earlier’, due to the ‘general cry’. He referred Esther again to the Kropotkin book, urging her to read it, and describing it as ‘quite remarkable, written in a very simple style, easy to read and with the clarity of a clear water stream’. Janine Bailly-Herzberg again states that this letter offers ‘certain proof that it is definitely during these dates that he opted for a new ideology’ (Vol. I, p. 369). Camille had confidence that Esther could understand Kropotkin and, perhaps, be persuaded of the relevance of the ideas. He would certainly have known that anarchism did not correspond with Phineas Isaacson’s views, and one wonders if Esther shared Camille’s letters with her father. Importantly, with these letters to Esther, Camille was laying the groundwork for the book that he made for her in 1889, the ‘Turpitudes Sociales’ (discussed in Part III of this article), which borrowed ideas and language directly from La Révolte.
The next significant letter from Camille to Esther was written on 1 May 1889. Camille was deeply discouraged about his art career—he was frustrated with sales and he was troubled with a chronic eye affliction which interfered with his work. He was preparing to exhibit in the Exposition Universelle, a World’s Fair being held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. The Eiffel Tower, which Camille incorporated into the Turpitudes Sociales, was created for this historic event. He was worried that his participation in the Exposition had created new obligations and would not return any profit. Generally, he was a resolute person whose idealism kept him moving forward with a certain trust that everything would work out, so letters in which he gave way to hopelessness are infrequent. But on this occasion, he wrote to Esther: ‘You would not believe the state of discouragement I find myself in, me and mine’. It was rarer still for Camille to address the subject of being a Jew in the art world, and how it might explain the adversities he’d experienced.
The context of the letter was the ongoing question of whether Georges would move to London to pursue his art studies. As discussed in Part III of this article, Esther had long known that Camille wanted Georges to make a career in applied arts rather than painting alone, in light of his own struggles, and the troubles Lucien had launching his art career. In May of 1887, Esther had already offered to help Georges get a place with William Morris, though the idea was not taken up. But by May 1889, there was serious discussion of Georges pursuing his studies at Toynbee Hall, The Guild and School of Handicraft in Whitechapel. Esther had written to express her family’s willingness to host Georges in their home and to help him get settled in London, as they had done for Lucien. As Camille was writing this important letter to Esther, he had to make a final decision about whether he could afford to send Georges to London. He explained to Esther: ‘I wrote to Julie immediately upon receiving your letter, and also sent her your good and generous letter, you cannot believe how happy and grateful she was; but we have to reckon with events, it’s about jumping over obstacles; My gosh, so far I jump to the side only to fall endlessly into a rut’. The Pissarro family finances were delicate and the imposition of more expenses—Georges’ tuition fees, travel and living expenses—must have seemed like an insurmountable obstacle and caused Camille to reflect on the struggle he was still facing, a year ahead of his 60th birthday. He wrote to Esther:
‘Everywhere I look, it seems that only the mediocre have the inside track, though some great talents have managed to succeed a little bit; how is it that they understood even a tiny bit? A mystery! A matter of race, probably; to this day no Jew here has made art or rather sought to make art that is felt, disinterested, I believe that could be one of the causes of my misfortune; too serious to please the masses and not enough of the exotic tradition to be understood by dilettantes. I surprise too much; I break too much with acquired customs’.
Camille spoke once previously of being a Jew, in a letter to his friend Claude Monet in July 1885. He asked for advice concerning Edmond Renoir, the brother of their fellow Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Edmond Renoir was an editor of the trendy new illustrated magazine, La Vie moderne. Camille was, at that time, the only Jewish member of the Impressionists and he noticed that Edmond Renoir singled him out for particularly rude treatment:
‘It seems that I am an intrigant of the highest order, without talent, a self-serving Jew, using underhanded blows in an effort to supplant both you, my dear, and Renoir. […] Here is a boy I hardly know, I only speak to him when we meet, I never think of him; yet he finds such a way to hate me.’
There is a difference to the content of the two letters. In the comments to Monet, Camille conveyed his upset at direct anti-Semitism: Edmond Renoir openly distrusted and despised him simply for being a Jew. Monet reassured him and said that he, too, had noticed that Renoir’s brother was an unpleasant character, but advised Camille not to worry since he had no authority within the Impressionist group, and an appropriate time to discuss matters with Renoir the artist would present itself. What Camille expressed in his letter to Esther was more complex; not overt anti-Semitism as much as his feeling of ‘Otherness’, and the question of how this might have affected his career and whether being Jewish had altered public expectation of the subject-matter he should be painting. Had it also interfered with the sale of his work? Camille used the word ‘race’, which shows that despite having long since abandoned his Jewish faith for a secular life, he nonetheless felt himself to be perceived as a Jew. With his use of the word ‘exotic’ Camille reveals his awareness of contemporary perceptions of Jews in a way that is reminiscent of the word ‘oriental’ used by the Jewish Victorian writer Amy Levy, discussed in Part II of this article. Levy felt a profound conflict between her British and Jewish identity, and her use of the word ‘oriental’ to describe Jews suggests that she accepted certain views on race that were commonplace in the period.
The timing of Camille’s letter to Esther is striking. Though the new ‘science’ of ethnology arose in the 1840s, it came to prominence in the late nineteenth century and consisted of cataloguing racial differences and ranking peoples by race, such as claims that Indo-Europeans were superior to Semites. This sort of racial terminology itself arose with ethnology and was part of the new ‘scientific’ basis for all varieties of racism, including anti-Semitism. That Amy Levy and Camille Pissarro perceived a sense of Otherness in this period is hardly surprising, but whereas Levy became psychologically burdened by this awareness, Camille remained, for the most part, self-possessed. But Amy Levy was much younger and came of age as anti-Semitism was rising. She took her own life in September 1889, at the age of 27, four months after Camille’s letter to Esther. As discussed in Part II of this article, Amy Levy and Esther Isaacson were of a similar age and social milieu and it would be surprising if Esther hadn’t known of Levy’s novels and her suicide. Camille, born in 1830, had a broader life experience and was bolstered by his strong ties to his wife, children and profession. But as we see, he was not immune to the same feeling of inescapable Otherness.
Throughout Camille’s many letters, he spoke repeatedly of his determination to make felt art, generated by using his sensations, thus his use of the word ‘disinterested’ to mean painting only what his sensations had dictated, without regard to what clients, fashion or tradition imposed. When he said to Esther, ‘to this day no Jew here has made art or rather sought to make art that is felt, disinterested’, he was expressing his sense of being an outlier, a pioneer. Would the Paris art world allow him to be so? He gave Esther the following self-assessment: ‘too serious to please the masses and not enough of the exotic tradition to be understood by dilettantes’. The ‘masses’ were those who attended the Salons, the ‘dilettantes’ were those who bought art, but to understand his notions of ‘too serious’ and ‘not exotic enough’, we need to know more specifically to whom he was comparing himself. Perhaps to other French or European Jewish artists, since this statement followed directly from his suggestion that they had not attempted to make felt, disinterested art.
In the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Camille was not the only Jewish artist to be included; Jacques-Émile Édouard Brandon had participated at the invitation of Degas, though he did not paint in an Impressionist style. Camille did not speak of Brandon in his letters, but was certainly aware of him, and included him on a list he made for Felix Fénéon of artists who had participated in the first Impressionist exhibition. Another French Jewish contemporary was Édouard Moyse. Brandon and Moyse painted scenes from Jewish biblical history and Jewish life, subjects that would have been perceived as ‘oriental’ and ‘exotic’ at the time. Esther might have been aware of the Jewish artist Simeon Solomon, who gained some prestige in Britain with his Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Jewish biblical scenes. Had Camille deduced that a Jewish artist was expected to produce such genre paintings of scenes from Jewish religion, history or family life? Though there are unanswered questions about which customs Camille felt himself to be abandoning and how he was surprising, one thing is abundantly clear: Camille was now acutely conscious of being a Jewish artist in the largely non-Jewish art world of Paris.
Camille could speak to Esther about his thoughts because she was Jewish, and would understand the conflict between erasing, accepting or embracing Jewish identity. Esther was only four years older than Amy Levy, so might have felt this struggle more profoundly than Camille. As discussed in Part I of this article, Esther had considered converting to Christianity in late 1883/early 1884, an option that might have seemed to offer her the chance to blend into British society. Camille was aware of this dramatic episode in Esther’s life and was relieved when she abandoned the plan. But in this 1889 letter to Esther, we see his recognition that being perceived as racially Jewish was beyond his control (or Esther’s), and that rejection of Jewish practice mattered little. Is it a coincidence that Esther’s two brothers and Amy Levy’s three brothers left England for the Americas in these decades? Perhaps it was easier for these young men to forge an individual identity outside of Europe, in places that were more unfettered and culturally diverse. By contrast, Camille Pissarro had left the ethnically diverse Danish West Indies to come to one of Europe’s capitals of high civilization in the mid-19th century, a period that seemed to offer the promise of assimilation.
Both Amy Levy and Esther Isaacson died before the start of the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906), the political scandal that divided France and exposed the extent of its anti-Semitism. I will not write about the Dreyfus affair here because it is beyond the scope of the letter to Esther from 1889, but it’s important to note that events surrounding the Dreyfus affair touched on Camille Pissarro personally and would have intensified the feeling of Otherness that he expressed in the letter. He had to wait and watch as his friends and colleagues chose sides—Dreyfusard or anti-Dreyfusard, with some of them opting to cut off relations with him. As noted in Part III of this article, Jacques Hadamard, the cousin of Dreyfus’s wife Lucie, had stayed with the Isaacsons in London in 1884.
We do not have Esther’s response to this letter from 1 May 1889, but on 30 May of that year, Camille’s mother Rachel (Esther’s grandmother) died at the age of 94. She had been a strong Jewish matriarch who united the Pissarro and Isaacson families for decades. Rachel and Esther kept alive Camille’s connection to his Jewish origins, despite his abandonment of Jewish practice. This circle would grow to include his Jewish daughter-in-law, Esther Bensusan Pissarro, and his London grandchildren Tommy and Orovida, who were raised with a great deal of exposure to Jewish culture and ritual. Rachel Pissarro was buried in the Jewish section of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, along with Camille’s father Frédéric. Camille, too, would be buried there after his death in 1903, and Julie in 1926.
In the month after Camille wrote this letter to Esther, Georges Pissarro moved to London to live with the Isaacsons and begin his studies at Toynbee Hall.
The third and final letter that I will discuss was written on 5 May 1890, one year after the previous letter. This is his 60th year, and here the subject is more joyful than anarchism or anti-Semitism because Camille talks to Esther about the lengthy and delicate process of becoming an artist.
The context of the letter was Camille’s upcoming visit to London. He was responding to a letter from Esther asking him to come over sooner so that he could see ‘The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society’ show at the New Gallery in Regent Street. Some William Morris pieces were included and Esther, a great fan of Morris, didn’t want Camille to miss them. He replied that he was unable to get to London in time, but hoped that Esther would take him to see similar exhibitions. Georges was about to complete his year at the Guild and School of Handicraft at Toynbee Hall, and he’d been happy in London with the Isaacsons and had shown commitment to his studies. Camille would arrive in London on 23 May, with Lucien, and stay until the end of June; he and his two sons would spend time making art together in London. So, in this letter to Esther, he was content but also reflective because he was conscious that Georges was about to make the transition from student to independent artist. Camille’s brother Alfred Pissarro had died on 29 April, just a week before this letter, but relations between the brothers had been fraught due to disputes over the inheritance from their mother, Rachel. Camille only learned of the death via the receipt of a printed card, and his letter to Esther mentions Alfred but does not display any anguish over the loss of his brother. He was focused on Georges and the London trip.
Camille wrote to Esther that upon arriving in London, ‘I will see about establishing harmony between you and Georges, who seem to be fighting hard!’ As I have detailed in earlier parts of this article, Esther and Georges secretly became a couple, and then eloped in December 1892. We don’t know precisely when their rapport became romantic, but it was likely to have been during Georges’ year in London given the passion of the letters from this time, and the amount of time they spent together. They were both intense and spirited, so Camille’s description of them ‘fighting hard’ was partly in jest, but also reflected the spark between them. In the quotes below, I use bold text to indicate words that Camille had underlined, and it was highly unusual for him to employ so much underlining in one letter, a reflection of his zeal for the subject.
Esther had written to Camille about the differences of opinion between she and Georges, and they were all to do with art. The subject of Georges and art were dear to Camille, so he wrote back with passion: ‘Georges, you say, is so afraid of being influenced that he doesn’t want to put himself in the path of temptation. Eh! My dear little niece, isn’t that instinctive defiance against something that could be fatal to him? Your idea is correct, one can perfectly well admire something beautiful without letting oneself be influenced.’ But, he explained, influence can be a danger to an artist, whether one consciously tries to work with influences, or to reject them. The greatest danger, he wrote, was to those artists who are like ‘wax’ and the influence of something they’ve seen imprints upon them and they imitate it unconsciously. The ideas that Camille expressed here were completely contrary to the traditional, ‘academic’ style of art instruction found in Schools of Fine Art and art academies in the 19th century, where learning by copying great masterpieces was standard practice. For the Prix de Rome, for example, one of the most prestigious art scholarships of the period, a key task was to complete a perfectly executed copy of an Old Master painting.
Camille’s reasons for fearing the effect of influence became clearer when he addressed Esther’s next point, allowing him to talk about his concept of ‘sensations’, which is key to understanding his fundamental philosophy:
‘Georges is wrong to say that a piece of art is bad because he doesn’t feel it, (note that I don’t employ the work ‘understand’, as you did), for an artist there is an abyss between feeling and understanding. Art is, in effect, the expression of thought, but also of sensation, especially the sensations that one usually puts aside or even forgets. And now, as to your second proposition that ‘each artist must express himself in his own manner’, yes, if he has some sensations and that these sensations, so fleeting, so delicate, are not disturbed by some circumstance’.
It’s helpful to try to understand what he means by ‘sensations’, and the best definition comes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: ‘a mental process (such as seeing, hearing, or smelling) resulting from the immediate external stimulation of a sense organ, often as distinguished from a conscious awareness of the sensory process’. This definition corresponds well with what Camille described to Esther, including the ineffable aspect that sensations act separately from conscious awareness. For the artist, taking on sensations is just the first step—they must then translate these sensations into a concrete form, such as brush strokes on canvas. He suggests to Esther that not all artists have these sensations, and among those who do, not all are able to translate them into a physical form before they evaporate. ‘Influence’, therefore, is dangerous because it could interfere with the artist receiving and translating their own sensations. He will talk further about the process of understanding one’s sensations at the end of the letter.
But first, Camille turned to art education, a subject of interest to both he and Esther. As discussed in earlier parts of this article, Esther taught art to young ladies in London, and she discussed her pupils’ progress with her uncle. She also made art herself—drawing, sculpture, tapestries. She and Camille sometimes diverged in their opinions on art instruction, as seen during the year that Lucien Pissarro lived in London with the Isaacsons (1883/1884). Esther tended to believe that formal art education was essential, so, for example, she advised Lucien to study with Alphonse Legros at the Slade, and she herself wanted to take further painting lessons. At that time, Camille replied: ‘La peinture s’apprend tout seul’ (‘Painting is learned all by oneself’), and he never deviated from this point of view. He had approved of Georges attending the Guild and School of Handicraft for a year because the programme offered training in the practical skills necessary for making objects.
Esther did believe that drawing from life was essential to learning to make art. She was about to start art lessons with a group of four girls whose previous experience she clearly disapproved of: ‘So far they have learned in school, where they made drawings of noses and ears in albums, the copy on the left took up half the page, leaving the other half for reproduction’. She herself drew as a matter of habit, and she spoke regularly of taking her students to outdoor beauty spots or to places like Westminster Abbey, where they could draw the sculptures and carvings.
In this May 1890 letter, what Camille wrote to Esther is fascinating both from the perspective of art instruction, but also because Esther and Georges were secretly becoming a couple and though Camille was unaware of this development, he seemed to be aware of an important connection between them. He wrote:
‘You complain, my dear Esther, that because of your diverging artistic opinions, your discussions [with Georges] aren’t so friendly, but that should be the opposite; you have the rare occasion to study this boy, who knows nothing, a savage, but who is very curious about his sensations; the big difficulty will be to teach him at the same time as leaving him free, absolutely; if you want to convince him of something, make him feel it, but you will never do so by reasoning. You know it’s through heredity that he is formed the way he is.’
