Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Morning, Sunlight Effect, Eragny (1899).

 

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Two paintings by Camille Pissarro that were stolen by the Nazis have been in the news recently. First, after a sustained battle over many years, the University of Oklahoma agreed to return Shepherdess Bringing in the Sheep (1886), which had been stolen during the Nazi occupation of Paris, to Holocaust survivor Léone Meyer.

However, the fight over the ownership of Rue Saint-Honoré, Apres-midi, Effect de Plue (“St.-Honoré Street in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain,” 1897), currently in the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid, is far from over. In 1939, Lilly Cassirer Neubauer, a German Jew, was forced to sell the painting for $360 to a Nazi art appraiser to secure exit visas for herself and her husband. Her heir sued for its recovery, but both the California federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the museum. However, in a unanimous April 21, 2022, opinion, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial court to determine the very complex legal issue of whether California law or Spanish law applies to the ownership dispute. (Notably, at the end of oral arguments before the Court, Justice Breyer asked “Can everyone agree that this is a beautiful painting?”)

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Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), as the principal figure in the founding, development and dissemination of Impressionism, is perhaps best known for his renderings of landscapes and the transcription of natural light effects through impressionist means. Indisputably the most important Jewish artist of the 19th century, his later works are among the most vivid urban images produced by Impressionism, particularly his series of Parisian and French harbor scenes, which are considered among the most successful impressionist revelations of light and atmosphere.

He was also a talented mentor and teacher who gave generously of his time, championed other artists, and launched the careers of many great artists, including most famously Paul Gauguin, whom he encouraged to give up being a stockbroker and to devote himself to art; Vincent van Gogh, who learned about color from him and who called him “father to us all;” and Paul Cézanne, who stated that “we are all derived from Pissarro.”

Many of his students and contemporaries in the art world characterized his kindness, dependability, support and sage guidance as “rabbinical.” With his long and flowing white beard, Pissarro had what was commonly described as a biblical appearance; people often called him “Moses”; and a colleague seeing him carrying his sketchbooks called out “here comes Moses bearing the Tablets of the Law.”

The ”Moses” reference is actually apt in many respects. Paul Cézanne wrote that “as for old Pissarro, he was a father to me, a man to consult and something like the good Lord.” The writer George Moore, considered the first great modern Irish novelist, characterized him as “a wise and appreciative Jew, and he looked like Abraham; his beard was white and his hair was white and he was bald, though at the time he could not have been much more than fifty.” One commentator even goes so far as to suggest that he was “the Moses of modernism who led his colleagues to the promised land, but was not allowed in.”

Pissarro’s detractors and critics were aware of, and frequently took note of, his Jewish origins, and he came to see his Judaism as the reason for his being viewed by others as an outsider, even an unwelcome intruder. For example, facing a series of economic difficulties through the 1880s, he wrote a revealing May 1, 1889, letter to his niece in which he characterizes his lack of acceptance as a painter as “. . . a matter of race, probably. Until now, no Jew has made art here, or rather no Jew has searched to make a disinterested and truly felt art. I believe that this could be one of the causes of my `bad luck’ . . .” When Renoir’s brother made some unpleasant remarks about him during bickering over the 1882 Impressionist exhibition, he wrote to Claude Monet, a close friend:

Do you know, my dear Monet, that the younger brother of Renoir is really insufferable, not that his complete nonsense has any effect on me . . . It seems that I am a prime schemer without talent, a mercenary Jew, playing underhanded tricks . . . It is so absurd that I pay no attention to it, only the dangerous aspect of it is the dispute he stirs up, the discord he tries to provoke . . . Is it because I am an intruder in the group?

Unlike his Impressionist contemporaries, Pissarro never painted the high class, preferring simple pastoral scenes and manifesting his love of fields, farmers, peasant huts, and a simple but noble life, and some experts attribute his feelings of kinship with the peasantry with his own feelings of societal marginalization as a Jew. Even while wholly rejecting all trappings of Judaism, he was unable to escape his Jewish roots. As discussed below, there were essentially four seminal Jewish events that shaped his life: his parents’ scandalous marriage; his mother’s unreserved rejection of his non-Jewish wife and his son’s marriage to the daughter of an Orthodox Jew; the Dreyfus Affair; and antisemitic criticism of his art.

Announcement of the marriage of Pissarro’s parents in the November 22, 1826 St. Thomas Times (copy).

Pissarro’s family were Portuguese Marranos who, after hundreds of years passing Judaism on to their children in secret, publicly re-embraced their faith. Camille was born in St. Thomas in the Caribbean to a Sephardi Jewish mercantile family that had recently immigrated there from Portugal and who became prominent in the St. Thomas Jewish community. Camille’s grandfather, Joseph Gabriel, married Anne Felicité Petit in 1798 and, upon the death of her brother, who had immigrated to the island of St. Thomas in the West Indies, the Pissarros sent their son Frederic (Camille’s father) to serve as executor of his uncle’s estate and to help his Aunt Rachel handle outstanding business matters. The announcement in the November 22, 1826, St. Thomas Times (see exhibit) of Frederic’s marriage to his aunt created an enormous scandal in the Jewish community, particularly the representation in the Times that the marriage had taken place “according to the Israelitish ritual.”

