“Religious painting and history or heroic painting have gradually lost strength as the social organisms, theocracy and monarchy, to which they refer become weakened. Their elimination, which is almost complete today, leads to the absolute domination of genre, landscape, and portraiture, which are the result of individualism: in art, as in contemporary society, man becomes more and more himself.”
Jules Castagnary, “Salon,” 1857
The seemingly contradictory concept of the “Jewish painter” could only emerge out of the larger historical phenomenon of Jewish Emancipation over the course of the nineteenth century. In terms of numbers and public successes, the careers of Jewish painters surely climaxed later, during the twentieth century—on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet the pioneering efforts of these ambitious outsiders to the dominant artistic culture merit closer scrutiny. Their roster includes celebrated, even surprising, names, including as Jozef Israëls in The Hague, Camille Pissarro in Paris, and Max Liebermann in Berlin. These painters had to make serious choices about how much to assert or embrace their religious and ethnic heritage, and whether they defined their Jewish identity as primarily religious or ethnic—even as they followed individual pathways within a labyrinthine complex of contested cultural terrain. Even the art world was shifting during the nineteenth century among contemporary artistic movements, played out in public exhibitions as well as private galleries in an increasingly international European arena. This essay will focus upon particular cases of artistic careers and will attempt to consider for each situation both the artist and his audience as well as favorite visual themes.
Ultimate representative of an artist of Jewish heritage who abandoned his past when he charted his career in the artworld of Paris was Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). So immersed was Pissarro in the upstart world of the Impressionists that he was the only artist to participate faithfully in all of their group exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, and he held an “elder states-man” role as the adviser to a host of younger artists, including notoriously difficult personalities, such as Cezanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh, who all came to visit him in his country studio. This independence of spirit stemmed in part from his origins.
Pissarro was born with the name “Jacob Pizarro,” a Danish citizen in the Caribbean colony of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. His father was a prosperous Frenchman from Bordeaux, a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese origins. The young Camille was largely self-taught; after a period of work in Venezuela, where he chiefly produced drawings of local settings and figure groups, he moved to Paris in 1855, the very time when French art was shifting away from history painting and towards “realist” genre. For the bulk of his own career, Pissarro focused intently on rural life in France, with particular attention to the peasants who inhabited the land. He lived in villages, chiefly Pontoise but also Eragny, from which he developed a particular sympathy for the simpler life of rural labor, which is vividly imbedded in his technically inventive paintings, such as the sensuous Summer Landscape, Eragny (1887; reworked 1902; Philadelphia Museum of Art), where the material texture of the paint suggests (with all of the vividness of van Gogh’s own textured strokes) the tangible, damp thickness of the mown hay in the fields. At the same time in drawings, pastels, and prints Pissarro recorded with a suggestion of spontaneity the village life around him, such as the Poultry Market at Gisors (1885; gouache and chalk, Boston Museum of Fine Arts).
Politically, the views of Pissarro can be gleaned from his letters: he was a political radical, an anarchist, for whom the peasants’ offering their own, home-grown wares in the market must have had resonance for the painter, subject to the modern art market. In contrast to factory labor, wholly negative and oppressively exploitative, this kind of rural labor suggested to the painter harmony, tranquility, and collectivity (something that Pissarro practiced in his own close collaboration with other artists, most notably the Impressionist group). Most scholars on the artist have concluded that he warmly rejected the commercial world of his father as well as the industrialization of modern, urban France.
The political views of the artist are made explicit in his private album of 28 drawings, Turpitudes sociales (1889), which Pissarro prepared for his nieces in London, Esther and Alice Isaacson. Here he details in the form of allegory as well as genre imagery the degradation visited upon the laboring classes by privilege and money. In the very first image of the album, Capital, a dense crowd of thin faces stand at the base of a pedestal, appealing up to a prosperous banker with suit and muttonchops, as he clings to a large moneybag. The caption reads “The war of the weak against the strong,” and in Pissarro’s letter to his nieces, he analyzes this scene,
The statue is the golden calf, the God Capital. In a word it represents
the divinity of the day in a portrait of a Fischoffheim, of an Oppenheim,
of a Rothschild, of a Gould, whatever. It is without distinction, vulgar
What is striking about this passage, of course, is its deliberate invocation of prominently wealthy Jewish bankers, who are also caricatured with the stereotype of large noses in drawing no. 3, The Temple of the Golden Calf, where well-dressed bankers in top hats assemble outside the Paris Bourse. As commentators have pointed out, this is not Jewish self-hatred on the part of Pissarro; rather, this editorial drawing represents his full identification as a political radical with the class situation of the workers, especially in the city. Writing to his son Lucien, a painter (see below), Pissarro expresses personal amazement that the usual public focus is on their Jewishness rather than their banking, “The masses...dislike the Jewish bankers, and rightly, but they have a weakness for the Catholic bankers, which is idiotic.”