Georges could be impetuous, and he was more difficult than his siblings, but when Camille referred here to ‘heredity’, he was clearly making a link between he and Georges, and he was obviously proud of his son’s ungovernable character. Camille had to break free of his bourgeois upbringing and gravitate instinctively toward situations that allowed him the freedom to learn to make art, but also to accept input from others when it was needed. In this passage, Camille was placing Georges in Esther’s hands, a supreme demonstration of trust considering how deeply he cared about his son’s development as an artist.
In the final part of the letter, Camille described his own development as an artist with a certain directness and clarity that could only come from having thought about it so much, and for so many years:
‘I will be very happy to discuss all of this with you in London, you know that the question of education, it is all that is the most complicated; one can’t present formulas, each personality having different sensations. In all the (art) schools one learns to make art—no, that’s a huge error—one learns to execute it, but to make art, never! I began to understand my sensations, to know what I wanted, at about age 40, but vaguely; at age 50, in 1880, I formed the idea of unity, without being able to render it; at age 60, I begin to see the possibility of realising it. Eh bien, do you believe that this can be taught?’
Camille wrote of art education, but in reality, he was describing how long it had taken him to achieve the perfect synthesis of sensation and understanding. This was a very personal and lengthy process that gradually enabled him to achieve his vision. We can see that he continually assessed his development, with a certain fascination for the elements of the process that were beyond his conscious control. He wanted Esther to understand this process because it was now Georges’ turn to begin this journey. Camille wanted her to understand that there was no way to quicken the process, there were no tricks or short cuts.
A few weeks after writing this letter, Camille was in London with Esther, Georges and Lucien, where he enjoyed a productive time painting and being with his family, discussing all the creative and political matters that were important to the four of them. After he got home, Esther sent him some sketches that had been done by her most talented pupil, Katie (whose surname is never mentioned). According to Esther, Katie had been more influenced by all the Camille Pissarro paintings hanging up in the Isaacson home than by the Constable and Morland paintings hanging up in her own home. Camille wrote to Esther in July 1890: ‘I looked with great interest at the sketches by your little student, they’re quite sensational…she’s a little impressionist!’ Would Katie have understood that ‘sensational’ is the very highest compliment Camille Pissarro could bestow?
And here concludes the story of Esther Isaacson Pissarro—for now. As I continue my research, I hope to be able to revisit some of the unanswered questions that have arisen. It is the nature of research of this kind to end with certain frustrations, and I would dearly have loved to gain access to more of Esther’s letters and to more family photos. I have one photo of her, formal and solitary. None of her with her family, or with Camille or Georges. Alfred Isaacson mentions a photo of Esther with her friend (and eventually sister-in-law) Esther Bensusan Pissarro. If this still exists, I would love to see it.
My intention in writing this article was to “write a woman back into history”, since it became clear to me that in a number of books on Camille Pissarro, Esther’s relationship with her uncle and her cousins had been minimised or even deleted. Indeed, there are even factual errors. It was through going directly to the primary source—reading and re-reading the Pissarro letters—that Esther came to my attention because her vivacity and intellect jumped off the page. Equally, when Camille wrote to Esther, his letters became especially lively and engaging. It was clear that there was a special bond between them, and that Camille had a high esteem for Esther’s thinking and her endeavours, and he delighted in her company. I wanted to know more about this young woman.
After reading the letters and doing additional research, I set about following in her London footsteps, to gain a feel for the neighbourhoods she called home. Over 130 years later, much has changed, but the stamp of Victorian London remains. The property at 7 Colville Square in Bayswater still exists. This is where Camille and his sons occasionally lodged, and became acquainted with the landlady, Miss Zink, whose cooking Camille rated highly. This is where Esther died, and where Félix Pissarro would spend some of his last months, as he was dying of tuberculosis. It was poignant to think that Esther had entered 7 Colville Square with Georges, expecting their first baby, but had left the premises in the most tragic of circumstances. The Isaacson family home in Bayswater no longer exists, but around the corner from the site remains the home of Esther’s best friend, Ida Henry, in Aldridge Road Villas. The house is largely unchanged, and I could imagine Esther and Ida making the short journey to one another’s home.
Finding Esther’s burial place brought another set of upsetting discoveries. She was buried at West Ham Jewish Cemetery, which contains the Rothschild mausoleum. The cemetery is difficult to find because it is not searchable on Google Maps, the entrance is hidden, and it can only be entered by appointment. It had been the target of a serious anti-Semitic attack in 2005 from which it does not seem to have recovered, and the approach to her grave was very discouraging. Everywhere were smashed or overturned memorials. Miraculously, Esther’s grave was intact due to, I believe, the quality and style of her memorial which made it more resistant to damage. Her stone reads: ‘In Memory of Esther Clara Pissarro, Née Isaacson, Wife of Georges Henri Pissarro, Born in Paris October 31st 1857, Died in London September 2nd 1893’. I was relieved that her grave was undamaged but felt depressed that the peace here had been shattered by hatred and violence, and that this could happen again. These feelings returned me to Esther, Camille and Amy Levy’s experiences of being Jewish in late 19th century Europe, and reminded me that 130 years can feel like a short span of time.
I will finish with a quote from a letter that Camille wrote to Esther in August of 1890, after he’d returned from his trip to London, and before Esther’s upcoming visit to Eragny. Although she’d shared with him her little cartoons and funny sketches, she’d been hesitant to show him her serious pieces because she doubted her own talent. He wrote to her: ‘Prepare your paint brushes! 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 confirms me in the opinion which I always had: that it was a pity not to pursue further your artistic studies’. And she did paint with her exceptional uncle.
All translations from French to English done by the author.
Lucien Pissarro left England in March of 1884, in time to help his family move into their new home in rural Eragny-sur-Epte. Camille described the advantages of the new home to Lucien, noting that there were attractions that ‘will interest the English: the churches, the markets, the farms, the countryside, the stations, coaches, the boutiques, the landscape’. And indeed, Esther came to love spending time in Eragny. In a letter she wrote to Esther Bensusan, while she was visiting Eragny in September 1890, she said: ‘there is such a lot to be done in this heavenly place that the day goes by and one doesn’t know how exactly’.
The five years between Lucien’s departure and Georges’ arrival in June 1889, took Esther from the age of 26 to 31; very important years in the life of a young woman of marriageable age. Judging by her letters, she seemed to lead a rich life, full of activity, culture and artistic pursuits. Of course, it is impossible to know if she was happy or to know how deeply she felt the lack of romantic relationship. Might she have met young men in these years, but acquaintance did not lead to marriage? There is no mention of these matters in the existing letters, nor why Amélie and Alice never married.
Esther’s primary occupation in these years was her teaching, and though she might have taught French or other subjects, the only topic about which she speaks in her letters is art instruction. We learn more about Esther’s students in a letter she wrote to Orovida Bensusan in the 1880s. Esther was recovering from illness and she pretended to be writing from the ‘Botticelli Ward’ of the ‘Pokee Hospital’. ‘Pokee’ was the name the Isaacsons gave to their homes, wherever they lived. Esther wrote that Nurse Alice was bothersome because she wouldn’t let Esther ‘have more than half a dozen volumes of Morris’ on her bed, and another ‘fidgety old patient’ patient (Phineas) troubled her by keeping the room too hot and making noise with his crumpling newspaper. In this letter, Esther told Orovida that she was quite surprised to have had a letter from Lady Coventry, who she had never met, expressing the hope that Esther would recover quickly, and signed ‘your sincere friend’. Esther quipped: ‘Don’t you think I have a right to expect hot-house grapes after that!’ Esther told Orovida that she was going to have a class of 6 girls: ‘Lady Anne [Coventry], Vera Grey, 2 Van de Weyers, a Willoughby, and Lady Sophie Cadogan; I think it splendid and hope they’ll get on’. On the back of the letter is a message from either Alice or Phineas saying: ‘I didn’t want to send this till we had seen the Dr.; he finds her getting on very well and if she continues like she is now she may go to her class Tuesday’. Lady Coventry’s letter indicates that Esther was a valued teacher who was missed. How had Esther attracted students from such elite British families? Where were her classes held? Esther’s pupil, Lady Anne Coventry (1874-1956), caused a sensation by marrying Prince Victor Duleep Singh in 1898, the first time a member of the British gentry married an Indian Prince. Esther became friends with some of her students and their families, as seen in a letter to Lucien from September of 1884, when she wrote: ‘I have been staying at Walton-on-Thames, with some old pupils, the Halfords, & I enjoyed it very much, we were boating all day & the River looked lovely! One morning we went out to sketch & I did a little thing in coloured chalks’. And, as discussed in Part 1 of this article, one of these gentry families tried to convert Esther to Christianity. I will discuss Esther’s art teaching in more detail in Part 4 of this article, when I examine a conversation between she and Camille on the subject.
After Lucien’s stay in London, Esther maintained her connection to him, though distance and time constraints made it difficult, since Lucien became focused on establishing his career. In September of 1884, she wrote to him: ‘Why do you never write to me now? […] I should so much like to know how you are getting on. I suppose you are enjoying the perfect weather at Eragny’. Her letters to Lucien in this period shed light on her life outside teaching. In September 1884, she told him that Jacques Hadamard was staying with them: ‘He is a very nice boy and we all like him very much’. She also told Camille about Hadamard and that she was making a bust of him. Camille encouraged her, and wrote: ‘When will I see the bust of Hadamard, and when will you make me something of yourself?’ Jacques Hadamard was nearly 19 years old at the time of his visit to London and would begin his studies at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris that autumn. He went on to become a world-renowned mathematician. Hadamard was personally connected to the Dreyfus Affair through his cousin Lucie Hadamard, who was the wife of Alfred Dreyfus. I have not been able to uncover how Hadamard knew the Isaacsons, or why he was in London at that time.
Esther partook of London’s cultural life, indulging in her passion for music, discussed in Part 1 of this article, but also the art world. In a letter from June of 1886, for example, she told Lucien that she had been to the Fine Art Society to see the exhibition of Ernest Hart’s collection of ancient Japanese objects. Interest in Japanese art was a fashion that had taken hold in both London and Paris in the late-19th century, and Camille was also an admirer. She told Lucien that there were marvels in the Hart collection, and, she added approvingly, ‘It’s astonishing that at that time, no one was afraid of making the ‘ugly’!’ She was delighted to see an aesthetic that she hadn’t encountered in contemporary art and, generally, she enjoyed trying to articulate her thoughts about art and she knew this was a subject she could discuss with Lucien and Camille.
In the biography of Camille Pissarro by Shikes and Harper, they wrote: ‘Georges [Pissarro] had met the Isaacson sisters during his first visit to England 1891’. This is incorrect, first of all, because of the dates: Georges lived with the Isaacsons from 1889 to 1890, and then returned again in 1891. Secondly, Georges and Esther certainly spent time together during the Isaacson’s earlier visits to France. Over the five years between Lucien’s departure from London and Georges’ arrival, Esther (usually, but not always with Alice) visited France three times: in the summer of 1885, in September of 1886, and in September of 1888. During these visits, Esther and Alice would visit Paris to see their sister Amélie and the Paris Pissarros (Camille’s brother Alfred, his wife Marie and their two sons), and to see their grandmother Rachel, who lived until 30 May 1889. They would also spend time with Camille in Paris and with he and the family in Eragny.
In the summer of 1885, Camille’s brother Alfred rented a house on the Normandy coast, in Villerville, and invited all the family for a seaside holiday. Camille and Julie did not go, but Lucien, and later Georges, joined the extended family there—including Esther and Alice Isaacson. Esther announced her desire to visit Eragny after Villerville, and Camille wrote to Esther full of excitement and whimsy, saying: ‘play the Ant and come back to us with your gaiety! We will be so happy to receive the Cicada and to make her sing and dance, long live the Metamorphoses !!! […] Goodbye beautiful Cicada, my niece’. Camille was making reference to one of his favourite books, Les Metamorphoses du jour (1829) by Grandville, a collection of fantastical illustrations in which characters with human bodies and animal faces played out scenes from contemporary life and exposed human foibles. Implied in Camille’s message to Esther was her knowledge of the book, and even the illustrations to which he referred.
The Pissarro family endured difficult financial circumstances in these years, which Esther must have known of; she and Alice often sent them little presents, such as books, children’s clothing and parcels of English tea and food that they knew the Pissarros liked. Esther sent fifty francs to Julie on the pretext that she wanted to get gifts for the children but did not know what they would like. She sent a Walter Crane print, Commune de Paris, to Lucien. For Camille, she bought a special hat to protect his face while he painted outdoors. As early as 1887, there was discussion of Georges Pissarro coming to London, perhaps to help the family through their tough straits. Also, tensions had emerged in the Pissarro household because Georges could be moody, and Julie found it difficult to have him at home, where he was undecided about his future, fractious and unhelpful. Julie wanted Camille to find a place for Georges in Paris—as an assistant in a sculpture studio, or even office work—but Camille wanted to wait for the right opportunity to present itself, and he saw that Georges’ interests were leaning toward sculpture and woodwork. Esther, who was a huge admirer of William Morris, wrote to Camille on 26 May 1887 with a proposal:
‘I have an idea in mind, and I can’t wait to tell you about it. It seems to me that your plan with regard to Georges, that he works with the goal of making furniture, it might be possible to achieve it by placing Georges at [William] Morris’s; this is my big proposal! I’ll tell you the pros. —Morris is an honest man, in principle and in work, and, as far as I can judge him (which I do by his writings, lectures and drawings, furniture, etc.) a gentleman. I mean a serious, educated, and kind man. I know that he himself works on his furniture, stains, etc. and I am sure that a young man placed under his direction, would be under an intelligent and skilful master […] I’m completely ignorant of Morris’s terms, but I thought I’d write to you first, so I can get your thoughts on it. If you want to write to him yourself and propose this idea, you can judge him by his answer. If you want me to ask him about it, I am not at all afraid to approach him and would undertake to ask him if this arrangement is possible’.
Camille expressed some interest in this plan, but nothing came of it, and soon after this exchange there was a family dispute that interfered with normal contact between the Pissarros and Isaacsons. Camille had been angered by a disparaging comment his sister-in-law Marie Pissarro made to Georges about Lucien; this resulted in a rupture between Camille and his brother Alfred. The Isaacsons, though trying to observe a certain distance, were forced to take sides, with Amélie sympathetic to the Paris Pissarros while Esther supported Camille’s view.
In early 1889, there was again talk of Georges coming to London, this time to attend The Guild and School of Handicraft, founded in 1888 by Charles Robert Ashbee, a disciple of Ruskin and Morris. Classes were held at Toynbee Hall, in the east end of London, in Whitechapel. This time the plans advanced and by the end of June 1889, Georges was living with the Isaacsons in their home in Bayswater. Georges settled in happily to the programme at Toynbee and to life in London. On 7 July, Camille wrote to Esther: ‘Georges is truly enchanted with London’, and to Georges he wrote: ‘I am very happy to learn through Esther’s letter that you feel at ease in your new existence’. Camille and Julie were grateful to the Isaacson sisters for the care they gave Georges, and Camille began a special painting for Esther—something so colourful and bright that it would function as an alarm clock [‘réveil matin’]. On 4 September Camille wrote to Esther: ‘I hope that you spoil my Georges!’
In October of that year, Esther went to France with her brother Alfred, who was visiting from America. She brought some samples of Georges’ schoolwork to show Camille, and he was pleased with what he saw, saying to Georges: ‘I am happy to report that you have made great progress’. Camille gave Esther ‘the Guignol’ to carry back with her to London. The Guignol was the family art album that the Pissarros made each year, and it was too precious to be posted. Starting in 1889, Esther and Georges created a continuation of the Guignol which was called Le Journal d’Eragny, to which Esther also contributed. Camille took pleasure from Esther and Alfred’s visit and told Georges: ‘We came up with some theories!’, giving us an image of Camille, Lucien, Esther and Alfred engaged in lively philosophical discussions. Esther’s 32nd birthday was on 31 October of that year, and Lucien created a handmade book for her called La Marseillaise des Épiciers (The Grocers’ Marseillaise) a delightfully illustrated and amusing story of a group of village grocers rallying to take a stand against a new merchant in town who sold substandard goods at low prices. Lucien also included a beautiful frontispiece combing Esther’s initials.
