Art, Anarchy and Other Dangers: The Premature Death of Félix Pissarro (Part II)

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!’

Esther Isaacson

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.

Toynbee Hall, 2019

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.

Georges Pissarro

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.

The Grafton Galleries
Announcement card for exhibition of the ‘Groupe Néo-Impressionniste’ at 20, rue Laffitte, Paris, 1893-1894. Catalogues 1891-1893, Pissarro Collection

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.

Le Petit Journal, 2 July 1894

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.

‘Gras et maigres’, caricature after a drawing by Felix Pissarro, printed in Le Pere Peinard, 31 July 1892, no. 176. Pissarro Collection

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.

WA1951.225.9. Felix Pissarro, View at Hemiksem, 1894, oil on canvas. Presented by Esther Pissarro, 1951

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.’

Painted box by Felix Pissarro, August 1895

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.’

WA.PA.77.2971A. Felix Pissarro, Two horses standing beneath a tree, etching. Pissarro Family Gift, 1952
WA.PA.77.2998. Felix Pissarro, Hunting with a wolf, etching. Pissarro Family Gift, 1952

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’.

Part I and Part III

The Wilton’s Music Hall Film History Tour

12 February 2020

Wilton’s Music Hall has appeared regularly on my social media pages during the past year. It caught my attention because it touches on several interests: performing arts, history and the East End of London. Wilton’s is tucked away in a busy but untouristy enclave of East London, hiding in plain sight, with Whitechapel proper to the north, Wapping to the south, Canary Wharf to the east and Tower Hill and St Katharine’s docks to its west. The working docks would have provided customers for the Victorian music hall in its heyday. And the landscape of nearby Cable Street is a microcosm of the best of London, with the old sitting alongside the new: rows of handsome Victorian terraced houses in varying degrees of decrepitude or gentrification; the mural commemorating the Cable Street riots of 1936; 1960s council estates; the blue lanes of the cycle superhighway filled with cyclists speeding past in both directions; the raised railway tracks pointing toward the new sky scrapers on the horizon.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Wilton’s for one of their film history tours, led by Graham, who clearly loves the venue and its film and music legacy. He began with a brief history of the building itself. Wilton’s was founded in 1853 by John Wilton, who joined together five 17th century terrace houses in Graces Alley, off Wellclose Square. Behind the houses—which now function as the box office, bars and offices—a hall was constructed, which is now the world’s oldest surviving grand Victorian music hall.

More of the building’s history emerged over the course of the tour, but further detail can be found on the Wilton’s and the Victoria & Albert Museum websites. The V&A house Wilton’s archives in their National Collection of Performing Arts. The story of Wilton’s is that of a very resilient building that has survived the ravages of time, the Blitz, periods of neglect and impending demolition. The fact that it is now a thriving performing arts venue is due to the efforts of campaigners who worked to achieve its Grade II listed status and to raise the funds necessary to return the building to a good state of repair. Graham made special mention of Spike Milligan, whose The Great McGonagall (1974) was filmed entirely at Wilton’s, and who became a passionate supporter of the venue.

The building refurbishments were finally carried out between 2012 and 2015, and in 2016 the architects involved in the restoration won prizes for London Building Conservation. They undertook the works with a policy of ‘conservative repair’ so that the building would retain its ‘genuine historic fabric and avoid misleading restoration’. This is important in relation to its use as a film and video location because it is Wilton’s visible age that makes it both appealing and useful to filmmakers. It’s what one notices when walking throughout the building—the layers of materials, textures and colours dating from 1690 to the present, creating a unique architectural collage.

The tour of the building includes the truly magnificent music hall, but also the front of house spaces on the ground and first floor because all of them have been used as film settings. At least 20 films have used Wilton’s as a location between 1968 and today, with some films more well-known than others. The largest grossing among them is Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. But there will be something for everyone—in my tour group, for example, one young woman’s favourite childhood movie was Penelope (2006), starring Christina Ricci and a then-little-known James McAvoy. Seeing the film location was important to her, which was nice for the whole group to experience.