What, then, was Pissarro’s relationship to his Jewish ancestry? It should not surprise us, especially in Western Europe, to find an ambitious artist more interested in the world of his career than in a Jewish community as such; after all, Ezra Mendelsohn characterizes France (pre-Dreyfus) as “a truly ideal environment for Jewish integration, the very model of a highly centralized nation-state with a brilliant high culture...the secular, pluralistic revolutionary tradition.” However, as Nicholas Mirzoeff points out, Pissarro’s Jewishness was a truly complex hybrid of both religious and ethnic varietals. For one thing, Pissarro (who styled his name Camille when he arrived in France) was of Sephardic origins, not the dominant Jewish culture of Ashkenazic Judaism of Northern Europe. Moreover, that Jewish culture of the Caribbean identified with African slave culture in the islands, as well as aspects of the local, Christian ruling class; as well as the oppressed slave class; indeed, Mirzoeff attributes the artist’s political radicalism more to this colonial cultural resistance and drive towards emancipation than to any French exposure to European political theory. Moreover, within Caribbean Jewish culture, there were distinctions made between traditional religious observance and a more ethnic, even racial identity, which in the words of one Jamaican rabbi blended “reason with faith,” to produce what Mirzoeff terms “a blend of Jewish monotheism with Enlightenment rationalism.” Even while Pissarro’s parents seem to have been relatively observant Jews by conventional standards, with the artist’s own shifting sense of identity, it would be quite understandable that he might well embrace a more rationalist approach towards his heritage.
Certainly the associates of Pissarro perceived him to be a Jewish ethnic, almost a prophet figure (some friends even greeted him with “Hail to Moses”), even when describing him in affectionate terms, as in the vivid portrait in words by the writer George Moore: “No one was kinder than Pissarro...Pissarro was a wise and appreciative Jew, and he looked like Abraham; his beard was white and his hair was white and he was bald.” Pissarro, however, was in public resolutely secular in outlook; he even resented what were intended to be favorable comparisons between his images of peasant life and those popular works by the older artist Millet, which he characterized as “idiotic sentimentality.” As he wrote to the critic Duret, “They are all throwing Millet at my head, but Millet was biblical! For a Hebrew, there’s not much of that in me. It’s curious!” He could rise to defend himself against stereotyping, as in a harsh (if insecure) response to accusations by Renoir that he was a combination "socialist...revolutionary...Israelite... The wretched Renoir has treated me in the worst way; it seems that I am a prime schemer without talent, a mercenary Jew...Is it because I am an intruder in the group”
Pissarro regarded all religion, including Judaism, as inappropriate to “our modern philosophy which is absolutely social, anti-authoritarian and anti-mystical,” and in writing to his son Lucien, he blasted the backsliding that he saw around him: It is a sign of the times, my dear son. The bourgeoisie, frightened, astonished by the immense clamor of the disinherited, by the insistent demands of the people, feels that it is necessary to restore to the people their superstitious beliefs. Hence the bustling of religious symbolism, religious socialists, idealist art, occultism, Buddhism... May this religious movement be only a death rattle, the last one. The Impressionists have the true position, they stand for a robust art based on sensation, and that is an honest stand.
In his personal life, Pissarro was consistent with his non-Jewish stand. He did marry a Catholic woman, although he lived with her for many years before marrying formally and in a civil ceremony, and it is clear that he was aware that her religion displeased his Jewish parents, especially his mother. Moreover, when his third son, Felix was dying of tuberculosis, he rejected all attempts at spiritual comfort by a well-meaning Christian in England; writing to his second son, Pissarro angrily instructed: “You should tell Mrs. Weston, on my behalf, that we are neither Protestants nor Catholics, and that we are nothing, and all we want is to be left alone.” But he made it equally clear that he rejected all dogma and authority, in religion as well as government.
Amidst this resolutely secular and modern outlook, Pissarro fervently believed that art should not serve any external message other than “sensation,” particularly an art of messages or art in the service of any religion.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Defining Jewish Painters in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Larry Silver