In November of that year, Camille wrote to Georges to criticize him for not accompanying Esther and Alice to a soirée at the Bensusan home. He wrote: ‘Alice gives you a mother’s care, and Esther supervises your education with so much devotion’. To thank the sisters, Camille created a handmade book that he called the Turpitudes Sociales. The book is dated 1890, but he made the drawings in late 1889 and sent it to London at the very end of December. Though it was sent to both sisters, the intended recipient was really Esther, given the political and philosophical subject matter. Camille would even say to Georges on 29 December, ‘I was very busy finishing Esther’s book’. The Turpitudes Sociales consists of 28 pen and ink over graphite drawings bound in a book with a cover and a table of contents. The book is now in a private collection in Geneva, but it can be seen on this website: https://www.clarkart.edu/microsites/pissarro-s-people/turpitudes-sociales-highlights. Also, in 2009 Presses Universitaires de France published a beautiful copy of the book in facsimile. This edition is still available and is presented in the exact dimensions of the original and retains all the details such as smudges and water marks.
The book is unique in Camille Pissarro’s oeuvre and deserves its own article; here, I will simply describe it, and pose the question of what inspired him to create it for Esther. The subject matter of the book is the human misery caused by capitalism and the illustrations present dark images of greed, exploitation, poverty, desperation, suicide, and various forms of violence. One feels the contempt Camille held for the bankers, stock brokers and factory bosses, and the sympathy and affection he felt for the victims: abandoned children, poor families, factory workers, the precariously employed, the starving. On the title page the word ‘anarchie’ floats like a rising sun above the Eiffel Tower. The final illustration, titled ‘insurrection’, portrays the people of Paris rising up in rebellion in the manner of 1789 and 1848, barricading the streets. Each image is supplemented by a caption on its facing page, such as a short descriptive title, an excerpt from Baudelaire, or an item from current events. Eight of the drawings are accompanied by quotes from the anarchist newspaper La Révolté (The Rebel).
Camille sent the book with two letters—one to Alice and Esther, and another to Esther only. In the first, he explained: ‘I had to choose, given your education and your gender, the most honest turpitudes of the bourgeoisie. I do not think I have gone beyond the expression of the truth’. In this letter, he added a list of short comments about the drawings. To Esther he wrote: ‘Finally, your collection of Turpitudes, I hope you will be satisfied when you find that I have chosen the most honest scenes of turpitude so as not to offend your delicacy, and that you will find that I did not go beyond the limits of the plausibility! I had written a series of comments about each drawing for you about it, then I thought it was better to let you do them yourself’. Unfortunately, we do not have the letter in which Esther responds to the book, but we know she was delayed in writing. On 9 January, Camille wrote to Georges expressing happiness that the Turpitudes had been well-received by Esther, though on 12 January he wrote, saying ‘Reproaches to Esther who hasn’t deigned to respond to me’. But by 15 January he told Georges that he’d received an affectionate letter from Esther and that the delay had been caused by a bereavement. Though it is unfortunate not to have Esther’s response, we do know that her close friend, the concert pianist Ida Henry, introduced in Part I of this article, did not approve of the book. Georges must have reported this to Camille, who replied:
‘She is very funny, this young lady Henry, it cannot be Miss Ida, it is not her, in that case she deserves to go to the conservatory! One can only have a deep disdain for these poor deformed beings, I mean morally deformed.’
Camille knew Ida Henry, and was obviously shocked and disappointed at her reactionary response to his book, though the content was very dark. What did he mean when he described the subject matter as ‘the most honest turpitudes of the bourgeoisie’? The word ‘turpitudes’ has the same meaning in French and English, ‘depraved or wicked behaviour or character’, and in both languages it is usually expressed as ‘moral turpitudes’ (‘turpitudes morales’). By changing the expression to ‘Turpitudes Sociales’, Camille made a play on words—shifting the blame for the supposed moral failings of the poor to society and its power structure. In one drawing, for example, a pair of drunken men hold one another up as they shuffle down the street, and the caption reads: ‘The poor demand wine to forget their suffering’. Camille often lamented the bourgeois tendency to turn a blind eye to suffering, their complicity angered him, and Ida Henry’s response to his book would have smacked of bourgeois status-quoism. But Ida Henry should not have been overly shocked, since these were the kind of subjects that were broached in popular novels of the day, such as Zola’s Germinal (1884) and Margaret Harkness’s In Darkest London (1889), and before them, in works by Dickens and Hugo. For Camille, it was an opportunity to take on subject matter that he never tackled in his paintings, and it must be remembered that this book was only seen by a limited number of family and close friends. He wrote to Georges about the content: ‘It’s new for me […] it’s an essay in the field of the tragi-comic which does not fit into my previous research. Never mind, there’s something to be done with it’. It is exciting to see how Camille approached the material, and his comment to Georges suggests that he wanted to continue in this vein, but I’m unaware of any further work of this type in his oeuvre.
The letters exchanged between Georges, Camille and Esther during Georges’ year in London show him to be happy—a contrast to his state of mind before leaving home. He fared well with the programme at Toynbee and persisted in his studies. All of this must have been a relief to Camille and Julie, since Georges could be volatile. But there was nothing in the letters to suggest that a romance was brewing between Georges and Esther, only indications that they spent a lot of time together and enjoyed one another’s company. This can be seen in the letters between Esther Isaacson, Esther Bensusan and Lucien Pissarro. Esther Bensusan wrote to Lucien on 5 September 1889: ‘Esther & Georges are coming on Saturday to stay till Wednesday with us. We hope to go for several excursions to the country’. The Bensusans now lived in Mowbray Road in Upper Norwood. On 22 September, Esther Bensusan wrote to Lucien: ‘It was most delightful having Esther & Georges with us for that week, we had some splendid excursions in the country. We used to go out for the whole day provided with lunch etc. I hope to go to ‘Pokee’ tomorrow to see them all’. Georges wrote to Camille about a visit to Box Hill, where he made some sketches. Esther Bensusan wrote to Lucien on 4 November 1889: ‘Last week […] I went with Esther, Fred & Georges to hear the Berlioz ‘Faust’ at Albert Hall. It was most splendidly done & I need not tell you we enjoyed it.’ The performance was on 31 October, Esther Isaacson’s 32nd birthday. For whatever reason, Alice did not join in these activities.
A particular letter written by Esther Isaacson (to Esther Bensusan) in 1889 sheds light on the type of existence that she and Georges led during his stay—it also exudes enthusiasm and energy. The letter is undated, but mentions the glorious autumn weather. She highlights the fact that they are up and working by 8 in the morning, with underline and exclamation points.
‘Georges is working wonders in the Poke! Both he & I are in the drawing room, he painting, & I writing to the most interesting creature in the World! Yesterday we started in quest for a “School of Design” supposed to be existing in Somerset House, but it has vanished, so instead of hunting for it, we simply pottered about in the Strand. We dived into all kinds of little side streets, went into the Savoy Chapel & listened to the organ, went in & out of all the Courts of the Temple, saw the round church with the curious porch, in full a regular ramble, such as I love. On Friday we started from Westminster Pier & went down by water to Hampton Ct. You can have no idea of the rich beauty of the River. In London with the mass of traffic, then gradually the banks getting wooded, the stream getting narrower, & fuller of tiny boats. We had glorious autumn weather, a good wind, & the air as clear & fresh as possible. If you haven’t done that journey, I advise you to do so. What I think so interesting in the Thames is its History, I mean the History connected with it. Almost every spot has some fact connected with it. We are waiting for Tickets of admission to sketch in Westminster Abbey. We have discovered such marvels there that we thought we would like to work at them’.
This letter coincided with Esther Bensusan’s return from Eragny, where she had met Camille and Julie for the first time, and Esther Isaacson’s closing comments make reference to this visit: ‘Isn’t he [Camille] everything that is good & noble, & are they not a charming family altogether, people doing away with all the stupid conventionalities which we dull people think so important, and leading such a pure, simple & intelligent life!’
Georges was expected to return to France when his programme at Toynbee Hall was completed in summer of 1890, but even before the year was out, he was trying to devise a way to extend his stay in London. Camille and Lucien were due to come to London to stay with Georges and the Isaacsons in the summer, and as plans for that visit took shape, Georges wrote to Camille to ask about giving art lessons in London. In April 1890, Camille replied that they could discuss that when they were all together in London, but he suggested that it was Lucien who should be the first to embark on that career since he was older and more experienced. Camille and Lucien were in London from the end of May and stayed for about a month. The key letter writers—Camille, Esther, Georges and Lucien—were all together, so there are few extant letters from this visit—except for a brief note to Julie from Camille, from 27 May: ‘One doesn’t have a minute to oneself. Museum upon museum to visit […] In summer the parks are superb, one can work there without being disturbed, the areas around London are also superb […] this morning, worked in Chelsea’. When Camille and Lucien returned to France, they brought Georges home with them.
Esther missed Georges; she wrote to Lucien after their departure:
‘I can’t tell you how much we miss Georges! In the evening it’s so sad to go downstairs and turn off the gas! Tell him that I hung his little green piece in the salon, between the fireplace and the window, and it looks very good there. We are still counting on coming to Eragny for the month of September: me, to take lessons!’
And Esther did visit Eragny that month, without Alice. She wrote to Esther Bensusan while there, and her letter emanates happiness, and love for the family and for Eragny. She wrote of getting caught out in heavy showers while out walking with Georges and Felix and getting back to the house soaked-through but laughing; of teaching Cocotte to do embroidery; of the pretty spectacle of Julie and the local women washing their laundry in the river, and finally she wrote: ‘The other day all the family was sitting in a row, some on the sofa & some on either side of it, & from the white head to the little yellow one they were a most remarkable looking lot! Each one having his characteristic look, & every one nice looking.’
After this visit, with Esther gone, and stuck in rural Eragny, Georges became miserable and difficult, which brought aggravation for Camille and Julie. Though the focus was on getting Lucien established in London, it became urgent to get Georges settled outside of the family home where his disruptive presence was interfering with Camille’s work. On 24 October 1890, Camille wrote to Julie:
‘Lucien received a letter from Esther who told him that she’d found a little apartment in their Cornwall Road neighbourhood with a room off the street that could be used as a studio, a little office and hot water, and a bedroom on the second floor that could serve Georges and Lucien; that good Esther also wrote that she could offer to advance five hundred francs to Lucien to get him started. Lucien wrote that he would accept all except the five hundred francs, which I will advance him. Thus, you can prepare his belongings, he will leave soon’.
They could not afford to send both boys at this time, so Lucien went alone to London in November 1890. Camille urgently wanted Lucien to succeed, partly so that Georges could follow. He kept asking Lucien if he had found students, and expressed some frustration at his lack of progress. On 26 November he wrote: ‘But you need students, you need to earn money, and as soon as possible. Because you have to succeed at your work so that Georges can go to London’. Things at home only got worse; by 3 December, Camille wrote:
‘Maman is writing to you, and by her letter you will see the kind of battle that exists in Eragny. I feel discouragement gradually taking over me, it’s untenable and especially the feeling that Georges doesn’t seem to understand the seriousness of these quarrels. […] He always has these airs —here and there—that displease and exasperate your mother, thus there are storms. At present, she absolutely wants him to get a place in Paris. She claims that London doesn’t suit him, and that he must be kept away from his Dulcinée. It’s absurd, but never mind, that’s the anvil that she strikes.’
His ‘Dulcinée’, as Julie called her, was Esther Isaacson. Julie wrote to Lucien: ‘I don’t think it’s prudent that [Georges] return to London because he’ll suffer due to his ideas. You think that I’m mistaken about Esther but sadly I’m almost sure that all his rages and all his nastiness come from thinking of her. He doesn’t work, he doesn’t do anything unless it’s for her’. Thus, even though Esther had recently stayed with them for a month in Eragny, she and Georges had kept their relationship a secret. But Julie had certainly detected something and she was not in favour of the union. Can she be blamed? Esther was 33 and Georges was only 19, and not very mature. At this point, Lucien was not able to attract enough students or paid work in London, and he moved back and forth—returning home to Eragny at certain intervals.
What was Julie’s relationship with Esther? Though Esther was fond of Julie and loved the world she’d created with Camille in Eragny, the two women were not as close as Esther and Camille. They did not share the same interests or imperatives; Esther was artistic, lively and intelligent, whereas Julie was imminently practical and had many day-to-day realities to confront with very few financial means. In a letter to Lucien written while he was in London, Julie complained that she thought Esther would give Lucien some of her students, adding sarcastically ‘but it seems that I was mistaken’. But why should Esther have given Lucien some of her students? Esther would have worked hard to build her reputation as a teacher. Julie was closer to Alice, the more practical and sweet-natured niece. Both Esther and Georges were described by family members as ‘fantasque’. There are two definitions of ‘fantasque’, and one is more joyful while the other can be more troublesome. The first definition could describe Esther: ‘someone who freely and happily follows their fantasy, original, imaginative, non-conformist’. The second is more appropriate to Georges: ‘someone who is capricious, prone to fantasies, mood swings, unpredictable’. But these personality traits that so irritated Julie were likely the very qualities that attracted the pair to one another; they allowed one another to be ‘fantasque’ without constraint.
Georges finally set off for London at the end of September 1891, and he was joined by Lucien. From this point on, Georges’ career became very important to Esther because of the future life the couple were secretly planning. This would also mark the moment that the writer Octave Mirbeau became closely intertwined with the fate of the Pissarro family, and particularly Georges and Esther. In the late 19th century, Octave Mirbeau was a very famous journalist, novelist and art critic, made even more famous through his marriage to Alice Regnault, a well-known actress and former courtesan. Mirbeau used his celebrity as a public intellectual to speak out for causes he cared about, many of which were anti-establishment, and he championed the art of Camille Pissarro. Though his name might be unfamiliar today, his novel Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (The Diary of a Chambermaid) has been made into a film three times: by Jean Renoir in 1946, by Luis Buñuel in 1964, and by Benoit Jacquot in 2015.
Octave Mirbeau and Camille Pissarro became close friends, and it would be Mirbeau who smoothed the way for Georges and Lucien to move to London by organising two contacts for them. First, Mirbeau arranged for the boys to meet the painter John Singer Sargent, who was then living in London. Second, Mirbeau wanted some illustrations for the work of one of his protégées—the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, a rising star. Georges’ more stylised artistic-leaning seemed best-suited to the content of Maeterlinck’s Symbolist work. These leads gave Camille and Julie the confidence to take on the financial commitment of paying the London room and board for the boys. The couple were also worried that if Lucien and Georges remained in France, the authorities might discover that they were not registered with the French army.
This time, Lucien and Georges did not live with the Isaacsons, but instead lived together in various west London locations. Soon after their arrival in London, Mathilde Henry, the French widow who had been an important part of Esther’s life, died at the age of 68. Esther was very upset, and to make matters worse, Madame Henry had died on 31 October 1891, Esther’s 34th birthday. Camille wrote to Lucien with a message for the Henry daughters, Ida and Louise: ‘On our behalf, I ask you to present our condolences to the Misses, who must be so devasted!’
The boys did meet John Singer Sargent; he kept his word to Mirbeau and invited them to lunch at his home studio at 31/33 Tite Street, Chelsea. They were impressed by his kindness and reported that he offered to look at their work on a future occasion. And Georges did set to work on illustrations for Maeterlinck plays. He was especially drawn to the piece La Princesse Maleine, a gothic fairy tale. For this work, Georges used Esther as his model. He wrote to Camille: ‘It was Esther I. who posed for Maleine this time and for all the others, she promised me her help; she has an amazing velvet dress’. Posing as the Princesse Maleine must have brought about some intense shared hours for Georges and Esther, and this arrangement demonstrates the way Georges viewed Esther: even 14 years his senior, he saw her as an inspiration for drawings of a young princess.
