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Camille Pissarro. Self-portrait. 1898. Sammlung Vogel Collection, New York. The Yorck Project, Wikimedia Commons.
January 21, 2020

Camille Pissarro and the Dreyfus Affair

The French Impressionists were a tight-knit group of artists centered in Paris in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Though there were other factors which contributed to their parting of ways, the Dreyfus Affair seemed to signal a point of no return for this once-intimate group of painters. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was the only Jewish artist in this small circle of Impressionists. Like many assimilated French Jews, Pissarro did not attribute much importance to his Jewish identity; his mother, though, was of a different opinion, and refused to speak to Pissarro’s non-Jewish wife.[1] The Pissarro family was traditional enough that a letter survives from Pissarro’s father asking him to join the family for the meal before the High Holiday of Yom Kippur, and when his father died, Pissarro expressed himself in traditional Jewish mourning liturgy.[2]

It wasn’t just Pissarro’s parents who tried to remind him of his Jewish identity. In an 1882 letter, Pissarro observed that despite the lack of any Biblical themes in his work, critics insisted on comparing him with the deeply Catholic Jean-François Millet, whose work was influenced by the Old Testament: “For the Hebrew that I am, there is very little of that in me; isn’t that funny?”[3]

Long before the Dreyfus Affair – in which a Jewish army captain was framed for treason – fractured French society to the point where even artists and writers were divided amongst themselves, Pissarro’s colleagues and friends exhibited  tinges of anti-Semitism. In 1882, Pierre-Auguste Renoir refused to be part of an exhibition because he didn’t care for the socialist politics of his fellow-exhibitors. He wrote to the organizer saying that he did not want to be a “revolutionary. To stick by the Israelite Pissarro, that’s Revolution.”[4] 

A decade later, and about three years before the Dreyfus Affair rocked France, there was an Impressionist exhibition in 1892, at which Pissarro was on the receiving end of some anti-Semitic bile from none other than Renoir’s younger brother. Pissarro wrote to Monet of the abuse, mentioning the allegations that he was “a prime schemer without talent, a mercenary Jew, playing underhanded tricks.” Though Pissarro assured Monet that he would ignore the absurd comments, and that his main concern was the discord being sown amongst the Impressionists, he clearly cared enough to mention it. He even went so far as to ask Monet, “Is it because I am an intruder in the group?”[5]

A few years after Pissarro’s letter to Monet, in September of 1896, Pissarro wrote a letter of thanks and encouragement to a young literary critic and anarchist named Bernard Lazare, also an assimilated Jew, who had just written a pamphlet on anti-Semitism.[6] Lazare was one of the first to recognize not only the widespread anti-Semitism in French culture, but also that Dreyfus was innocent. By November of 1897, two months before Émile Zola published  J’Accuse, Pissarro was already convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence.[7] 

In January of 1898, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who had sold military secrets to the Germans and framed Dreyfus for treason, was found innocent in a closed military court. It was in response to this miscarriage of justice, that Émile Zola dropped the bombshell known simply as “J’Accuse,” published in Georges Clemenceau’s L’Aurore on the 13th of that month. In his full page open letter to the French government, Zola accused the army of framing Dreyfus and of a massive coverup. Zola called for the case to be reopened. Though he was found guilty of criminal libel and forced to flee France to avoid jail time, Zola’s article galvanized the pro-Dreyfus camp (known as the Dreyfusards), mobilizing them as a political force to be reckoned with. Monet, who had been acquainted with Zola for nearly thirty years, immediately signed the “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” petition in support of Dreyfus. Days after Zola’s letter appeared in L’Aurore, Pissarro asked that his name be added to the petition, as well. Two months later, Pissarro agreed to be part of a committee to award Zola with a medal. When Renoir was asked to sign a pro-Dreyfus petition, he promptly refused, and disparaged Zola.

In January of 1898, the same month in which Pissarro requested to join the petition, he had his last encounter with Degas, who had remained cordial, if not distant from Pissarro for much of that decade. By the time Degas stopped speaking to Pissarro, Degas had become wildly anti-Semitic, and that January, famously threw a model out of his studio for expressing doubts as to Dreyfus’s guilt. That year, Degas and Renoir began to refuse to greet Pissarro on the street.[8]

The relationship between the artists never improved. When Pissarro died in 1903 at the age of 73, Degas did not attend the funeral, telling Pissarro’s son that it was due to illness. Privately, he wrote something entirely different to his fellow anti-Dreyfusard friend, the painter Henri Rouart:

So he has died, the poor old wandering Jew. He will walk no more, and if one had been warned, one would certainly have walked a little behind him. What has he been thinking, since the nasty affair, what did he think of the embarrassment one felt, in spite of oneself, in his company? Did he ever say a word to you? What went on inside that old Israelite head of his? Did he think only of going back to the old times when we were pretty nearly unaware of his terrible race?[9]

Here, Degas pinpoints the Dreyfus Affair as the turning point for Pissarro’s colleagues becoming more conscious of Pissarro’s Jewish identity, and in turn the rupture the Affair caused amongst the group. Overall, this was emblematic of most of French society, which was split between Dreyfusards and Anti-Dreyfusards. Sadly, Pissarro died three years before Dreyfus was reinstated to the army in 1906, under George Picquart, the Minister of War. Picquart was notably the anti-Semitic colonel who, nevertheless, bravely uncovered the scandal against Dreyfus and went to prison for following the evidence. Picquart had been appointed by the new prime minister, the publisher of Zola’s “J’Accuse”: Georges Clemenceau. In a sense, Pissarro had just missed his Dreyfusard colleagues’ victory in the battle for justice.

[1] Stephanie Rachum, Camille Pissarro’s Jewish Identity, p.11

[2] Ibid, p. 10

[3] Ibid, p. 12

[4] Nord, Philip. “The New Painting and the Dreyfus Affair.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 24, no. 1, 1998, pp. 115–136. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41299109. Accessed 21 Jan. 2020, p.126

[5] Rachum, p. 12

[6] Ibid, p. 18

[7] Rachum, p.21

[8 ] Rachum, p.24

[9] Ibid, p.24

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