The next day, the St. Thomas rabbinical authorities sent an angry letter to the paper declaring that the wedding had taken place “without the knowledge of the Rulers and Wardens of the synagogue, nor was the Ceremony performed according to the usual custom” because relations between a man and his aunt are explicitly and unambiguously prohibited in Leviticus. For years, Frederic and Rachel argued for public acceptance, but rabbinic authorities refused to sanction the marriage and, even though Camille was formally registered in the ledger of the synagogue of Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, he was considered illegitimate until the Synagogue Elders relented and legitimized his parents’ marriage. The scandal surrounding the refusal of Jewish rabbinical leadership to recognize their marriage indisputably played an important role in Camille’s rejection of Judaism and inspired his resolute secularism. As Joachim Pissarro, his great-grandson and a leading expert on the artist’s life and work, noted:

It seems, indeed, that Pissarro’s anarchism and atheism both had deep psychological roots. When he was still a child, his parents, caught in the religious scandal surrounding their marriage, were probably no longer in a strong position to convincingly transmit to their children the principles of a tradition which had just rejected them . . . Knowing what had happened to their parents, it is not surprising that none of the children was very enthusiastic about the religion of their ancestors.

However, although he rejected their lifestyle, Pissarro never rejected his family, with whom he remained close and, notwithstanding their ordeal, Pissarro’s parents remained fundamentally Jewish and maintained at least some degree of Jewish fidelity and practice. For example, in an Erev Yom Kippur 1858 correspondence to Camille, his father urged him to partake in the seuda hamafseket (the final meal before the fast) at his parents’ home and urged him to observe the Day of Atonement.

After being educated in Paris, where he was a frequent visitor to the Louvre, Pissarro returned to St. Thomas to work as a clerk in his father’s general store. It is certainly arguable that his decision to become a painter instead of a businessman was motivated, at least in part, by his rejection of his father’s life. He fled to Caracas with Danish painter Fritz George Melbyes (1852), where he undertook sketching expeditions to the countryside and exhibited his works in a studio. He later agreed to return to St. Thomas to help the family business in exchange for his father’s financial support for his career as an artist.

Returning to Paris in 1860, Pissarro married his parents’ Catholic servant, Julie Vellay, over their strenuous objection. The marriage was a particularly terrible blow to Rachel, who despaired that her grandchildren would not be Jewish, and she refused to communicate with, or even acknowledge, her daughter-in-law. The couple married in an 1871 civil ceremony away from the chaos in London.

Jewish matrimonial law again became an issue when Pissarro’s eldest son, Lucien, himself an artist of some renown, decided to marry Esther, the daughter of Jacob Bensusan, a respected merchant and a serious Orthodox Jew. Bensusan threatened to disown Esther unless Lucien agreed to hold the marriage in a synagogue; to embrace Judaism and raise any children as Jews; to circumcise all sons and to circumcise himself as well; and to convert to Judaism because his mother wasn’t Jewish. Pissarro was adamant that his son, who had been purposely raised to be a freethinker, refuse to comply and, with no other choice, the couple married in a civil ceremony in an English Registry office, just as Camille and Julie had done.

But the ultimate adverse effect on Pissarro’s Judaism was the infamous Dreyfus Affair, which became a metaphor for antisemitism and played a fundamental role in creating the seismic split amongst the French Impressionist painters that led to the decline of the Impressionist movement. The impressionists had always differed in their political and social opinions, but their varying attitudes toward France’s Jewish population proved to be the most divisive issue.

Ironically, Pissarro had been estranged from Emile Zola because of the latter’s criticism of Impressionism, but he now became a great supporter and frequent correspondent in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair. The first substantive defection from the Impressionist movement occurred when the deeply prejudiced Pierre-Auguste Renoir broke off all contact with Jews, ended his relationships with Jewish patrons, and refused to exhibit his work alongside Pissarro.

Paul Cézanne, who had always referred to himself as “Pissarro’s pupil,” cut off all relations with his “dear Jewish friend.” But the greatest blow came from Edgar Degas, one of his greatest supporters, a savage and cold-blooded antisemite who summarily severed his friendship with him. In a February 11, 1898, diary entry, Paul Signac, a French Neo-Impressionist who was a leading initiator of the pointillist style, confirmed that “’Pissarro tells me that the antisemitic Degas and Renoir shun him and no longer greet him. What can be taking place in the minds of such intelligent men that leads them to become so stupid?”

When Pissarro died, Degas made excuses not to attend the funeral and, in a subsequent letter to a friend, he showed little respect for the dead: “What has he been thinking since the nasty [Dreyfus] affair, what did he think of the embarrassment one felt, in spite of oneself, in his company? . . . What went on inside that old Israelite head of his? Did he think only of going back to the times when we were pretty nearly unaware of his terrible race?”