In addition to these paths, Georges also successfully sought out portrait work in London, aided by Esther’s connections. But this portrait work caused friction between Georges and Lucien. The pair had never been as close as Georges was with their younger brother Felix (the subject of another article on this website). They had very different personalities, and the appearance that Georges was having more success in London would have stung Lucien, who was 8 years older and who seemed the more consistent of the two. In general, relations between Lucien and Georges deteriorated after their arrival in London in September 1891. When Camille wrote to Lucien in May 1892, and seemed to be trying to prop up Lucien’s morale, Janine Bailly-Herzberg added a footnote to the letter suggesting that Lucien’s mood might in part be caused by Georges obtaining portraiture work ‘easily’ and that Georges was ‘well helped – if not favoured – in his affairs by Esther Isaacson’ (Vol. 3, p.225). For many years Esther Isaacson had helped Lucien, and if she now appeared to favour Georges, it was because they were planning a future together, and because Georges did have a natural flair for portraiture. Lucien’s low morale might also have been caused by difficulties with the Bensusan family. He and Esther Bensusan had announced their intention to marry in May 1892, but the Bensusans were vehemently opposed to the union and pressured Lucien to become a practicing Jew, under threat to disinherit Esther. Sadly, relations between the two Esthers also deteriorated in this period, perhaps because of the competition between the two brothers. The secrecy with which Georges and Esther Isaacson conducted their romance—which would have necessitated a certain amount of deceit—must also have created tensions. In the spring of 1892 Georges asked Camille to send his birth certificate, which he would have needed in order to marry Esther.
Camille came to London for an extended visit from the end of May until early August 1892. He was there to paint because he enjoyed the change of scenery and his paintings of London were usually attractive to buyers. He was also there to support Lucien in his dealings with the Bensusans. He stayed at 7 Colville Square in Bayswater, near the Isaacsons, and then moved to lodgings in Kew—1 Gloucester Terrace, Kew Green, where there is now a Blue Plaque. Camille wrote to Julie on 30 June: ‘Lucien will soon be marrying and plans to come to France. Georges is doing well and is working on his portraits’. It was a happy and busy visit, and he saw much of his Isaacson nieces; Esther even stayed in London while Alice and Amelie went to the seaside for a week. Georges travelled back to France with Camille in August but was back in London by mid-September. Camille wrote to him: ‘Kiss my two nieces and tell them how much I miss not seeing them as we did in Kew. What a pity they are not practical in life, otherwise I would ask them to watch over you, but alas! They are so little of this world!’ Lucien and Esther Bensusan married in August and went on honeymoon in France. They then spent many months in Eragny, leaving Georges on his own in London. Georges returned to lodgings in 7 Colville Square, around the corner from the Isaacsons. Even at this late stage, and with Camille having spent time with them, Georges and Esther kept their romance a secret.
The subject of Georges’ portrait-work came up again in late 1892, and this time it was Camille who had misgivings; he always wanted his children to pursue ‘real art’—art that was felt—and worried that Georges’ early success with portraits would lead him in the wrong direction. Camille expressed his concern to Mirbeau in December 1892: ‘I recently received some letters from Georges who exudes great satisfaction, he has a number of portraits to do, he is very popular with English ladies; that gives me some worry, I fear that this success will cause him to lose sight of the true path, I have faith in his instincts, but damn it, it’s dangerous!’ This subject came up again in a letter from Camille to Esther from 9 December 1892, in which he wrote somewhat defensively and sharply, replying to her letter in which she queried his reasons for not supporting Georges’ portrait work:
‘You are in deepest error, my dear niece, to believe that you are the reason for the reflection that one of Georges’ letters prompted […] but what I feared—and you had nothing to do with it—was rather Georges’ temperament […] it’s because he is admirably gifted that I would not want him to lose his fine qualities by letting himself be drawn toward a too easy proficiency, that’s all. […] But he is wrong to take my advice for reproaches, for God’s sake, no! just some advice after having seen young people fall asleep after their first success, be it artistic or otherwise!’
This is one of the last letters that Camille wrote to Esther before she and Georges eloped on 17 December 1892.
I do not know where the couple married, but they spent their honeymoon by the seaside at 16 Wellington Crescent in Ramsgate—a Victorian seaside town. From there, they wrote letters to their friends and family informing them of their marriage. There were strong repercussions: Julie was deeply upset and forbade it to be spoken of; Esther’s sisters were shocked at having been excluded; and Ida Henry was angry. There are no letters that discuss Phineas Isaacson’s reaction, but we saw at the end of Part 2 of this article that Mr. Bensusan would not attend Esther’s funeral because of the marriage. The reaction must have been enormous in Esther’s London world and in Phineas’ Jewish community. Esther and Georges were astonished by the recriminations, but Camille explained to them that marrying in secret had helped them to avoid ‘quarrels, advice, pleas’, but now they would have all that and ‘more intense and more persistent’. Camille, however, was characteristically philosophical and attempted to bring about peace. He wrote to Lucien: ‘I’m very surprised and yet I expected it, isn’t it so?’, adding ‘one can no more stop the passions of love than one can stop the sea, the torrents, the only remedy is to know how to channel the forces rather than combat them, I let nature act’. To Esther, Camille wrote ‘be happy’ and asked for one thing: ‘union and harmony with my other children, especially Lucien’.
Again, it was Octave Mirbeau whose intervention helped smooth difficulties for Georges and Esther after their dramatic elopement and the family fallout. One of the people Georges wrote to from Ramsgate was Mirbeau, to say that he had married ‘La Princesse Maleine’. Mirbeau wrote immediately to Camille for clarification. Camille explained: ‘the passage of his letter concerning Princess Maleine relates to his wife, whom he considers in this poetic and romantic dreamlike way. My niece has only this fault — of being a little disproportionate in age with her young, very young husband. She’s intelligent and devoted, but we can’t help but fear for the future given the sensitive character of this boy’. Mirbeau was surprised by the marriage but congratulatory. He expressed his hope that Georges would find happiness and stability with Esther and that Julie would come to support the couple. Moreover, Mirbeau hired Georges to undertake work making decorations for his new residence in Carrières-sous-Poissy. By February 1893, Georges and Esther were installed in lodgings in nearby Grésillons, and work was underway. Julie admired Mirbeau greatly, and his support for Georges and Esther’s marriage pacified her.
By May, Félix was living with the couple, helping Georges to make paintings and decorated panels, and decorating furniture. In a letter to Camille, Félix described their home: ‘The dining area downstairs is arranged by the windows, which have yellow curtains made of some splendid material; we have hung your prints on the walls and your paintings, it looks very nice. Amélie came yesterday, and you, when will you come?’ The Mirbeau residence was 50 kilometres from Éragny and easily accessible by train, and indeed, there were family visits and joint outings. Camille wrote to Lucien on 2 February 1893: ‘I have been in Paris since yesterday. I got back from Poissy with Georges, Esther and Titi, we met M. and Mme Mirbeau at the railroad station in Poissy’. They had been to see the influential exhibition of the Japanese artists Utamaro and Hiroshige in Paris at Durand-Ruel’s. Mirbeau seemed pleased with Georges and Félix’s work and wrote to Camille in early June: ‘I believe you will experience a moment of joy when you see the progress of your sons!’ Camille wrote to Mirbeau: ‘I recently received a letter from Georges telling me enthusiastically about his work plans. You are a thousand times correct; it is so beautiful and joyous that these children have such a love of art’. During this happy time, Mirbeau also organised for Georges to meet Maurice Maeterlinck, which gave him further inspiration for the illustrations.
But this blissful period of domesticity and creativity did not last long. Soon after these letters between Camille Pissarro and Octave Mirbeau, a misunderstanding between them caused a rupture in the friendship and the consequences brought Georges and Félix’s work to an end. At the same time, Georges had injured a local farmer’s dog while defending himself against its attack and the owner pressed charges. On 10 June, Esther, now 6 months pregnant, turned up suddenly in Eragny asking for Camille’s help. Because Georges was not registered with the French military and the court case might necessitate showing official documents, Georges wanted her to go to Newhaven in England to rent a property so he would have an English residence to show authorities. Camille told Esther that it was Georges who should leave the country, as soon as the court date was set. The couple fled France together on 5 July 1893.
When Georges and Esther arrived in London, they stayed in the lodgings at 7 Colville Square in Bayswater, a few blocks away from the Isaacson home, a residence where the Pissarros had often stayed and where Camille knew the landlady, Miss Zink. This was a very stressful time for the couple, having to suddenly leave France and with no immediate source of income. Esther wrote to Camille of finding students again, but she was heavily pregnant and it was summer. Relations between Georges and Lucien were still poor, so the couple must have felt very isolated. Esther gave birth to her baby son on 30 August 1893, and died of eclampsia two days later, 2 September. The baby was named Tommy because it was the name that Esther uttered while she was delirious. His middle name, Clarence, was derived from Esther’s middle name, Clara. Sadly, in a last letter to Esther from Camille, the subject was money. He had given the couple money, but was unhappy with their spending habits. After her death, Camille wrote to Lucien, wondering if the events of the previous months had contributed to Esther’s death: ‘Georges and Esther must have been very worried, disturbed by the sudden departure and these unexpected changes’. Eclampsia can be exacerbated by stress.
Camille wrote to his friend, the writer Georges Lecomte: ‘At home, we have all been plunged into the deepest sadness. About a week ago, we received a telegram from Lucien telling us that Georges had just lost his wife, who died after having delivered a big, healthy boy; isn’t that heart-breaking? You can imagine what condition my poor boy is in’. Georges was distraught; he couldn’t be calmed and couldn’t sleep. Lucien brought Georges to his home in Epping to care for him, and Félix was immediately sent to England to offer support. This was an anxious time for Lucien and Esther Bensusan Pissarro, who were also expecting a baby, but their daughter, Orovida, was born safely on 8 October. In the early months after Esther’s death, Georges was afraid to care too deeply for Tommy, and wrote to Camille: ‘Tommy is doing wonderfully, he is so sweet, but I dare not hope, now that bad luck is against me, you can bet ten to one it will continue. The doctor is very happy with him, so much the better (he himself admitted that he would not have believed Tommy would live). That would have been awful! Both of them! I don’t dare trust too much and I do what I can not to love him too much!!’ Julie offered to raise Tommy in Éragny, but the responsibility fell instead to Esther’s sister, Alice, who doted on the child. Camille sent money to Alice every month, but Tommy grew up in London, living with his aunts and with his grandfather, Phineas. Alice seems to have tried to keep connections between Tommy and the Pissarros alive, she sent photo portraits and she brought Tommy to Eragny occasionally, and the family adored spending time with him. Tommy’s aunts Amélie and Alice died in the mid-1930s, after which time I don’t know if he was able to maintain his links to his French relations.
It would be interesting to know what sort of religious upbringing Tommy had, growing up with his Jewish grandfather; Phineas Isaacson died in 1913, at the age of 94, when Tommy was 20. I do not know what career path Tommy followed, but in the 1911 census, still living in Bayswater, he is listed as a ‘Junior Clerk’ in the City of London. It is difficult to gain a picture of the relationship between Tommy and Georges over the years because the Pissarro letter collection ends in 1903, when Camille died. Julie, who made trips to London in the years that followed, died in 1926. Georges, who lived until 1961, would go on to marry twice more, have 5 more children, and spend the remainder of his life in France. Esther’s brother, Alfred Isaacson, returned to England after many years living in America, and settled in Colchester in Essex. Tommy and Alfred may have established a bond, because Colchester is where Tommy was living when he died in October 1980, at the age of 87. He had married and had two sons, Anthony and Richard—Esther’s grandchildren.
In the final part of this article, Part 4, I will discuss three particular exchanges between Camille and Esther that give insight into the bond of intellect, affection and creativity between the pair.
Author’s note: all of Camille Pissarro’s letters were originally in French, as were many of Esther Isaacson’s; all of the translations into English are my own.
In order to get a better understanding of Esther Isaacson’s world, I turned to the Victorian writer Amy Levy (1861-1889) to look at both her life and her writings. It would not be surprising if Amy Levy and Esther Isaacson had crossed paths—they were almost the same age, the same class, and both lived in similar areas of London. They were both Jewish, and London’s middle-class Jewish community was not so large. Amy’s parents, Lewis and Isabelle Levy, were cousins, and from a family that had settled in Britain in the 18th century. Her father was an export merchant and then stockbroker. Amy’s mother was occupied raising seven children. For both the Isaacson and Levy family, finances were sometimes delicate; a financial downturn forced the Levy family to move from their grand home in Regent’s Park to a more modest home in Bloomsbury in 1885. Amy received an excellent education, first at Brighton High School for Girls, where she thrived, and then to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was the first Jewish female student. Upon leaving Cambridge in 1881, Amy wanted to be a New Woman and try to support herself through her writings. In addition to poems and essays, Amy Levy published two novels Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs, both written in 1888. The latter was a cause célèbre in Jewish society and Esther would certainly have heard of it, if not read it.
Levy was a different character to Esther Isaacson—she suffered from overwhelming bouts of depression and committed suicide at the age of 27. She also developed a heightened consciousness of being Jewish in Britain, to the extent of feeling physically unattractive and undesirable. Some of Levy’s feelings might have arisen due to the awkward social position that London’s middle-class Jews occupied at the end of the 19th century. As previously noted, they had just achieved certain milestones, such as the Jew Relief Act in 1858, and the Rothschilds attainment of positions in government. But starting in 1881, a Tsarist pogrom brought a mass migration of destitute Eastern European Jews to the East End of London. The newcomers were culturally different to British Jews, who had tried to assimilate into British society, and the situation provoked alarm among those who worried that the new wave of immigration would bring an upturn in anti-Semitism, which it did.
Amy Levy’s two disparate novels help to give a fuller picture of Esther Isaacson’s Victorian London. Romance of a Shop is Levy’s ‘New Women’ novel. Published in April of 1888, it could be described as an English Little Women. It tells the story of the four Lorimer sisters, who had already lost their mother, and are then forced to fend for themselves when their father dies leaving them only a modest inheritance. The sisters contemplate the ways that they might support themselves. One of them says: ‘The question remains, what can we do? There is teaching, of course. We might find places as governesses; but we should be at a great disadvantage without certificates or training of any sort’. Before their father’s death, the family had enjoyed photography as a serious hobby, so the cleverest sister, Gertrude, proposes that they open a photography studio. Her sister Lucy says: ‘Think of all the dull little ways by which women, ladies, are generally reduced to earning their living! But a business—that is so different. It is progressive; a creature capable of growth; the very qualities in which women’s work is dreadfully lacking’. The sisters’ well-to-do friends and family are aghast at their plans and try to dissuade them, but they commit to the plan with determination.
The sisters find a property at 20B Upper Baker Street, above a chemist, which they turn into a joint photography studio and home. We see the life they lead in this region of London: the variety of neighbours in Marylebone, walks in Regent’s Park, and the art galleries of New Bond Street. We see their world as they work hard at becoming expert in their profession. The business is gradually profitable, but even so, the sisters find that they are no longer members of the class into which they were born. In their previous world, reputation mattered enormously, but their newly-lowered class status gives them a certain freedom. Gertrude especially enjoys her new liberty: ‘One bright morning towards the end of January, Gertrude came careering up the street on the summit of a tall, green omnibus, her hair blowing gaily in the breeze, her ill-gloved hands clasped about a bulky note-book’. At the end of the novel, one of the sisters dies of tuberculosis, but the three remaining sisters all marry for love, even frumpy Gertrude, who had attracted the attention of a widowed Lord. But the studio would continue: ‘The photography, however, has not been crowded out by domestic duties’.
Reuben Sachs, published in January 1889, is also set in contemporary west London, but is otherwise a very different novel. It is darkly satiric and takes place almost entirely in a prosperous Jewish society where advantage in careers, politics, and marriage matters most. The two central characters are Reuben Sachs, a young barrister, and Judith Quixano, a beautiful young woman living with well-to-do relations because her parents have limited means. Judith is of Sephardic ancestry, which, like royalty, is shown to grant her certain advantages. There is an unspoken romance between the pair, but Reuben is highly ambitious and aims to win a seat in Parliament and knows that he will have to marry for money and connections. Reuben’s sister says of Judith, ‘She has no money. Very likely she won’t marry at all’. Judith and Reuben are not cousins, but are linked through family ties:
‘There had always been between them a fiction of cousinship, which had made possible what is rare all the world over, but rarer than ever in the Jewish community—an intimacy between young people of opposite sexes. […] Their friendship, unusual enough in a society which retains, in relation to women at least, so many traces of orientalism, had sprung up at first unnoticed in the intimacy of family life. It was not till the last year or two that it had attracted any serious attention’.
