Camille Pissarro

Rebbe of the Impressionists.

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pissarro's washerwoman at eragny

"A Washerwoman at Eragny," 1893

Many of the Impressionists considered Pissarro a mentor, and he was the only artist to exhibit at all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions in Paris, which spanned from 1874 to 1886. Paul Cezanne said of him, "As for old Pissarro, he was a father to me, a man to consult and something like the good Lord."

Most of Pissarro's paintings depict landscapes. But he also painted laborers, making the statement that simple people were worthy of being painted, in keeping with his anarchist and libertarian views. These works include "Peasant Woman Digging" (1882), "Two Young Peasant Women" (1892), and "A Washerwoman at Eragny" (1893). Pissarro's politics also surfaced in the 1890s when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, was tried for treason in notoriously anti-Semitic proceedings. Whether for political or religious reasons (or both), Pissarro broke off his close friendship with Degas, who became anti-Semitic in light of the Dreyfus affair.

A Jewish Painter?

In 1859, Frederic sent Camille a letter on the eve of Yom Kippur reminding him about the holiday. "Your mother asks me to write to you to come and have dinner with us today," Frederic wrote. "Because this is the evening when we celebrate 'la fete de Kipur' and on this solemn occasion the whole family should be together--and tomorrow not work, we should pass that day together."

Camille's parents must have felt their son was so disengaged from his religion that he needed a reminder about the High Holidays. But it seems he did not abandon faith completely. Years later, when Camille wrote to a cousin in St. Thomas about his father Frederic's death, he included the religious sentiments: "God is great, He took away what was dearest to us in the whole world; we have to bow and believe in His providence."

Camille married Julie Vellay, the non-Jewish helper to his mother's cook, and their son Lucien, also an artist, inherited his father's religious struggles. When Lucien became engaged to Esther, the daughter of a Jewish man named Jacob Bensusan, Lucien's father-in-law-to-be demanded that Lucien be circumcised and convert to Judaism, because his mother was not Jewish. With Pissarro's support, Lucien and Esther resisted Jacob's pressure and married without his blessing. Like the St. Thomas rabbis, Bensusan eventually relented and welcomed Lucien into the family.

None of Pissarro's paintings refer to the Bible or Jewish rituals or include Hebrew inscriptions. However, the art historian Stephanie Rachum has pointed out references to Judaism in three pen and ink drawings that Pissarro created in 1890 for his nieces. In "Capitol," Pissarro drew a smartly-dressed man with a hooked nose amidst throngs of needy people. In a letter to his nieces, Pissarro identified the "vulgar and ugly" figure as a portrait of a rich Jew, "of an Oppenheim, of a Rothschild, of a Gould, whatever." The hooked noses appear in two other illustrations in the series, which also depict the Golden Calf.

Although some might consider Pissarro a self-hating Jew for drawing these pictures, it is significant that they were not intended for publication. They reflect the complicated way in which his anarchist political views confronted his Jewish identity; to Pissarro, a rich Jew seemed to have been primarily a rich man and coincidentally Jewish.

Joachim Pissarro, an art scholar and Camille's great-grandson, suggests that Camille's complicated relationship with Judaism impacted his work. The artist's religious struggles helped him develop, according to Joachim, "a critical stance which he could apply to the system of taste and to the conventions that governed art teaching at the time of his arrival in France in 1855." 

By asserting his own relationship to religion, Pissarro developed the confidence and the tools to carve out his own approach to art, without simply accepting what he was told. Surely that too makes a Jewish artist.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.