Pissarro, who never denied his ancestry, saw both his rejection of traditional art in favor of Impressionism and his rejection of his family’s traditional Judaism in favor of a freethinking philosophy as ironic manifestations of his iconoclasm. He found further irony in that Jean-Francois Millet, a renowned landscape artist and a founder of the French Barbizon School to whom he was often compared, was much more influenced by the Bible than he was: “Critics all throw Millet at me, but Millet’s art was biblical. For the Hebrew that I am, there is very little of that in me; isn’t that funny?”

 

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A self-declared atheist and anarchist, both philosophically and artistically, Pissarro’s work never reflected his Jewish ancestry, Jewish biblical themes, or Jewish ritual. However, in Capitol, a pen and ink caricature from the series Les Turpitudes Sociales (“the Socially Depraved”) that he created for his nieces in 1890 (see exhibit), he depicted a smartly dressed man in seemingly classic antisemitic terms with a hooked nose, enormous distended ears, thick lips, and a slack pot belly amidst a crowd of lowly and destitute people. In a later correspondence to his nieces, he identified the “vulgar and ugly” character as a portrait of a rich Jew, “an Oppenheim, of a Rothschild, of a Gould, whatever.” He repeated the grotesquely exaggerated hooked nose theme in two other illustrations in the series, including in The Temple of the Golden Calf (see exhibit), about which he explained that “The statue is the golden calf, the God Capital . . . It is without distinction, vulgar and ugly.”

Authorities disagree as to whether Pissarro was betraying an inherently anti-Jewish animus or whether his work merely reflects the complex conflict between his revolutionary political views and his Jewish identity. Supporters of the latter proposition argue that the series was manifestly atypical from any of the artist’s works before or since, which contained nary a trace of his radical sociopolitical ideology; that he had always been outspoken in his commitment to breaking down social hierarchies and that he was merely reflecting the conventional anarchist associations between Jewish bankers and capitalist corruption; that the sketches were intended as private gifts never meant to be made public; and that his venomous and provocative images were intended only to educate his nieces about the horrors of modern capitalistic society.

Original Pissarro letter to his son, “Titi.”

When all is said and done, what emerges from a review of the historical record is that the Impressionists themselves generally considered Pissarro to be the greatest of them all. Many art historians argue that the violent attacks against Pissarro’s work were not based upon legitimate artistic criticism but, rather, were actually reflections of antisemitism and that there can be little doubt that antisemitism played a leading role in his general lack of prominence compared with other artists of his time.

Antisemitism was also undoubtedly a critical factor in Pissarro’s lack of financial success, particularly when compared with his Impressionist colleagues, to the point that, according to Joachim Pissarro, his wife Julie almost committed suicide. These financial problems were particularly daunting for the Pissarros because they were forced to dedicate significant resources to finding a cure their son, Felix (aka “Titi”), who was very ill with tuberculosis. In this original handwritten October 4, 1896, correspondence, Pissarro’s concern for his son’s health is starkly evident:

My dear Titi:

I am sending you 100 frames, included in the letter. You say that the doctor is homeopathic and that he knows Al Simon – I hope he will be able to help George, but you know that it is easy to get sick with this illness. You will have to be careful. Ask the doctor what you should do to be protected from it. I am certain that you took a longtime to get the doctor to come. [Medical material – gave Spongia from the moment that there was suffocation?] Some doctors use mercury (?) from the beginning [medical problems – describing symptoms]. Your doctor must know about that.

I am writing to Lucien because I am very worried. You must give me news every day the doctor comes. If he’s uncertain about the matter, call [name] who is Lucien’s doctor. I am waiting for news. Kisses to both of you.

Your affectionate father,
C. Pissarro

 

Israel stamp (1970) of Landscape with Bridge.

Sadly, Titi, a great artist whose work was much admired by his father, died at the age of 23 in 1897, only a year after our letter was written. Pissarro’s beloved daughter, Jeanne-Rachel (apparently named for his mother), aka “Minette,” had also died from tuberculosis at eight years of age in 1874.

Bountiful Harvest (1893).

The Israel Museum boasts seven oil paintings by Pissarro, 21 drawings, and 18 prints. Exhibited here are three of the oil paintings, Landscape with Bridge, as depicted on a 1970 Israel stamp, and two of the artist’s “Eragny” paintings in the collection, Morning, Sunlight Effect, Eragny (1899) and Bountiful Harvest (1893). Pissarro moved to the tiny rural village of Eragny in 1884, where the nearby fields became his most frequently recurring theme, and he purchased a home there with Monet’s assistance.

Finally, in death, Pissarro paid homage to his parents, if not his faith, by leaving half his estate to the Hebrew Congregation Synagogue of St. Thomas (the other half went to the St. Thomas’ Protestant church). His greatest Jewish legacy, however, may be that three of his five sons married Jewish women and many of his descendants are today traditional Jews.

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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 sauljsing@gmail.com.
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