In the end, Reuben chooses his career over love, and Judith marries a man she does not love rather than remain single.
There is a certain cruelty in Reuben Sachs; Levy includes some surprising and unpleasant descriptions of Jews which corresponded with the common anti-Semitic characterisations of the period. The novel caused upset in the Jewish community. Linda Hunt Beckman, in her book Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters (2000) asks: ‘Did it never occur to Levy that a novel by a Jew critiquing Anglo-Jewish life would inevitably generate concern among Jews about the book’s impact on the way the larger culture perceived them?’ (p. 181) Hunt Beckman goes on to quote Meri-Jane Rochelson whose evidence shows that, indeed, ‘writers in the secular press of the day often treated Reuben Sachs as documentary evidence for anti-Semitic views.’ (p. 181) There is also fine writing in the novel. Oscar Wilde wrote an obituary for Amy Levy that was published in the magazine Woman’s World, which he edited. He praised Reuben Sachs, and wrote: ‘the strong undertone of moral earnestness never preached, gives a stability and force to the vivid portraiture, and prevents the satiric touches from degenerating into mere malice’.
Putting aside the subject of the novel’s possible anti-Semitism, Reuben Sachs gives us another insight into Esther Isaacson’s world because the real narrative focus is not on Reuben, but rather on Judith Quixano, and the highly circumscribed world of a young woman in an aspirational Jewish community. She is clever, though not an intellectual, and she knows that marriage is her only route to any sort of freedom. Judith saw the situation of Reuben’s aunt Rachel, who still lived with her parents: ‘a woman far advanced in middle-life, stitched drearily at some fancy-work by the fire. She was unmarried, and hated the position with the frank hatred of the women of her race, for whom it is a peculiarly unenviable one’. But what of happiness? When Judith allowed herself to think that Reuben would marry her, she could imagine happiness. After she resignedly accepts the proposal of another man, Levy writes: ‘A certain relief had come with the deed. She had opened up for herself a new field of action; she would be reinstated in the eyes of her world, in Reuben’s eyes, in her own’.
Levy did not marry. She wrote an article for the Jewish Chronicle of 17 September 1886 entitled ‘Middle-Class Jewish Women of To-Day’, in which she described the difficulties that young Jewish women in London had in meeting potential marriage partners. She broached themes that she would reprise in Reuben Sachs: that Jewish men inhabited the world of business and looked at marriage as transactional; that Jewish women were taught that marriage and motherhood are the pinnacle, yet they were closely guarded by their families. To be unmarried was a miserable lot in which the life of a ‘hale woman of thirty’ was spent in ‘aimless spinsterhood’. Would Esther Isaacson and her sisters have felt the stigma of being unmarried? Had they found it difficult to meet potential husbands? In the end, it was ‘cousinship’ that had permitted Esther and Georges to develop an intimacy that might not otherwise have been allowed.
Finally, in Reuben Sachs, we get a picture of the greater Bayswater area. Judith and her female relations shop at Whiteley’s in Westbourne Grove, one of the original department stores, they ride the omnibus to get around town, younger sisters attend ‘high school’. We see the politics surrounding the choice of synagogue: the wealthy patriarch, Solomon Sachs, attends the Bayswater Synagogue, Judith’s parents, the Quixanos, attend the Synagogue of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews in Bryanston Street, but everyone else, and especially the young people, prefer the West London Reformed Synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street because of its simplified service and music. Synagogue is a place where young men and women (seated separately) can see one another from afar, and perhaps speak after the service. But the real social buzz is caused by balls, which present an exciting opportunity for men and women, and Jews and gentiles to mix.
Esther’s life had areas of overlap with the two different worlds seen in Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs. She worked as a teacher, which gave her a certain freedom to explore London by day, which she enjoyed enormously. She would use the occasion to draw, by herself or with her pupils. She went to concerts, she stayed with friends. Her father was busy with work and her brothers lived abroad, so there was, perhaps, a good deal of freedom, though Mme Henry seems to have offered a pair of watchful eyes. Esther must have attended synagogue, if not regularly then at least on certain holy days. But which synagogue? From March of 1887 until her death in September of 1893, she lived in Bayswater. Would she also have preferred the West London Reformed Synagogue for its music? Upon her death, Phineas Isaacson went to a synagogue to make arrangements for her funeral but met with resistance because of the circumstances of her marriage. Lucien wrote to Camille: ‘M. Bensusan did not go to the burial, he excused himself saying to Isaacson that he had taken a certain position and that he wanted to stick to it. As for father Isaacson, he was disgusted by the Jews who have been very brusque with him—he went last Saturday to take the necessary steps after the death of poor Esther and someone told him to address himself to such and such person at such and such street and the poor man, upset as he was, asked if someone could write down the address for him, and it seems that the rabbi took this request badly, saying that neither he nor anybody else would write in his house on the Saturday!!’ Camille and Lucien took this behaviour as just one more example of the hypocrisy of all religions. Phineas Isaacson ignored these slights and treated his youngest daughter’s burial with care; Esther was buried in West Ham Jewish Cemetery, near the Rothschild Mausoleum, built in 1866 for Evelina de Rothschild after she’d died in childbirth.
Author’s note: all of Camille Pissarro’s letters were originally in French, as were many of Esther Isaacson’s; all of the translations into English are my own.
For the past several years I have been researching the life of Félix Pissarro, the third son of the artist Camille Pissarro. I wanted to learn why he died at the age of 23 and why he was buried not far from me, in southwest London. The resulting article is published on this website. In the process of untangling the story of Félix, I became fascinated by another member of the extended Pissarro family: Esther Isaacson, Camille’s niece. While reading the family letters, not only did I discover how important Esther was to Camille and his family, but I became drawn to her as a person because her letters are so exuberant and because she prompted such lively and interesting responses from her uncle.
I also became bewildered at the treatment she received from some Pissarro biographers who virtually airbrush her from the family story. When I began my research on Félix Pissarro, I struggled at first to differentiate between Esther Isaacson and Esther Bensusan, the wife of Camille Pissarro’s eldest son, Lucien. Many books and articles, if they mention Esther Isaacson at all, make little effort to distinguish between them and they gloss over her marriage to Georges Pissarro, Camille’s second son. This is surprising since it was for Esther Isaacson that Camille created a one-of-a-kind masterpiece in 1889: the Turpitudes Sociales, a handmade book consisting of 28 illustrations. This book is unique in Camille’s œuvre since it was the only time that he used illustrations to openly present his political views, in an age in which it was dangerous to do so. In this four-part article, I will present the story of Esther Isaacson, an intelligent and passionate Jewish woman who came of age in Victorian London, and a woman to whom Camille Pissarro could confide his thoughts on art and politics, as well as some of his deepest worries.
I will begin with a brief outline of her life: Esther Clara Isaacson was born in Paris on 31 October 1857 to Emma Petit Isaacson and Phineas Isaacson. She was the fourth of five children. Her mother Emma was the elder half-sister of Camille Pissarro. Emma, Camille and their siblings were raised in a tightknit Jewish community in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, in the former Danish West Indies. Esther’s father, Phineas Isaacson was from London. He was a West India Merchant who worked with the Pissarro family in Charlotte Amalie. Camille, Emma and the extended Pissarro/Isaacson family moved to France in 1855. In 1865, the Isaacsons moved to London, where they would remain. In adulthood, Esther worked as a private teacher to young ladies. In 1892, at the age of 35, she shocked her family by marrying her cousin Georges Pissarro, who was almost fourteen years her junior. She died on 2 September 1893 of eclampsia after giving birth to a healthy son, Tommy, the first Pissarro grandchild.
To bring Esther’s story to life I am lucky to have access to the Pissarro letters, through which I first became aware of her importance. Camille Pissarro was a natural and prolific writer, who expressed himself with intelligence, wit and warmth, and we are remarkably lucky that his correspondence has been preserved since he was the only artist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions (1874-1886). His letters are published in Janine Bailly-Herzberg’s 5-volume collection Correspondance de Camille Pissarro, along withextracts of letters by certain other correspondents included in the footnotes. In the collection housed at the Ashmolean Museum, I was able to read letters written by Esther herself, her brother Alfred, and others in the Pissarro/Isaacson world. I found many answers in the letters and it would be the case, as with Félix, of trying to piece together Esther’s life from the paper trail that remains. There are not many Pissarro letters before the 1880s, but it is still possible to see that Esther’s close connection to Camille goes back to her earliest years.
Esther’s grandmother was Rachel Manzana, Camille’s mother. Rachel was of Sephardic ancestry and had been born and raised in Charlotte Amalie. She was married to Isaac Petit when she gave birth to Esther’s mother Emma in 1821. But after Isaac died in 1824, Rachel married her husband’s nephew, Frédéric Pizzarro. Their son Camille, was born in 1830. Emma met and married Phineas Isaacson in Charlotte Amalie and the first three of their five children were born there: Amélie (1850) and Alice (1854), and Rodolphe, whose birthdate is unknown. In 1855, the Isaacsons and the Pissarros, including Camille, left St. Thomas for France. The youngest Isaacson children were born there: Esther Clara Isaacson, born in Paris in 1857, and Alfred Isaacson, born in Passy in 1861.
In the early years in France, Camille was busy establishing his art career. He lived sometimes with the extended Isaacson/Pissarro family, and sometimes elsewhere, but the ties to his family were deep. Camille evoked a memory of his sister Emma from this period in a letter to Lucien written in 1893:
‘Back in the day, my sister had an astonishing flair [for finding homes]; she was continually suffering the discomforts of pregnancy, but she found places all the same, without even budging; it was she who found the homes in Passy, rue de la Pompe and the one in La Muette; so sought after; what a master stroke! But she took care of it; she summoned her friends and acquaintances; once on the track [of a promising property], my father would send me [to look at it] or go himself. Then time to go!’
This anecdote shows that Camille was involved with helping Emma to find homes for the extended family, homes which he remembered with fondness. Esther’s brother, Alfred Isaacson, also remembered this shared period in France in a letter to Lucien from 1903: ‘those happy days when our enthusiasms & friendships were young—Passy—where [Camille] was ever the most welcome of uncles’. Rachel Pizzarro was an imposing matriarch, and she let her unhappiness be known when Camille began a relationship with her former kitchen maid, Julie Vellay. In these years, Camille and Julie began a family of their own, with son Lucien born in 1863 and daughter Jeanne (‘Minette’) in 1865.
In August of 1865, the Isaacson family moved to London, where Phineas continued to work as a West India merchant. I find it surprising that they chose this time to leave Paris because Frédéric Pizzarro (Camille’s father and Emma’s stepfather) had died in January, leaving Rachel to grieve without her daughter’s comfort. There is no mention in the letters of what prompted the decision. Phineas was British, and perhaps there were calls from his family to come home. Could the Isaacsons have been drawn to London at a time when barriers to Jews participating fully in British society seemed to be breaking down? In 1858, the Jews Relief Act permitted Jews to accept political offices and in the same year Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jewish member of Parliament. The Reform Act of 1867 granted every adult male householder the right to vote, including Jews. And in 1871, the Universities Test Act removed the obstacles preventing Jews from studying or teaching at English universities. These decades might have given British Jews a certain optimism. But the letters show that Emma was concerned about her mother and made regular trips between London and Paris with the children. In a letter from Emma to Camille, she asks him about Rachel and wonders whether he and his brother Alfred Pissarro took it in turns to dine with or stay overnight with her.
With the Isaacsons now in England, both London and Paris became significant cities in the lives of the two families. The Isaacsons and Pissarros spent time in each city and developed a good working knowledge of the geography and the way of life. Camille and the Isaacson family were bilingual, and the elder Pissarro sons—Lucien, Georges and Félix—became proficient in English in early adulthood. In terms of culture, politics, and manners, it is interesting to take account of the similarities and differences between London and Paris since Esther was almost 8-years-old when she changed country and began the process of becoming British. When the Isaacsons left France, the country was still under the Second Empire, ruled by Napoleon III who had charged Baron Haussmann with modernising Paris. The sweeping changes brought about by Haussmann prompted Charles Baudelaire to write Les Fleurs du Mal, which was published in Esther’s year of birth. It was also Napoleon III who ordained the Salon des Refusés exhibition in 1863 to appease the many artists who had been refused a place in the official Salon. Camille Pissarro exhibited in this event, with artists such as Manet and Whistler. The Second Empire collapsed during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and the Third Republic (1870-1940) would emerge as a parliamentary republic. Camille wrote about the country’s struggles in his letters, while his own politics moved from socialism toward anarchism. The class conditions and social injustices of France were depicted in brute detail in the novels of Émile Zola. The Eiffel Tower, which features prominently in Camille’s book, the Turpitudes Sociales, was constructed for the World Fair of 1889.
When the Isaacsons arrived in Britain in 1865, it was the middle of Queen Victoria’s 63-year reign and the year that Lewis Carrol published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Queen’s ninth (and last) child, Beatrice, was the same age as Esther. Victoria’s reign was marked by the move toward Victorian morality and the expansion of the British Empire, culminating in her new title Empress of India in 1876. Her reign was also marked by the push for Irish home rule, which brought violent attacks on the capital. Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the first World’s Fair), and would be the subject of a painting by Camille. The Royal Albert Hall, where the Isaacson and Pissarro cousins attended concerts, opened in 1871. Britain’s great chronicler of social injustice, Charles Dickens, died in 1870 at the age of 58.
The Isaacsons first settled near the river Thames in Norfolk Street, off The Strand, a street which no longer exists. But only two and a half years later, the family endured a shocking tragedy when Emma died of a stroke on 19 January 1868, at the age of 47. Esther was only 10 years old; her brother Alfred was 7, her older siblings Amélie, Alice and Rodolphe were in their teens. After Emma’s death, Camille came to London to stay with the family, leaving Julie in France with two young children. When Camille wrote to Julie on 24 January, he spoke of attending synagogue with Rodolphe Isaacson. He asked Julie to have patience with his absence and said: ‘I will have to wait until the first eight days of mourning are over to come back to you because the [Isaacson] children might return with me, it’s not sure yet’. The idea of Camille bringing the Isaacson children to Paris, probably to live with Rachel, does not seem to have happened and Phineas must have found a way of coping with the running of the household and the care of the children. I am frustrated not to have been able to locate Emma’s burial place, and I worry that she may have been one of the thousands whose remains were moved from the Novo Cemetery when two-thirds of it was ‘cleared’ in 1972.
Sometime after Emma’s death, the Isaacson family moved to Norwood in southeast London. In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War erupted and Prussian troops were advancing on Paris, the extended Pissarro family took refuge in London, near the Isaacsons. By October, Camille’s brother Alfred Pissarro was in London with his wife Marie and their toddler son Frédéric. Followed by Rachel in November 1870, at which point the Isaacson children (except Rodolphe) lived with her, presumably to keep her company or to free Phineas to attend more freely to his business. Camille, Julie and their two children came to London in early December of 1870. Thus, the entire Pissarro/Isaacson clan were living within a short distance of one another, all centred around West Norwood rail station. This station was part of a new rail line constructed to bring visitors to Crystal Palace after it was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham in 1854. This, in turn, had encouraged new development in the region. Camille’s paintings of Norwood, Sydenham and Crystal Palace from 1871 give us the feeling of the environment, with clusters of Victorian homes dotted in a landscape that is greener and more expansive than central London, with wide-open lanes and pavements.
During the year that the Pissarros took refuge in Norwood, Esther was 13, Alfred was 10 and Lucien and Minette (who would die at the age of 10) Pissarro were 8 and 6 years old. Camille was certainly not an isolated refugee and the proximity to family offered an occasion for the Isaacsons and Pissarros to spend time together and for the cousins to forge bonds. Camille was also able to making some important paintings of London and he met his future art agent, Paul Durand-Ruel, who was also fleeing the war. Camille and Julie married while in England, with the ceremony taking place in June of 1871 at the Croydon Registry office. They returned to France soon after, and their son, and Esther’s future husband, Georges Henri, was born on 22 November 1871.