There are also three noted (in one case notorious) music videos filmed at Wilton’s: Kate Bush’s Wow (1978), Annie Lennox’s No More I Love Yous (1995), and Frankie Goes to Hollywood with Relax (1983). This version of the Relax video was banned from the BBC and MTV, but when the song became a worldwide hit, a new, tamer video was made. The Wilton’s version might be unfamiliar to some but can now be seen on YouTube. Its banishment will seem surprising until reaching minute 3:25, when the explanatory moment arrives. Aha…

Graham has a collection of film and video stills printed on large cards which he used to great effect as he took us around to the corresponding sites, enabling us to see how Wilton’s was used by the filmmakers to achieve certain shots.  In addition to the films and videos already mentioned, he focussed particularly on The Krays (1990), Cassandra’s Dream (2007), The Counselor (2013), The Muppets Most Wanted (2014), Suffragette (2015), The Infiltrator (2016), and Final Portrait (2017). Seeing how all the nooks and crannies of the building were utilised and transformed gave us a lesson in the magic of cinema and, in particular, of film editing, where scenes were seamlessly spliced together to create believable settings. The range of transformations was surprising: in The Infiltrator, Wilton’s is a Miami nightclub; in Muppets Most Wanted, it is a Berlin cabaret club; in The Counselor, a Mexican apartment building.

Some of the transformations that Wilton’s has undergone for films have now become part of the fabric of the building itself. In The Krays, for example, the music hall was used as a pool hall. For this, the filmmakers were allowed to paint the hall deep red, and bits of this red still remain on the walls thirty years later. Combined with the other colours and textures this gives a beautiful patina effect. In Final Portrait, the ground floor bar was turned into a French bistro, so new windows were installed and a coat rack was hung. These are still in place, and blend in with the other features of the room. Indeed, the Wilton’s signs that hang outside the venue’s front door were made for Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, even though the scene in which they featured ended up on the cutting room floor. These additions allow us to see the ingenuity and artistry of the craftspeople of cinema up close.  

Despite the many transformations that Wilton’s has undergone for filmmakers, there is one iconic feature of the building that stands out and helps identify it beyond doubt: the graceful ‘barley twist’ columns which support the balcony in the music hall and which have endured for more than 160 years. The Wilton’s Film History tour, like all good tours, left me wanting to know more about the films and videos whose creation was intertwined with the building’s own rich history. Now, many of the works discussed can be seen online or purchased for under a fiver and it is a pleasure to revisit the spaces and to spot those barley twists.

Art, Anarchy and Other Dangers: The Premature Death of Félix Pissarro (Part I)

In 1987, when I was 23, a boyfriend bought an art postcard during our visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he gave it to me and said ‘this looks like you’. It was the portrait of a child painted by the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, and indeed, we both had thick, shoulder length brown hair, similar distinctive noses, large eyes, and, matching red berets. Thinking that the child was a girl, I was surprised to find the painting entitled ‘Portrait of Félix Pissarro’ and I felt an affinity with this boy who had been brought to my attention because of our perceived resemblance. I put the card in a frame selected specially to set off the painting’s colours and have carried it with me for more than thirty years and multiple moves, including a relocation to London.

Now in the age of internet, a simple Google search of ‘Félix Pissarro’, inspired by a moment of curiosity, told me that the boy had died in London in 1897, at the age of 23, and was buried a short distance from my home. Astonished by this information, I urgently needed to know what had brought him to London and how he came to die so young. My search for answers would uncover more than I expected: a mighty bond between two brothers, Félix and his brother Georges; a passionate romance between Georges and his remarkable cousin Esther; and an exceptional family that lived by its own rules.

I could not have anticipated the close access I would have to the personal lives of the Pissarro family. They were prolific letter writers and much of the correspondence as well as private family art had been bequeathed to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where I had the pleasure of reading the letters and gradually gaining insight into the personalities and events that made up Félix’s final years. The opportunity to study the letters came to me several years after having finished my doctorate in French Literature, which equipped me to do detailed research as well as to read in French. Personal letters offer an intimate glimpse into a family’s private life and letters also have the effect of erasing time because of the immediacy of the voice in which they are written. I learned that tuberculosis was the cause of Félix’s death, a cruel process that is painfully described, but the letters also show that the 1890s were a tumultuous time for the Pissarro family, and for France.

