Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The infamous Dreyfus Affair, which divided France and much of the world at the turn of the 20th century, became a metaphor for anti-Semitism and, in one of the most unlikely and ironic sequences of events in Jewish history, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a wholly assimilated Jew, played a critical, if unintended, role in the rebirth of the State of Israel.

The affair made a powerful impact on the outlook of world Jewry. In particular, Herzl’s confidence in liberalism, badly shaken when he personally witnessed Dreyfus’ disgrace, led him to the Zionist idea. Jews everywhere realized that if such hatred of Jews in general – and against a wholly assimilated Jew in particular – could occur in France, the “homeland of liberty,” then Jews were not safe anywhere and assimilation was no defense against anti-Semitism.


While these basic facts are generally well known, few are aware of the Dreyfus Affair’s fundamental role in creating the seismic split amongst the French Impressionist painters that led to the decline of the Impressionist movement.

In fact, anti-Semitism caused the first defection from the Impressionist movement when the deeply prejudiced Pierre-Auguste Renoir broke off all contact with Jews and ended his relationships with Jewish patrons. Rather than exhibit his work alongside Jewish Impressionist Jacob Abraham (Camille) Pissarro, Renoir refused to participate in the 1882 independent salon and, much like the Nazis who followed him some 40 years later, Renoir characterized art of which he disapproved as “Jew art.”

Another Impressionist, Paul Cezanne, who ironically had always referred to himself as a pupil of Pissarro, cut off all relations with him, and also denounced Emile Zola – who had been a close friend – complaining that he “had been taken in” by the Dreyfusards, and ostracized him and attacked his supporters.

The greatest anti-Semite amongst the Impressionists, however, was undoubtedly Edgar Degas (1834-1917), one of the founders of the Impressionist movement who produced bronze sculptures, prints, and drawings, but is best known for his pastel drawings and oil paintings of ballerinas. Renowned as an inspired draftsman, he was a master at depicting movement, particularly in his renditions of dancers, and his portraits are distinguished by their psychological complexity.

Degas was a savage and cold-blooded Jew-hater who in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair not only severed all his friendships with Jews, whom he characterized as belonging to “that terrible race,” but even broke off all contact with non-Jews who happened to be Dreyfus supporters. He was not embarrassed about expressing his keen interest in “anti-Semitic reading and conversation” and unabashedly declared, “I detest them, those Jews! An abominable race that ought to be shut up in Ghettos. Or even totally eradicated.” In one infamous instance, he entered an art gallery and joyfully announced that he was going to visit a Parisian court, not to attend a trial, but “to kill a Jew.”

Degas refused to employ Jewish models, and he once hurled anti-Semitic epitaphs at a model and threw her out his studio before she could explain that she was actually Protestant. He railed against Jews to the point of tears of fury, and he lent his name to The League of the French Fatherland, a group founded in response to Zola’s J’Accuse! to facilitate the assembly and coordination of the anti-Dreyfusard effort. He would sometimes attend pro-Dreyfus rallies hoping to, in his words, “knock down a Dreyfusard.”

Anti-Semitism was all the rage in France at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, but Degas may have had additional incentive to join the anti-Semites because of his family’s entrepreneurial difficulties due to Jewish competitors. In the wake of the American Civil War, the Degas family sustained serious financial losses when its cotton brokerage, import-export business, and banking enterprise failed, for which Edgar blamed “big Jewish bankers” such as the Rothschilds.

Degas’ keen interest in portraiture led him to study carefully how a subject’s social stature could be determined from his appearance, features, posture, and dress. His anti-Semitism began to manifest itself in his work in General Mellinet and Chief Rabbi Astruc (1871), where the artist portrays an insolent-looking rabbi daring to predominate over the Parisian general, reflecting the growing sentiment in France that Jews did not know their place.

Postcard of Degas’ anti-Semitic Portraits at the Stock Exchange

In Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1879), Degas, copying the facial characteristics of Jewish bankers directly from French anti-Semitic cartoons popular at the time, portrays Jewish banker Ernest May with a grotesque hooked nose, swollen eyes, and bulging lips. May’s head is tilted toward his Jewish colleague, M. Boltare, suggesting a secret exchange pursuant to which the Jews are conspiring to uncover confidential stock information so as to engage in insider trading.

The message of the exaggerated anti-Semitic caricature could not be clearer: Jewish bankers – like the nefarious Rothschilds – perpetrate financial conspiracies and are the treacherous enemies of society in general and traitors to the French public in particular.

Before the Dreyfus Affair, Degas had painted a number of Jewish subjects and had executed several gelatin silver prints of numerous members of the family of Ludovic Halévy, a close and lifelong friend for over 40 years who had been more like family to him. Nonetheless, even his friendship with Halévy could not overcome his anti-Semitic expression in Portrait of Friends in the Wings (1879) in which, consistent with his view that Jews are aliens in French cultural life (in this case, the opera), he depicts Halévy against a vivid and colorful background as a gloomy, haggard, and colorless character, complete with hooked nose and full beard, an unmistakable anti-Semitic stereotype recognizable to all.

Degas correspondence to Ludovic Halévy

Shown here is a rare handwritten Degas correspondence to Halévy, undated but undoubtedly written prior to the Dreyfus Affair, in which he informs his (then) friend that he will be unable to attend dinner but promises that he will come to visit.