The Isaacsons remained in Norwood until 1879, by which time Esther was 22 years old. I have been able to build a general idea of her life in the Norwood years—her formative years—but important gaps remain. In terms of her family life, Phineas Isaacson is often described as a difficult character and there is a suggestion that Esther’s brothers Rodolphe and Alfred settled in America to escape him. Phineas was frequently disparaged by Camille, Lucien and Georges, who described him as bourgeois and unfeeling. But, when reading the letters as a whole, one cannot help feel that Phineas was simply a typical man of his class, profession and religious orthodoxy. Camille Pissarro was an uncommon man, and the Pissarro boys were accustomed to a father who was supportive and non-conformist. Phineas did not bear comparison to Camille, but he was not an ogre. In the existing letters, Esther herself does not complain about her father and a feeling of affection can be seen in a letter from the mid-1880s, in which she wrote to Lucien Pissarro asking him to thank Georges for the ‘beautiful allegorical drawing’ he had sent her, but she added: ‘I don’t think I’ll show it to Papa, Georges having forgotten to put clothes on the figure; not even for an empire would I want to make this modest old man blush!’ Phineas was a practicing Jew and seems to have been fairly strict, though Esther’s letters do not discuss the family’s religious practice. As a widower, it would have been his role to ensure the religious upbringing of his children.
During the Norwood years the Isaacsons established a close friendship with the Bensusan family, who lived nearby in Anerley. The two families would play an important part in one another’s lives for a half century or more, and the friendship offers more insight into the Isaacson’s religious convictions. Jacob Samuel Levy Bensusan, a successful ostrich feather merchant, and Miriam Levy Bensusan were orthodox Sephardic Jews and strict parents and must have found Phineas Isaacson to hold compatible beliefs. The Bensusans had four children, but it was their daughter Esther (1870) and son Samuel (1872) who became particularly close to the Isaacson children, despite the difference in their ages. Sam Bensusan would go on to become the editor of Jewish World in 1897. The family friendship also included Mr. Bensusan’s unmarried sister Orovida (‘Oro’), to whom Esther became very close. In the 1901 census, Oro was living with the Isaacsons. I do not know how the two families met, perhaps through the business dealings of the two fathers, or through a synagogue, though I have not been able to locate mention of a synagogue in the greater Norwood area and find it interesting that these two Jewish families had settled there. Perhaps they held services in private homes, or travelled to synagogues in central London. On a visit to the Novo Cemetery in late 2019, I was surprised to happen upon the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Bensusan and Orovida Bensusan, next to the path running along Queen Mary University’s law building.
All that is known about Esther’s elder brother Rodolphe is that he left Britain for the Americas at a young age, and he did not return. While there, he was itinerant, with a letter from 1884 placing him in Mexico, working in gold and silver mines, and in another from 1885 he worked as a shepherd in New Mexico. After this, he seems to drop out of the family’s life, or at least out of the letters. Amélie, who was 17 when the family moved to London, returned to Paris sometime in her twenties. She lived with her grandmother Rachel, who lived until 1889, and she worked for her Aunt Marie Pissarro (wife of Camille’s brother Alfred), making children’s clothing. Amélie did make frequent visits to London, and, in the letters, comes across as more sharp-tongued than her sisters. Esther was very close to her sister Alice, who was continually described as ‘good’, ‘kind’, and ‘generous’. When Esther and Georges eloped, Camille was shocked to learn that Esther had not confided in Alice: ‘but Alice, the ideal confidante, that’s too much! Alice must be dismayed, she’s probably sick about it’. When Esther died from complications of childbirth, it was Alice (along with Phineas) who raised the baby, Tommy, becoming a mother to him. The youngest Isaacson, Alfred, received an elite British education, attending Dulwich College from 1871-76. He left for America in January 1886, where he would live for many years. He took a much more certain path than his brother Rodolphe, and worked as an insurance agent while living in small cities such as St Paul, Minnesota and West Superior, Wisconsin, before moving into publishing and living in New York City.
While it is known that Alfred Isaacson received a good education, I have learned no details about Esther’s education, or that of her sisters. There is no reference to her schooling except for a fleeting remark from Camille that her education, being English, had been imperfect because it was based in a certain English Christianity [‘that pompous English education, that absurd fetishism at its base’). But one particular piece of misinformation found in Pissarro biographies became clear to me: where Esther is mentioned, she is usually described as running a pensione out of the family home, with her sister Alice. While the family did take in paid guests, it is more accurate to say that Esther was a teacher. Reference to her teaching runs clearly throughout the letters. She must have been educated to a standard that permitted her to attain work teaching young ladies, since her pupils were girls from middle-class or gentry families. She may have taught French, but her main focus was art instruction, which made her an ideal correspondent for Camille since she was keenly interested in how art was taught, learned and made.
By 1879, for reasons unknown, the Isaacsons made a drastic change—moving from leafy Norwood to Holloway, in bustling north London. They lived at 46 Hartham Road, where they would remain until 1887. They are listed in the Islington Census of 1881, by which time Phineas was 61, Alice 27, Esther 24, Alfred 20. Also listed is a guest resident: Esther Bensusan, age 10, described as a ‘scholar from Dulwich’. Esther Isaacson is listed as ‘Governess’ and, was probably teaching Esther Bensusan. The relationship between the two Esthers began via their parents’ friendship, then became that of teacher and student, but eventually developed into a friendship, despite the 13-year age difference. Possibly to avoid the awkwardness of having the same name, Esther Bensusan came to be known as ‘Sterbee’, derived from combining the second syllable of her first name with the first letter of her surname. Esther Bensusan became romantically involved with Lucien Pissarro, who she met when he lived with the Isaacsons in Holloway for a year. The letters show that there was a certain imbalance in the women’s friendship because, in addition to being older, Esther Isaacson tended to dominate with her intelligence and intensity. This can be seen in a letter from Alfred Isaacson to Esther Bensusan, after she’d visited the Pissarro family home: ‘I can imagine the walks with the Pissarros—Esther I, Lucien and Camille theorizing on art and Georges & you listening open mouthed. All the sauce I wish I had been part of’. Amélie Isaacson, who could be very blunt, told Camille that Esther Bensusan was in thrall to her sister Esther: ‘She is insufferable, she copies Esther, she has nothing of herself’. Both Esthers would marry a Pissarro brother in 1892, and both would have a child in 1893.
Esther Isaacson and her uncle Camille established a regular correspondence when she was young, and art was their most frequent topic of discussion. Esther witnessed the rise of the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain and was a great admirer of William Morris. In Paris, it was Impressionism that was causing a stir, and Camille could discuss it from the inside. Esther’s enthusiastic reports and her questions interested Camille and he never made her feel like a young person whose ideas did not matter. In 1880, when she was 23, Esther had expressed the desire to try selling Camille’s paintings in London, so, in a show of faith, he sent her some of his watercolours. Nothing came of this because soon after, Durand-Ruel requested the paintings and Esther had to return them. In a letter from 20 March 1882, Camille responded to a question posed by Esther: ‘You asked me if I know Ruskin’s ideas on the art of our times’. He tells her that he’s never read anything by Ruskin, so cannot judge. But when he got a chance to apprise his writings, he would let Esther know his thoughts. But, he added, ‘I do know that he has a poor opinion of Whistler, which is serious, very serious, because that American artist is a great artist and the only one which America can truly glory in. Moreover, I distrust the theories that men of letters make about painting and drawing. It’s rare that they truly show sense’.
It was Lucien’s presence in the Isaacson home from February of 1883 to March of 1884 that brought the two families in closer contact since he gained a vantage point for observing family life and reporting what he saw. In Camille’s first letter to Lucien in London, he wrote: ‘Give me news about the Isaacson cousins, give them my compliments, and above all try to be with them like a son and well-brought-up brother. Have tact and keep high the honour of your name!’ There were conflicting reasons for Lucien’s year in London: Julie hoped the English influence would steer him toward a job in business, whereas Camille thought it was an opportunity for him to develop as an artist. This was a source of friction between the couple. In a letter to Lucien dated 9 December 1883, Camille wrote that he’d just seen Phineas in Paris, where they had lunched with Rachel. Phineas spoke glowingly of Lucien, and Camille was flattered, adding: ‘I am happy that you knew to keep yourself in your place, that you understood that it does not befit a young man to display his ideas too bluntly with a man who, in short, has the right to make observations to you being older than you and, what is more, receives you with all the kindness of a father; the contrary would have hurt me deeply’.
A regular topic of conversation between Camille and Lucien was whether the Isaacson family were bourgeois. Phineas had been irredeemably labelled as such, but what about the children? Were they bourgeois, and if so, to what degree and how did it manifest itself? This subject stemmed from Camille’s deep political convictions and his optimism that the future would bring an end to capitalism. By studying people and their behaviour, he was able to evaluate whether society was moving in that direction. He considered the Isaacsons to be English, especially Esther and Alfred, who’d had the majority of their upbringing in London. His interactions with them gave Camille the opportunity to compare the differences between the French and British way of thinking, seeing, behaving. He would test them by sending them things to read and observing their response. On 22 July 1883, he wrote to Lucien: ‘I don’t have Abbe Mouret’s Transgression; I will buy it and send it to Esther; but she won’t like the book, she’s lived in England too long to appreciate it. Its naturalism is a bit strong’. This was an 1875 novel by Émile Zola that many people—French or English—would have found provocative. Camille initially had hopes of converting Alfred Isaacson toward a more radical form of politics, and sent him publications, hoping to engage him in conversation. But this exchange reached a limit and Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘Why doesn’t Alfred read the two little volumes on socialism that I lent him? It’s very easy and would give him a general idea of the movement that leads our modern society toward new ideas; I think that for an Englishman my Alfred lacks a bit of perseverance’. When he judged the Isaacsons for possible bourgeois leanings, Camille was occupying a complex position. He had come from a bourgeois family whose financial contributions had enabled him to launch a career as an artist. He was forced to operate in the bourgeois world—selling his paintings to collectors and hoping for the best prices; he became a homeowner; and he wanted his children to attain a certain kind of success—but for him, ‘bourgeois’ was a mentality that spoke of materialism, small-mindedness and indifference to the suffering of others.
The Isaacson children must have sensed that they were being appraised for bourgeois leanings. While he was in the United States working as an insurance agent, Alfred wrote to Lucien somewhat defensively: ‘Please don’t suppose I am getting bourgeois, I suffer too much by the damned system to love it, but wherever I look I see nothing but wickedness, brutality, selfishness, stupidity, and, like Bouvard and Pécuchet, set myself down to being a copyist again’. Alfred was making reference to the Flaubert novel Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881) in which two young copy-clerks leave work to pursue idealistic endeavours, but become disillusioned by humanity and return to copying. In a letter to Esther from December of 1885, Camille explained which country—France or England—he found to be closer to shrugging off the constraints of bourgeois capitalism:
‘England is absolutely at the same degree of cretinism as we are, except that as a result of its idiotic Protestant education, it finds itself blinded by a semblance of false respect, false morality and false freedom; France, or at least the Latin race, is certainly more disengaged from that confusion; obviously it will be more apt to advance in the new path!’
Ultimately, it would be Esther with whom Camille was able to establish a satisfying intellectual connection. Esther showed a willingness to think outside the limits of her education and milieu.
Learning the English language was one priority for Lucien’s year in London that Camille and Julie could agree upon. He arrived speaking little English, but the Isaacsons were bilingual so could act as translators and teachers and assist him until he became functional in English. Lucien must have expressed happiness at the welcome he’d received because by mid-March Camille wrote: ‘I was certain that you would be very happy in the family; thank dear Alice for me for all the trouble that you give them. As for Esther, tell her that painting must be taught by oneself; I’m astonished that she feels the need for a false direction!’ Esther had expressed the desire to take painting lessons, but Camille is consistently adamant (to her and to all his children) that drawing and painting are learned by doing. Esther would also suggest that Lucien take figure drawing classes with the French painter Alphonse Legros at the Slade School of Fine Art. Camille knew Legros personally and had some specific thoughts about this idea. He told Lucien that he could take classes, and would even write him a letter of introduction, but there were dangers: ‘don’t seek a formula, don’t let yourself be influenced by ‘gifted students’, don’t have the proportions all worked out ahead of time, in a word, learn to see by yourself and execute your drawings without a preconceived system’. Camille wrote directly to Esther on 13 June, explaining that the delay in replying was because he wanted to write her a good, serious letter which took time and consideration. He spoke to her about Lucien’s education, saying that he wasn’t against the idea of lessons with Legros, but he explained:
‘It’s necessary to be on guard with his teaching, it’s better, if Lucien has the courage and the will, for him to develop by himself. To learn to draw, one can draw anything—the goal is just to learn to see forms, but with one’s own eyes. Tell him to make a portrait of Alice, of you, voilà, models that one doesn’t find every day, and Alfred and your father, and the friends of friends, portraits would do him much good. He can send them to me and I’ll tell him what I think. To encourage him, tell him that I was looking at the portrait that he did of his little brother [Félix]; it’s not bad’.
While Lucien was in London, an Impressionist exhibition was held at the Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell Gallery at 133 New Bond Street between 20 April and July 1883. Lucien and Esther attended the show and she spoke of it to Camille because he responded: ‘You were very enthusiastic about it’, adding that he was happy that her enthusiasm was without prejudice since she admitted to disliking Manet’s La Femme en bleu [what we know as The Railway (1873)]. Unfortunately, her letter no longer exists so we do not know what Esther said about the exhibition, nor why she didn’t like the Manet. Camille replied that perhaps it was not Manet’s best but pointed out the painting’s strong qualities: ‘the woman in blue with the little dog is quite remarkable’. Manet was a great friend of Camille’s and had recently died, a loss he felt deeply. Camille wrote that he’d love to see Esther, but things were difficult that year, ‘we have so many artistic difficulties to overcome, although we’re very well-known and praised by many!’ Public attention had not brought relief to the financial strain under which he suffered, and he told Esther of his hope for better times ahead.
Through Lucien’s letters to Camille, we get a picture of a household in which Esther, highly creative and energetic, enjoyed her cousin’s companionship because they shared similar interests. Lucien reported that Esther wrote a play and had performed it for the household. Camille replied: ‘I would very much like to read the little play that Esther wrote, since I can’t see her act it; it’s a start, and she must continue’. Lucien’s point of view shed light on key aspects of Esther’s life at this time. One was the Isaacsons close friendship with the Henry family, which consisted of a widow, Mathilde Henry, and her children. Two of her daughters—Ida and Louise—became very close to Esther and Alice. The Henrys were also French Jews and had come to London sometime before 1861: they are in the 1861 census, when Madame Henry’s husband was still alive, where he was listed as ‘agent for French Manufacturer’. At some point in the 1880s, the Henrys moved to 39 Aldridge Road Villas in Bayswater. The two families were so close that the Isaacsons left Holloway in March 1887 to be near the Henrys in Bayswater. They found a house just around the corner, 6 Cornwall Road, in what is now Westbourne Park Road. Camille knew the Henrys and they are mentioned multiple times in all 5 volumes of the Correspondance, with the Henrys even making trips to Paris and Éragny and spending time with Camille and the Pissarros. In a letter to Lucien dated 13 March 1887, Camille wrote: ‘Amélie just received a letter from Esther: they found a house near Mme Henry; they are all well’.