Letter from Félix Pissarro to Lucien, 2 August 1892. Pissarro Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Félix Pissarro was one of eight children of Camille Pissarro and his wife Julie. Camille was raised in a Jewish community in the cosmopolitan Danish West Indies and he was the only artist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions (1874-1886), the first taking place in the year of Félix’s birth. Julie Vellay Pissarro was from rural Burgundy—the daughter of an agricultural labourer and a seamstress. She met Camille while working as a kitchen maid for his mother, now in France, and their relationship provoked condemnation in his family because of the class and religious differences. Julie bore the brunt of the financial instability of the artist’s life, but under a veneer of bad-temper she hid an affectionate and generous nature. Félix’s brother, Lucien, was 11 years older and moved to England in 1890 to marry and establish a career as an artist. In 1870, a sister, Adèle, died age two weeks. Another sister, Jeanne (‘Minette’), had died age nine, probably of tuberculosis, just a few months before Félix was born. Félix’s younger siblings—Ludovic Rodolphe (‘Rodo’), Jeanne (‘Cocotte’) and Paul-Émile—were dear to him, but were sufficiently different in age to preclude many shared experiences outside the home. His closest bond was with Georges, just 2 ½ years older, but despite their strong rapport, they had different personalities. Georges was secretive, prickly, and fell out with people, while Félix, who was known as ‘Titi’ by his family, was offbeat and witty. Félix, along with his two older and two younger brothers, each pursued a career in art with great encouragement from their father and disapproval from their mother, who wanted the boys to have a more stable source of income.

From left to right, Camille’s nephew Alfred Isaacson, Julie Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, and their children Cocotte, Felix (sitting), Georges, Rodo & Lucien

When reading the letters, it becomes natural to view the Pissarro family with a certain romance; there was something special about them which was recognised in their lifetime. The celebrated writer Octave Mirbeau was a close family friend, and Félix’s death prompted him to compose an intimate piece entitled ‘Famille d’Artistes’ which was published on the front page of the newspaper Le Journal in December of 1897. Mirbeau was inspired by the family and his article served as an obituary for Félix, but also a lament that even the Pissarros—uncommon and self-contained—were not safe from the dangers of the outside world:

‘Such is this family, where art is at home, where each member, child and adult, cultivates the rarest flowers of beauty. All this without noise, without attention-seeking, in a proud and joyous independence. Joyous? Alas! Joy is not sustainable anywhere! […] Poor little Félix Pissarro, in whom rested so many hopes! A charming and lively rosebud, met by death before the petals had opened themselves to the sun!’

The family’s singularity evolved as a result of Camille’s strong influence and because of the sequestered rural home he created with Julie, away from fashionable Paris.

Le Journal, 6 December 1897

Camille was a thoughtful artist who worked continually to achieve his vision despite detractors and obstacles. For him, more than his Impressionist colleagues, art and anarchism were closely aligned passions and his children followed suit. Camille’s approach to anarchism was more instinctive than systematic; he aspired to a world without hierarchy and though he knew this might necessitate revolution, he loathed violence. He avoided producing paintings for political or didactic ends, but he wrote to Lucien: ‘I firmly believe that something of our ideas, born as they are of the anarchist philosophy, passes into our works’. Camille had a natural rapport with young people and shared his enthusiasm for discussion and reading, introducing them to key anarchist literature of the period. His relationship with young people is beautifully evoked in a letter from his nephew Alfred Isaacson to Lucien upon Camille’s death in 1903: ‘We were boys—our amusements and conversations were of our age—yet how he would go and treat us as if we were his equals’. But there was a price to be paid for openly espousing anti-establishment views: Camille’s activities earned him a place on state watchlists of known anarchists.

When Félix was born, the Pissarros lived in Pontoise, thirty kilometres northwest of central Paris. But as the size of the family increased, the need for a bigger home was pressing and Camille was forced by limited financial means to look further afield. In 1884, just ahead of his tenth birthday, they moved to the rural village of Éragny-sur-Epte, to a large house that came with outbuildings and expansive gardens, fruit and chestnut trees, and proximity to the river. While delighted with the house and the space and views it afforded, Éragny was more provincial than Pontoise—the family were now eighty kilometres from Paris and the town of Gisors, four kilometres away, was the nearest centre of activity. But Gisors did offer rail service and visitors who would make the journey to Éragny included Monet, Gaugin, and Cézanne.

WA1950.185, Camille Pissarro, View from my Window, Éragny-sur-Epte (1888), ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The creative and political hothouse at Éragny shaped the Pissarro children, and had more impact than the formal education they received in local schools. The children began making art from an early age and the family, including Camille, regularly created bound albums of their drawings. Félix showed little academic inclination, so when he was twelve Julie placed him in an apprenticeship with a cabinet maker in Gisors. Mirbeau recounted this anecdote in Félix’s obituary: each day Julie sent him off to work with a packed lunch and when he returned home in the evening, she would ask him if he was beginning to learn his metier. Félix would respond briefly, ‘but of course!’, eat his dinner and shut himself in his bedroom for the night. Eventually, however, a neighbour reported that the boy had been seen wandering all day through the meadows of Éragny, amusing himself by making the horses gallop, which angered a local farmer. When Félix came home that evening, Julie reprimanded him sharply, and when the boy raised his arms to avoid a slap, a box of watercolour paints and some papers fell from beneath his jacket to the floor. The sheets were covered with sketches and paintings of horses, and as Camille examined them, he exclaimed with joy that Félix need not return to the cabinetmaker: ‘he will be a painter… but this is extraordinary!’ The clash between Julie and Camille’s divergent hopes for the boys would be repeated again and again.