During the Dreyfus Affair, Degas terminated his relationships with Jewish friends, including Pissarro, the only Jew among the Impressionists, and Halévy, even though he had converted to Catholicism. (After breaking with Halévy in December 1897, Degas never saw him again until he paid his final respects to his former friend in 1908.) He also refused to continue his attendance at soirees hosted by Genevieve Strauss (Georges Bizet’s widow – see below – and Halévy’s cousin) because she was Jewish.

Ludovic Halévy’s grandfather was Élie Halévy (1760-1826), a renowned Talmudic scholar, cantor, and a nationally-renowned Hebrew poet who earned a place in Jewish history as secretary-translator of the Parisian Jewish Community and as co-founder of L’Israélite Français, the first Jewish journal published in France.

Elie’s son and Ludovic’s uncle, Jacques Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), who composed 32 operas – including most notably La Juive (“The Jewess”), a tragedy of religious intolerance which, uniquely at the time, presented Jews sympathetically – was the father of Geneviève Halévy, who married Georges Bizet. (Bizet and Ludovic were thus cousins).

Ludovic, who is perhaps best known for writing the libretto to Carmen (1875), lived for a time with Georges and Geneviève and was very close to both. Elie Delaunay’s Portrait of Mme. Georges Bizet (1878), which portrays Geneviève clad in mourner’s black and evidences both her ethereal beauty and her pain at the loss of her husband, remains one of the most beloved paintings in the French oeuvre.

Bizet (1838-75), was a French Romantic composer best known for his final work, Carmen, which has become one of the most beloved and frequently performed works of the operatic repertoire. Sadly, the opera was panned by both the critics and the public; Bizet tragically died prematurely only a few months after its premiere and never lived to experience the acclaim accorded him by later critics as a composer of brilliance and originality.

Bizet letter to Ludovic Halévy

In the letter to Ludovic Halévy exhibited here, Bizet writes:

My dear Cousin, Please send and address your sketches to Monsieur Bizet (Georges), at the time at Monsieur Hippolyte Rodrigues, 3 Avenue Mathilde a Saint Gratien près Enghien les Bains – Seine et Oise. They will let me know and inform me as soon as it arrives. As for me, I’m invisible right now but I will read it with the utmost care and will write to you immediately.

A May 30, 1938 Time magazine article notes that Bizet “is generally credited with some Jewish blood” but, in fact, there is ample evidence that his maternal grandparents were Spanish Jews and, thus, according to Jewish law, Bizet was Jewish. Notably, though he defended Wagner as a composer, he pointedly dissociated himself from the musician’s anti-Semitism.

Georges Bizet – Jewish?

Interestingly, the Halévys did not consider Bizet to be Jewish at all, and they were unhappy with his marriage into their family for that very reason. However, though he was baptized at age two, Bizet disavowed all organized religion, and he was particularly disrespectful to Christianity. In one amusing instance, when he received an assignment as a music student to write a Mass, he submitted a short comic opera and, when admonished, he offered to write a pagan service instead.

The Jewish Geneviève, whom many analysts claim was the prototype for Carmen, refused to convert to Bizet’s Catholicism, claiming that she had “too little religion to change it.” Fourteen years after Bizet’s death, she married lawyer Emile Strauss, became an ardent Dreyfusard, and her salon became the center for pro-Dreyfus forces, thereby earning Degas’ eternal enmity.

Another person who apparently did not consider Bizet to be Jewish was Adolf Hitler. Carmen maintained its great popularity in Nazi Germany notwithstanding a campaign by some to characterize Bizet as a Jewish composer.

The most likely reason for the historical suppression of Bizet’s Jewishness is the rampant anti-Semitism that characterized French society and the desire of many aspiring politicians, artists, musicians, writers, and other public figures to remove any impediment to their careers relating to their being Jewish. Many converted to Christianity, not because they believed in its doctrines but, rather, to facilitate their acceptance in French society and elite social circles. Nonetheless, Jean-Baptiste-Francois Jouvin – noted French journalist, music critic, and editor of Le Figaro – denounced Bizet for his “Jewishness.”

It is not surprising that Bizet was influenced by the Jewish music around his wife’s family, and Carmen has definite Jewish modalities throughout the score, particularly its use of the augmented second, a melodic interval distinctive in Jewish music but uncommon in traditional classical music. In particular, the “fate” theme in the opera is evocative of a cantor’s prayer.

Scholars have theorized that Bizet’s intentional and repeated use of the minor second interval – which would have been a foreign melodic element for a French composer to highlight at the time – can be directly attributed to the composer’s general familiarity with Sephardic music and, specifically, with the cantorial melodies that Bizet might well have heard the elder Halévy chant.

Another generally unknown Jewish tie to Carmen relates to one of the key literary influences that inspired the opera: the tale of Petenera, the Jewish temptress who, holding fast to her Jewish identity and beliefs, refused to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. Knowing that she was the object of men’s desire, Petenera seductively tempted her suitors, and those who were drawn to her were spiritually and romantically destroyed. Ultimately, she was murdered by a jealous suitor who decided that, if he could not have her, no man would. This is virtually the identical finale presented in Bizet’s work, with Don Jose stabbing Carmen to death.

In Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1845), upon which Bizet based his opera, the narrator initially mistakes Carmen the Gypsy for a Jewess. It is not coincidental that the entire Carmen narrative takes place against a lengthy cultural history of the Jewish and Gypsy communities, both of which were seen as “other” – outsiders who communicated in their native tongues, who were considered purveyors of depravity and corruption, and who were required to “know their place” as inferior peoples. This philosophical approach tragically culminated with the destruction of both communities in the Nazi genocide.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].