The Isaacson and Henry daughters shared a passion for music. Ida was a concert pianist and was listed in the census of 1881 and 1891 as a ‘Professor of Music’, and I have found many references to her performances, including one from 1 June 1877 at the Royal Academy of Music and from 6 May 1890 at the Princes’ Hall in Piccadilly, billed as ‘Mademoiselle Ida Henry’s Evening Concert’. Their mutual love of music comes up in a spirited letter from Esther to Lucien in which she describes her obsession with the pianist Anton Rubinstein. In the months of May and June 1886, Rubinstein gave a series of seven Concerts at the St. James’s Hall in which he covered the entire history of European piano music from the English virginalists to contemporary Russian composers. It is worth including this long citation from Esther’s letter because as well as describing an important cultural and historical event, the letter shows Esther’s natural enthusiasm and energy:
‘My dear Lucien, You know that I am crazy, don’t you? Well! I challenge you to comprehend the scope of my craziness! […] I haven’t told you the magic word that explains why I no longer hide my condition! Rubinstein!! Voilà! He is ugly, and I find him handsome, he is badly dressed, uncombed, unwashed, and I find him preferable to the most perfect *masher! [*a fashionable Victorian gentleman], he has that which all the mashers of the United Kingdom can’t even suspect! Genius. I am not going to, of course, try to tell you how he plays! At the same time that he plays the piano he plays on your heart & your head and your all! He plays too fast–, he adds sometimes, or indeed he lets drop some notes, but it doesn’t matter, it’s him, and it’s good. One thing—one must not get caught up in trying to imitate him, because it is only he who can be permitted such things, because he doesn’t do them on purpose, because he has ascended and can’t hold himself back. He has said it himself, that one could make a symphony from all the notes he’s dropped. That is going to be the fashion now to play like a hurricane […]! After returning home, I try to draw him but I make only abominations and stupid drawings, I can’t reproduce his calm and inspired air. How can an idiot represent his genius? I have included a few of these stupid productions, which will give you no idea of him. Ida Henry gave a concert, she played very well, and she has the good taste not to try to imitate Rubinstein! She is even more crazy on this subject than me! Alice and I are going to all of his concerts, he’s giving 8 of them. The last one is to raise funds for the blind, isn’t that very touching! We take our seats at half 2 and we wait 3 hours before it starts! Happily, I don’t have any lessons in the afternoon!’
In the 1891 census, Louise Henry is listed as ‘Professor at French School’. Might she and Esther have been colleagues or collaborated in some way in giving French lessons? Though I do not know how the two families met, it is clear that they became firmly imbricated in each other’s lives. Madame Henry was a widow and Phineas Isaacson a widower, and both were Jewish, French speakers and of a similar age; they may have come to rely on one another for support in raising their children alone.
Lucien was living with the Isaacsons when Madame Henry had to intervene in a family crisis to which Camille Pissarro was also party. In late 1883, when she was 26, Esther came under the influence of Lady Constance Eliot, Duchess of St Germans (1844-1916), wife of the Earl of St Germans, who had homes in London and the family seat in Port-Eliot in Cornwall. It is likely that Esther met Lady Eliot while teaching her children. Lucien must have mentioned Esther’s subjugation to Lady Eliot, because Camille wrote to him on 25 December 1883: ‘I pity Esther for being so blind and so weak for people who have nothing but disdain for this poor little world!’ He is upset that Esther is in awe of a member of the gentry, but worse is to come: it becomes clear to Lucien and to Madame Henry that Lady Eliot is trying to convert Esther to Christianity, and they are worried that Esther is unaware of or even receptive to the plan, especially since her return from a trip to the Eliot estate in Cornwall and their discovery of a Christian Bible in the house. During this crisis, in January of 1884, Esther and Alice make a family visit to France and spend time with Camille, who wrote to Lucien on 14 January:
‘I found a little change in her that surprised me. […] She seemed to me by her actions, by a certain way of understanding things, by certain ideas, she seemed to me launched towards mysticism. This is a curious development. I teased her about the Salvation Army; we laughed, but it doesn’t matter, her mind is confused, ah! Albion! Albion! here are your blows. They’ll never get out of this fog, this fanatical throwback to the Middle Ages’.
As an atheist, Camille is less upset that Esther might abandon her Jewish faith than by the idea that she’s taking a backwards step toward outdated religion. Camille also reported to Lucien that Esther wanted to leave France early in order to return to Port-Eliot, which was out of character for Esther who normally cherished her moments with the Pissarros.
On 16 January, Lucien informed Camille of the extreme turn of events that had taken place in the Isaacson household:
‘Esther is at home, her father went to meet her at the station and prevented her from leaving for Port-Eliot, almost by force. You weren’t mistaken in your observations and you’re not the only one who has noticed these changes in her behaviour. Esther has been caught up in an unseasonable friendship with the Honourable Mrs. Eliot, who is one of those women like Catherine de Medici, with great will and capable of anything — and no doubt wants to be able to say in the salons of the English Faubourg Saint-Germain: “I converted a Jewess”’.
It took Madame Henry’s intervention to stop Lady Eliot’s plan from going any further. Lucien wrote: ‘So, everyone was in a panic and Mme Henry (who is very diplomatic) conveyed the danger to Isaacson, who stopped everything. He would never have seen anything because I tell you frankly, the more I know him, the more I see that he is a complete nullity’. Camille replied on 21 January 1884: ‘I deeply regret the turn that Esther has taken. It’s too bad because she’s intelligent’. And he added: ‘Her reasoning that you describe — helping others first, etc., etc., —is much broader among the socialists; she would have done much better to follow the great ideas of justice than to shut herself up in a stupid, absurd, narrow pietism’. Camille received a letter from Esther in mid-February, explaining that she had emerged from the episode and was no longer under Lady Eliot’s influence, to which Camille responded: ‘I thought that you were still under the feudal yoke, but finally you reassure me, I’m beginning to believe that you are more ‘keensighted’ [Camille’s word] than I imagined. My sincere compliments’. Throughout this episode, Camille was disappointed that Esther was not of the level that he had thought her to be, and he is greatly relieved when this episode is over. Lucien returned home shortly after, bringing his close observation of the family to an end.
Important questions from this period of Esther’s life remain unanswered: why was she contemplating leaving her Jewish faith? Had she thought through the ramifications this would have on her family life? How assimilated did she feel, as a middle-class Jewish woman in Victorian London? Though Esther does marry her cousin Georges at the age of 35, this was an unexpected turn of events at an age at which society would have already considered her to be a spinster. Neither of her sisters married. Why? Was there a financial imperative for Esther to work or did she choose to for her own satisfaction? Would Esther have been influenced by the late Victorian move toward the ‘New Woman’ who was educated and independent?
Author’s note: all of Camille Pissarro’s letters were originally in French, as were many of Esther Isaacson’s; all of the translations into English are my own.
This selection of photographs was made during November and December 2019 as a visual accompaniment to a Resonance Radio production entitled Walking with Sebald: Austerlitz and the East End. I followed the show creator, Patrick Bernard, as he and participants Dr. Nadia Valman and Dr. David Anderson of Queen Mary University, poet Stephen Watts and sound recordist Milo Thesiger-Meacham visited locations in east London that are evoked in W.G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz.
The settings are Exchange Square, Liverpool Street Station, Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane, Alderney Road Cemetery, Novo Cemetery, Mile End Road, St Clement’s Hospital and Tower Hamlets Cemetery. My role was to document the production of the show as participants walked, conversed, read passages from Austerlitz, and introduced readings related to the novel. Performing the readings in situ created an effect of psychogeography—a mood and a psychological landscape—which I hoped to capture in the photographs.
Photographs were taken with a Pentax K1000 SLR camera using Ilford FP4 black & white film and Kodak Gold colour film. See links to the radio show below.
In January of 1897, Félix and Georges were back in London but the happy and productive period the family had enjoyed was about to end because of the onset of two devastating health crises. In March, at the age of 35, Lucien had a stroke. He would go on to have three further attacks over the course of the year and could not be left alone or work. At the same time, Félix became ill, but this development was eclipsed by the family’s shock over Lucien’s condition. Esther and Lucien had been in the midst of preparations for a move to a new home in west London, and in April this relocation proceeded as planned despite the stroke. Félix wrote to Lucien to explain why he was unable to help:
‘I have a kind of bronchitis, a cough that tears at my chest, and I’m spitting up blood; I saw Dr. MacNish who gave me some medication to take every two hours, and who forbade me to go out. Write to tell me how you are doing, if I get better, I will definitely come help you.’
It would not be until late September—two months before his death—that the family understood the seriousness of Félix’s condition and accepted the terrible news that he had tuberculosis. In the Victorian era conventional medicine offered no effective treatment but the rate of decline among consumptive patients varied greatly, with some lingering for years or experiencing periods of remission, all of which made it difficult to predict the course of the disease and made it tempting to hold out hope.
In May, Camille came to London to help bring Lucien, Esther and their young daughter back to Éragny where he and Julie could care for them, but Lucien proved too fragile to travel so Camille stayed with them in their Stamford Brook home for over two months. This would be Camille’s fourth and final trip to England and he found inspiration in this corner of west London and undertook seven paintings there. His visit coincided with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on 22 June and he painted a scene of the festivities at nearby Bedford Park. This would also be the last time that Camille saw Félix, a poignant occasion that is captured in family photographs. In one image, taken outdoors on the balconied roof, Camille and Lucien are heavily bearded but Félix is clean shaven except for a tidy moustache. He appears very thin and serious but he is dressed like a fashionable Victorian gentleman, sporting a straw boater hat, blazer, a stiff, white shirt collar and necktie, linen trousers and white shoes. Either his condition did not worry them, or they were more preoccupied with Lucien’s health, because Camille, Lucien, Esther and Orovida travelled to Éragny on 19 July leaving Félix in London with Georges.
From this point, Georges’ role became key, both as a lifeline to Félix and messenger to his family. It is difficult to assess precisely when normal life ceased to exist for Félix. In an undated letter to Rodo, Félix was living in Bayswater but was restricted to home and he was bored. He wrote: ‘My cold is a bit better, but I’m still coughing; I think that it will be difficult to stop this particular cough in the end, I’m still bedridden. I draw caricatures to amuse myself, and you, have you made any new ones?’ It is not clear that he knew or accepted that he was consumptive— he referred to a ‘cold’, while admitting that his cough might not be stoppable. Félix encouraged Rodo to send him drawings and expressed the hope that he might visit, and he included his caricatures of English men wearing the latest fashion in hats. The situation became distinctly more urgent with Julie’s arrival in London on 28 September, a sign that Georges’ reports had worried her. Félix was placed in a sanatorium in Kew, a move overseen by Julie and Georges. On 30 September, Camille reported that from Saturday, 2 October, ‘Félix’s address will be Blenheim House, Kew Road’. Now, the site is occupied by a five-story modern block of flats, but Blenheim House would have been a large Victorian house, like those still existing up and down Kew Road. It was a private hospital just opposite Kew Gardens and from its upper floors Félix would have had expansive views of the setting of family outings in happier times.
Félix’s treatment was undertaken by two homeopathic physicians, Dr. David MacNish and Dr. James Johnstone. Camille was an ardent disciple of homeopathy and the children had been raised accordingly. In the late nineteenth century, there were no effective medications for many common illnesses and some existing treatments did as much harm as good, so patients often fared just as well under the alternative treatment and many homeopathic doctors, including MacNish and Johnstone, were also trained in orthodox medicine. Julie returned to Éragny after Félix was settled in the sanitorium and Georges was again alone with the responsibility for communication. Camille wrote: ‘I received a letter from Georges, Félix is a well as is possible but he is bored, I am going to send him some amusing newspapers.’ Till Félix’s final days, the family wavered continually between acceptance that he was gravely ill and hope that he might recover, so Camille might have felt encouraged when boredom was Félix’s greatest complaint.
Esther and Lucien returned to London at the end of October and visited Félix immediately, only a month before his death. Esther was a diligent communicator and her letters to Camille became increasingly frequent as events progressed. Camille wrote to her on 24 October to ask if Dr. MacNish had given Félix a treatment he called ‘the Serum’: ‘MacNish must be up to date with this method, he didn’t speak to you about it? I suppose that it must be practiced in London too? Who can tell us? I await a more detailed letter from you, you must write to me in French.’ He requested that she write in French in order that Julie could examine the details herself, but Esther did not have time to comply: in addition to monitoring Félix’s care, Lucien’s condition was fragile, and she had a young child. The extended London family visited Félix as much as they could. Esther wrote to Camille on 2 November: ‘This afternoon we went to see Félix. He looks decidedly better & the poor boy seems quite hopeful. Georges came in while we were there. Amélie had just gone, she had come on her way to Ealing.’ The hospital was about three miles from Lucien and Esther’s home in Stamford Brook and just over a mile from Georges’ lodgings in Chiswick High Road.
In Éragny, Camille and Julie were tormented because it was difficult for them to come to London separately and impossible for them to visit together. Even during these terrible weeks, Camille was obliged to produce saleable paintings in order to provide for his family. The urgency was even greater with medical bills to pay and Lucien and Georges unable to work. In order to paint, Camille needed to be in Paris where he was inspired by the ‘motifs’ and the results were more attractive to buyers. When Julie visited London, he was forced to return to Éragny to care for the three younger children. He considered painting in Kew, but it was November and the season was not conducive. In Paris, he would stay at a well-situated hotel where he could paint the view from its windows, but he had no such system arranged in London. Camille and Julie anxiously awaited a sign that things were urgent, but the cruel ebb and flow of the disease made it difficult to assess. Between serious attacks Félix would have times of relative calm, but they finally understood that the illness was fatal. On 17 November Camille wrote: ‘I see that there is no longer much hope of saving our poor Felix, even though you tell me about a noticeable improvement at the end of your letter; unhappily, it is from crisis to crisis that our poor boy goes while fading away.’ As late as 22 November, Camille received a letter from Dr. MacNish which told him ‘that Titi is relatively past the crisis’, but Julie had already left for London on 18 November because they were now worried about Georges’ health. He was exhausted, and the doctor had expressed concern that the two brothers had been in lengthy close proximity. Julie’s arrival meant that Georges could rest and spend time out of doors where he could take in fresh air.
It was a sombre time for the family and this was echoed by the dark mood in France. The Dreyfus case continued to divide the nation and this schism was deepened in January 1898 when Émile Zola published his famous open letter ‘J’accuse…!’, for which he would be arrested and tried. In Éragny, Julie continued to weep day and night, and she was aggrieved by what she perceived as Camille’s insensitivity to Félix’s death. This criticism stung him because of the continual obligation he was under to produce paintings; he wrote to Lucien: ‘If I gave way to discouragement, what would become of us?’
I was given the Félix Pissarro postcard in 1987, 90 years after his death. Now with more than 120 years of distance, it was still heart-breaking to follow Félix’s decline toward inevitable death because he was so young and the letters are so vivid. The story of Félix Pissarro came to have significance in my own family as I shared with them the events that emerged from the letters; my two sons, both in their twenties, were especially drawn toward these parallel brothers, ‘les gars’. We were charmed by Esther Isaacson, so smart and exuberant, and by her relationship with Georges. Her death hit us hard and we became preoccupied with the desire to visit her grave. After some research, my younger son located it in West Ham Jewish Cemetery which can only be entered by appointment. He arranged a date for us to visit together, and the day proved to be surprising. We inadvertently went into West Ham Cemetery, having walked the length of the road without spotting another entrance. West Ham Cemetery is completely open to passers-by and is green and tidy. After strolling briefly through the paths, we realized this was the Christian cemetery and we had yet to find the Jewish burial ground. We noticed a high brick wall along one edge of the site and wondered if it was a dividing line. We walked back out to the street and saw that beyond that wall there was another expanse, so we followed the perimeter wall until it ended, leaving us standing bewildered in a litter-strewn alley. At this moment, the man tasked with letting us into the cemetery appeared and explained that this was indeed the entrance, and it had been deliberately camouflaged to deter anti-Semitic vandalism.
West Ham Jewish Cemetery, which contains the Rothschild mausoleum, had been the target of a serious attack in 2005 from which it does not seem to have recovered. As we walked toward the coordinates for Esther’s grave, we grew increasingly discouraged by the amount of destruction and scaled back our expectations. Miraculously, Esther’s grave was intact due to, I believe, the quality and style of her memorial which made it more resistant to damage. All around her were graves that were smashed or illegible. Her stone reads: ‘In Memory of Esther Clara Pissarro, Née Isaacson, Wife of Georges Henri Pissarro, Born in Paris October 31st 1857, Died in London September 2nd 1893’. I was relieved that her grave was undamaged but felt depressed that the peace here had been shattered by hatred and violence and that this could happen again. Indeed, every measure has been taken to keep the location of West Ham Jewish Cemetery under the radar, including making it unsearchable on Google Maps.