As Félix reached adolescence, he and Georges became a firm twosome, and letters between Camille and Lucien made frequent reference to ‘les gars’ [‘the boys’]. It was a difficult time for family relations because Éragny and Gisors became too limited for them and they did not fit in with local boys. In June of 1891, Camille wrote: ‘we had a lot of trouble with Georges and Titi a few days ago. It was not their fault—this time. They just missed being murdered—literally!’ The two had been enjoying a night out in Gisors when they were badly beaten up by a gang of local youth—members of ‘La Société de Gymnastique’. Georges was carrying a pistol and a knife, which the aggressors took off him as they pinned him to the ground, and Camille reported that the assailants had been egged on by a young man from Éragny, but added that these things were ‘always happening to the two boys’. There was a certain danger to being distinctive in a provincial backwater where Félix and Georges could be viewed as easy targets. Camille was also conscious of his outsider status, and in 1894 when new laws were introduced to crack down on anarchist activity, he wrote to Lucien about his fears of being denounced to the police by villagers: ‘I distrust certain personalities in Éragny who have taken against us’. Although it would be his home for almost twenty years, he begrudged the cost of maintaining what he called, in English, ‘Éragny Castle’, and thought of moving elsewhere, but Julie resisted change. To compensate, he made increasingly regular and extended trips in search of new, inspiring ‘motifs’ for his paintings.

Despite frustrations with Éragny and Gisors, these locations were the setting for Félix’s first romantic encounters. He was charming and took care over his appearance, and though he annoyed local boys, he was popular with girls. Ahead of a trip to Belgium in 1894, Lucien wrote to Camille: ‘I hope that Félix will enjoy himself in Brussels and that he’ll make masses of superb works of art! I hope that he’ll behave well—it’s difficult when one is so handsome and above all so elegant! Mama says that he chases after all the girls, but it could well be that it is the girls who run after him!!’ Indeed, while in Belgium, Félix received a letter from his younger brother, Rodo, who wrote to deliver messages from the Éragny girls who were bored after his departure and ‘were still hoping to amuse themselves a little’. Rodo wrote: ‘if you write, they would be very happy if you include some messages for them’. In a family journal from early 1889, there is a remarkable illustration by Félix titled ‘A Poet’s Day’. With subtle whimsy, he sketched the daily routine of an arty young man in a feathered cap, and the final drawing, captioned ‘Fine Art № 2’, shows him in a romantic clinch with a pretty young woman. Félix, not yet 15 years old, showed precocity in his art, his playful humour and in his interest in women. In 1897, when he was gravely ill, Félix wrote to express delight that Rodo had been invited to a ball and would learn to dance. He reminisced about his own dancing apprenticeship: ‘me, what I learned, it was in Éragny with the Princesses of la rue Gagny’.

Félix Pissarro (‘Mistigri’), ‘La Journée d’un Poete’, in the family journal ‘Le Guignol’, January, 1889© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Julie continually hoped for Félix and Georges to learn a profession, partly because she wanted them to lead less precarious lives, but also, quite bluntly, to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Much of the burden of managing the household fell to her, so when the boys came of age, she lost patience when they were underfoot and expressing ambiguous aims of becoming artists. In December of 1890, when Félix was sixteen, Camille wrote to Lucien: ‘Your mother made me take Titi with me [to Paris] so that I could find a job for him; I took him along but I brought him back to Éragny. For after all, what is the point of putting a boy, Titi or Georges, in a factory where he will be exploited and either acquire no skill or learn it badly?’ To add to Julie’s frustration, Georges was subject to mood swings which frightened her and the younger children. What Camille and Julie agreed upon was the need for the boys to leave Éragny, and perhaps even France, to establish careers. Camille favoured London as a destination, and Lucien and Georges would pave the way for Félix.

Camille Pissarro, Portrait of Félix Pissarro, 1893, private collection

Part II and Part III