A Jewish impressionist painter

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Something left me puzzled as I read the first chapters of “Camille Pissarro: The Audacity of Impressionism” by Anka Muhlstein (Other Press). The biography tells the story of Pissarro’s life in clear, easy-to-read prose and focuses on his relationship with his family and his work. That’s when it came to me: unlike most of the recent biographical works I’ve read, the focus is on the subject’s life. While the others did offer basic biographical details, their main focus was an analysis of the person’s work as it related to Judaism and Jewish culture. 

Pissarro was born in the Caribbean in 1830 to two Jewish parents, but he received no formal Jewish education due to the scandal of his parent’s marriage. A complicated family history caused the problem: First, Isaac Petit married Esther Manzana Pomie. When Esther died, Isaac married her sister, Rachel. When Rachel was pregnant with her fourth child, Isaac died and the family sent Frederic Pissarro, Isaac’s nephew, to help with the family business. However, the family was not pleased when Frederic married his aunt (even though she was only his aunt by marriage). In fact, the synagogue in St. Thomas refused at first to recognize their marriage, leaving them alienated from the community.

Although the synagogue finally accepted their marriage, their four sons never attended the local Jewish school. While Camille professed to being an atheist, Muhlstein makes it clear that the artist was well aware of his outsider status when he moved to France, both as someone born in the Caribbean and as a Jew. His Jewish heritage, though, had no influence on his painting. His only later connection to Judaism was his belief that Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish army officer accused of treason, had been framed and was not guilty. 

The biography’s main focus is on Pissarro’s effort to become a painter. His parents had expected him to continue working for the family business, especially since his paintings rarely sold during the early years of his career. Although he was very focused on his work, Pissarro was a family man who gave financial support to his children, even when they were no longer living in his house, and a firm friend to the group of painters who later became known as the impressionists. While Muhlstein writes of Pissarro’s interest in light and color, that discussion takes place in the context of his developing relationships with other impressionists. Throughout the work, the author discusses the friendships that grew among these men and women, and how they supported each other, including painting together and sometimes painting each other. 

Pissarro’s family life was not always easy, although Muhlstein notes that Pissarro was usually able to keep those problems from affecting his work. The artist was close enough to his birth family that he wanted his mother’s permission to marry; this was even after he and his future wife, Julie, were living together and had numerous children. The two women could not bear to be in each other’s presence. Julie, who had been a servant in his mother’s household when Pissarro met her and she became pregnant, had received little education and disagreed with her husband about their children’s occupations. Pissarro encouraged all his children to become artists (and many were successful in their endeavors) and was willing to help them financially as they focused on their craft. Julie, on the other hand, felt the children should take paid work as soon as they were able and contribute to the family finances. 

Pissarro’s desire to paint seemed to gave him strength, even as he aged and began to have health problems. The artist seemed a good soul: even when his friends espoused views with which he disagreed (including the Dreyfus affair) and made antisemitic statements, he did not break with them. Although he did at times take issue with the practices of Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who bought and sold most of his work, he never completely broke with him. 

Those looking to find a Jewish influence on impressionism will not find it here. However, anyone interested in the impressionist movement, and in Pissarro in particular, should find much of interest in Muhlstein’s biography of the artist.