The atmosphere at Felix’s burial place could not have been more different. I’ve been on several occasions now, with different family members and we go on foot by crossing Richmond Park and exiting at Bog Gate, a mile in total. He is buried in Richmond Cemetery, a public site in a leafy and affluent pocket of southwest London that Félix and Georges had appreciated. He is buried under a large yew tree and his headstone is decorated with graceful floral and leaf patterns and inscribed (in French): ‘To the Memory of Our Lamented Son Félix Pissarro, Born in Pontoise on 24 July 1874, Died in Kew on 25 November 1897’. There were dead plants in the soil atop the plot, suggesting there had been visitors, and there is a small sign stating that the site was restored in 2001. I noticed how closely Félix is buried to the centuries-old brick wall separating the cemetery from Richmond Park, an eloquent line between the final resting place of a young man and grounds bursting with human activity and natural beauty.
London had provided a place of refuge and possibility for the Pissarro family for decades. Camille’s older half-sister Emma Petit and her husband Phineas Isaacson lived in London with their five children, Alfred, Rodolphe, Esther, Alice and Amélie. Emma had died in 1868, but during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Camille, Julie and their children Lucien and Minette fled to London and took shelter in the lodgings found for them by the Isaacsons. Camille enjoyed the time spent in London and produced some well-known paintings of Norwood and Sydenham. Julie, however, did not speak English and never felt at ease in London, yet just before returning to France in 1871 she and Camille were married at the Croydon Registry Office.
Though Phineas Isaacson was referred to disparagingly as ‘bourgeois’ by Camille and his sons, there was a natural affinity between the Pissarro children and their Isaacson cousins. Esther, especially, was a dynamic presence in the Pissarro family—she was bright and lively, fully bi-lingual, and able to hold her own in conversation with Camille. She introduced Lucien to her close friend Esther Bensusan, who would later become his wife. Alfred Isaacson wrote to Esther Bensusan after her visit to Éragny in 1890, saying: ‘I can imagine the walks with the Pissarros—Esther I., Lucien & Camille theorizing on art, and Georges & you listening, open-mouthed. All the sauce I wish I had been part of’. Esther’s strong rapport with Camille and the family would dictate the course of her life. She wrote to Esther Bensusan: ‘Isn’t he everything that is good & noble, & are they not a charming family altogether, people doing away with all the stupid conventionalities which we dull people think so important, and leading such a pure, simple & intelligent life!’
In 1883-4, Lucien lived with the Isaacsons while he got his first taste of life in London and attempted to make art full time. He moved there permanently in 1890, and in 1892 he married Esther Bensusan. In 1889, it was Georges’ turn to live with the Isaacsons when he came to London to attend Toynbee Hall, The Guild and School of Handicraft in Whitechapel. The programme was run by Charles Robert Ashbee, a disciple of John Ruskin and William Morris, and it offered the training in applied arts that Camille felt would ensure a more regular income than fine art alone. During this year, the relationship between Georges and his cousin Esther, fourteen years his senior, turned to romance. This was a quiet development that was not openly acknowledged, but it would have a significant impact on the family. When Georges was in London, his dark moods lifted, and Esther’s letters describe busy days spent together enjoying the city, or at home, working side by side.
In June 1890, after finishing his studies, Georges was no longer funded by Camille and so returned home where he was miserable and lacking in direction. Esther, too, was heartsick without Georges and visited Éragny in September at which point they continued to keep their relationship secret. Esther’s feelings were not only for Georges, but for the family as a whole: ‘The other day all the family was sitting in a row, some on the sofa and some on either side of it, & from the white head to the little yellow one they were a remarkable looking lot! Each one having his characteristic look, & every one nice looking.’ When they were apart, Georges’ darkness returned and in March 1891, Julie wrote to ask for Lucien’s help to remove Georges from the house because she could no longer cope with the agitation he caused. She favoured a move to Paris because she opposed the relationship that she suspected was developing between Georges and Esther: ‘I am almost certain that all of his rages and nastiness comes from thinking of her, he doesn’t work, he doesn’t do anything unless it’s for her.’ Despite Julie’s pleas, Georges returned to London in October of 1891, ostensibly to teach art to private pupils and paint portraits, and he and Esther married in secret on 17 December 1892.
The marriage provoked dissent in the family—Julie forbade it to be spoken of and Esther’s sisters were hurt by having been excluded, while Camille was characteristically philosophical as seen in his words to Lucien: ‘I’m very surprised and yet I expected it, is it not so?’ Family relations become more harmonious thanks to the intervention of Octave Mirbeau who hired Georges to undertake some redecoration at his new residence in Carrières-sous-Poissy. By February 1893, the newlyweds were installed in lodgings in nearby Grésillons, and work was underway, and by May, Félix was living with them, helping Georges to make paintings and decorated panels. It was an easy train journey between them and Éragny and there were regular visits and joint outings, such as a trip to the influential exhibition of the Japanese artists Utamaro and Hiroshige in Paris. Mirbeau seemed content with Georges and Félix’s work and wrote to Camille: ‘I believe you will have a moment of joy when you see the progress of your sons!’ But this happy scene of creativity did not last. Soon after this letter, a misunderstanding between Mirbeau and Camille caused a rupture in the friendship and the resulting embarrassment brought Georges and Félix’s work to an end. At the same time, Georges had injured a local farmer’s dog while defending himself against its attack and the owner pressed charges. Because Georges was not registered with the French military, he and Esther, who was now pregnant, left the country with some haste on 5 July 1893.
When reading the Pissarro letters, it comes as a blow to discover the tragic events that followed the couple’s return to London. Esther, whose letters overflow with enthusiasm for life, died of eclampsia on September 2nd, two days after giving birth to a son. The baby was named Tommy, and Julie offered to care for him at Éragny but Georges preferred that he stay with Esther’s sister, Alice. Georges was utterly disconsolate so Félix was sent to England to be with him, and the two moved into accommodation near Lucien and Esther Bensusan Pissarro’s home in Epping. This was an anxious time for Lucien and Esther who were also expecting their first baby, but their daughter, Orovida, was born safely on October 8th. Camille advised Lucien that the three brothers should lift one another’s spirits by making art together: ‘I know that it’s quite repugnant after a crisis like this, everything seems void of interest, but it’s essential to engage oneself to work with a frenzy.’ Lucien agreed: ‘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. As soon as Georges is moved into his lodgings, we will all work together.’
Georges and Félix did manage a sustained period of work while living near Lucien and the brothers were included in the French Decorative Artists exhibition which opened at the Grafton Galleries in London in late 1893. The Grafton was run by Paul Durand-Ruel, Camille’s art dealer and the key figure in promoting the work of the Impressionists, but this exhibition focussed on the influence of the British Arts & Crafts movement on French artists. In a review of the exhibition in The Studio, the author noted that this show ran concurrently with the Arts & Crafts exhibition taking place in nearby Regent Street at the New Gallery, so for the cost of a shilling each, one could observe the similarities and differences in parallel. The author remarked of the French exhibition: ‘Paris has been to the land of the chrysanthemum and caught its charm with a dainty ease quite distinct from our painful attempts to be Anglo-Japanese; but all the same the decoration of William Morris and his school is in its way a native style to be prized all the more after a visit to the Grafton.’ Georges and Félix returned to Éragny by the end of the year, and exhibited again in January 1894 at the opening of Lucien Moline’s Neo-Impressionist Gallery in Paris.
Participation in these important exhibitions would suggest progress in their art careers, but Georges’ ongoing malaise continued to have an impact on work and family life. ‘Les gars’ were once again a pair, with Georges falling into a second adolescence, and taking Félix with him. They amused themselves by taking long walks or wearing fancy dress about which Camille wrote to Lucien in February of 1894: ‘I suppose youth is claiming its rights.’ In May, Julie complained of Georges’ treatment of her and told Lucien that she hoped for him to return to London as soon as Alice found him a place to live, and she was keen for Félix to leave too: ‘Georges is going to leave, so much the better, there is no way to live with him, and Master Titi […] it is absolutely necessary that he also leave as soon as possible; they haven’t worked since you left, they take bicycle rides and pass their time at that.’ Georges returned to London in early June, leaving Félix behind in Éragny.
While the Pissarro family coped with these difficulties, France had entered a period of political and social unrest which intensified throughout the 1890s. Between March 1892 and June 1894 anarchists killed nine people in eleven dynamite explosions in Paris. This resulted in governmental crackdowns such as the ‘lois scélérates’ [‘villainous laws’] with which the French state gave itself powers to repress political movements and free speech. These laws were further hardened after the assassination of the French president Marie François Sadi-Carnot by an Italian anarchist on 24 June 1894. Anarchist newspapers were shut down, lists were made of people who had contributed to or subscribed to these publications, and suspects were rounded up.
Camille had subscribed and contributed to Jean Grave’s La Révolte and Émile Pouget’s Le Père Peinard and had worked with Maximilien Luce and Félix Fénéon to support anarchist causes. The Pissarro boys had artwork included in these publications, such as Félix’s cartoon in the Père Peinard of 31 July 1892 titled ‘Gras et Maigres!’ [‘Fat and Skinny!’] in which a well-fed couple ride past a destitute man in their horse-drawn carriage. The caption reads: ‘These two butterballs have minions, carriages and castles and enough grub to eat like pigs. If they are so fat, it’s because they have stolen from the poor of the world and there are starving people filling the streets.’ There was never subtlety in this message, but the new climate gave it an air of threat.
The day after the assassination, Camille, Julie and Félix left for Belgium on a trip that had been planned in advance. But the timing was fortuitous because Camille was worried that his links to anarchism would have consequences and he was relieved to be leaving France. Indeed, his friends and colleagues Maximilien Luce, Félix Fénéon, Jean Grave and Émile Pouget, among others, were arrested and imprisoned on 8 July 1894. Julie went home after enjoying a short holiday, but Camille, who was afraid to return, stayed in Belgium until September by which time his friends had been tried and acquitted in the celebrated Procès des trente (the Trial of the Thirty). The same year also brought the start of a lengthy and deeply polarising political scandal when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested on charges of treason. Camille began to experience the more overt anti-Semitism exposed by the Dreyfus Affair despite his well-known atheism. For all these reasons Camille considered leaving France permanently when, in the midst of these troubles, the previous owner of the Éragny house expressed the desire to re-purchase it. Camille was keen to accept the offer and move to London since Lucien, Georges and two grandchildren were already there. He argued, ‘the whole family will inevitably be there’, but Julie would not be persuaded to move.
During the Belgian trip, Camille and Félix were hosted by Théo van Rysselberghe, a Belgian Neo-Impressionist painter who was, like Lucien, in his early 30s and married with a young child. He was a serious and disciplined painter and one of the founding members of ‘Les XX’, an association of radical artists who, like the Impressionists, were frustrated by the conservative policies of the official salons. In 1893, the group reformed under the name ‘La Libre Esthétique’. Van Rysselberghe was a generous host and took Camille and Félix around Belgium and into Holland on excursions to paint and visit galleries and museums, with Lucien and Rodo joining them at certain points. Félix benefitted from the contact with Van Rysselberghe and wrote to Georges about sketching and painting every day, even in bad weather: ‘never mind, we work all the same.’ After Camille’s return to France, Félix was to stay in Belgium indefinitely and continue working with Van Rysselberghe.
This plan was turned on its head by the arrival of Georges, who suddenly left London to join Félix in Belgium in October. Julie wrote to Lucien to complain about ‘Master Georges who amuses himself by going off to Belgium rather than staying in London where he could have found work doing portraits or lessons.’ Camille adapted to the new state of affairs, remarking to Lucien: ‘the boys are settled in Brussels, it costs much less to live there than in London.’ Félix and Georges exhibited in Brussels at the Libre Esthétique show in February of 1895 but then departed abruptly for London in March, offering the excuse that they feared the repercussions of not having declared their residency to the Belgian authorities. Théo Van Rysselberghe doubted this explanation, saying this was a mere formality which could easily have been resolved. The actual cause might have been an accumulation of debt which they found themselves unable to pay. They received a letter from Camille later that year urging them to ‘be thrifty’ and ‘don’t acquire debts like in Belgium where you had more than sufficient.’ He criticised their skewed priorities: ‘put it into your head that it’s better to take care of your stomach than to have chic hats and jackets.’
Back in London, Georges and Félix lived together in Twickenham until November of 1895, after which they began to live apart in various lodgings in west London—never far from Kew or from the Isaacson family in Bayswater. Now, little by little, began a more structured approach to making art. The events of the previous few years had been painful and challenging, but both were still young; Félix turned 21 in July, and Georges, despite marriage and fatherhood, would only be 24 in November. Their slow journey to a more disciplined existence had been difficult for the family because finances were so delicate, but Camille was sympathetic to the need to explore boundaries in youth. When he was 22, he left his home in the West Indies despite his parents’ displeasure, and spent two formative years travelling, painting and drawing in Venezuela with the Danish artist Fritz Melbye. He also understood that becoming an artist was a lengthy process. After Belgium had proved a failure, he wrote to Lucien: ‘nothing has been lost, someday I hope to see the boys working in one of the applied arts.’
In keeping with Camille’s advice, Félix and Georges became focussed on making decorated wooden boxes. The boxes themselves were obtained ready-made and then individually painted with unique designs. In December of 1895, the brothers exhibited work in Paris at the debut show of Siegfried Bing’s Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Félix sold a box, which prompted Lucien to respond: ‘lucky devil, this is going to give you a kick up the backside to produce!’ During this period, Félix and Georges took pseudonyms after Julie suggested that the family name might be as much a hindrance as a help to their art careers. Georges adopted the alias ‘Manzana’, the maiden name of Camille’s Creole mother, and Félix chose ‘Jean Roche’. After this, Félix sold a painting, Vue de l’Escaut, for 200 francs and Lucien remarked to Camille: ‘It’s good that Titi has sold a painting, that will give him courage; all the same it’s curious that the pseudonym was enough to help with sales.’
In his third son, Camille saw an artist who was a painter by instinct, something he had noted when Félix was age twelve and spent his days drawing horses and again in September of 1893, when he wrote, ‘Titi has begun several studies—he has a really good eye, he will be a painter.’ Like Camille, Félix was drawn to themes from nature for inspiration, especially his continuing preoccupation with horses, a penchant that Mirbeau had noted: ‘this passion for horses, he kept it always.’ Even in urban London, Félix continued to pursue this motif. Lucien wrote: ‘Titi reckons on going to work at the zoo and painting the donkeys and mules in the horse genre that he does.’ Mirbeau found a connection between Félix’s fascination with horses and another of his adolescent passions, Flaubert’s dramatic short story The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, which Félix, ‘with his beautiful youthful enthusiasm’, read and re-read. In the tale, Julian, a tormented hero, rides out on horseback to hunt by moonlight. Mirbeau wrote: ‘I see again, one after the other, all the paintings, all the etchings, all the drawings, strange, animated, mysterious, that his imagination took, without end, from his favourite tale.’
In the Ashmolean collection, the majority of Félix’s work features horses: rural, working horses with expressions of noble resignation, pulling ploughs or carts laden with hay; the same horses enjoying the respite after a day’s labour, lying down, bathing in a river, resting their heads on one another, finding shade among trees. There are horses with riders, gentlemen in riding silks galloping through the countryside and over hedges. Others depict scenes seemingly inspired by the Flaubert tale—costumed men on decorated horses, parading or in hunting parties, wild scenes of a hunt in action, with horse, rider and beast in mid-air and the weapon finding its target.
In the summer of 1896 Georges and Félix travelled along the south coast of England, painting and drawing, making their way to the Isle of Wight, a trip that passed without incident. Then in December of that year, the pair embarked on what would be their last trip together when they left for Spain in search of new subject matter. This was despite a warning from Camille that foreigners would be especially conspicuous because the activities of Spanish revolutionaries had put the authorities on alert. He was proven correct. In January they were in Barcelona making sketches near the harbour fortifications, which attracted the attention of the police, who invaded their hotel room in the middle of the night, seizing certain items. They were nearly arrested except for the intervention of one sympathetic policeman who advised them to leave the country on the first train in the morning, which they did. Camille wrote to Lucien that the boys ‘will soon be on their way to England, which they never should have left’.