17 November 2010

Pissarro, Degas, Zola and Capt Dreyfus - France's ugliest moment

Jacob Abraham (Camille) Pissarro 1830-1903 was born in St Thomas Virgin Islands and was sent to France to be educated for 5 years. Later Camille returned to France permanently. As a young man in his parents’ home he was a traditional Jew, but in Paris it was said that his politics tended towards socialism, social justice and atheism.

Pissarro, Hay Harvest at Éragny, 1901, Nat Gallery of Canada

Pissarro was very supportive of the other, mainly younger Impressionists. Edgar Degas 1834-1917 had been the artist to whom Pissarro referred the most often in his correspondence: their intense and mutual admiration was based on a kinship of ethical as well as aesthetic concerns. Degas was one of the first to buy Pissarro’s work and Pissarro admired Degas above all the other Impressionists. Colleagues and younger artists called him Père Pissarro; his kindness placed him in a fatherly role to struggling younger artists. Pissarro’s role in helping both Cezanne and Gauguin was warmly acknowledged by both men. These issues are discussed in detail in the blog FRIENDS OF MARRANOS.

Camille Pissarro and his sons Rodo, Lucien, Felix, 1894

Everything changed in 1894, for France, for Pissarro and for the Impressionists. The most devastating event of the Belle Epoque was the Dreyfus Affair, polarising the country between the Left and the anti-Semitic Right. Capt Alfred Dreyfus 1859-1935 came from a Jewish Alsace family. He was accepted for military training & graduated in 1880 as an officer. He was promoted in the military until he was the highest-ranking and most esteemed Jewish artillery officer in the French army.

Capt Alfred Dreyfus

In 1894, Capt Dreyfus was charged with passing military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, based on documents found in the German military attaché’s bin which initially appeared to implicate Dreyfus. When Georges Picquart served as the chief of the army intelligence section in 1896, he found the memorandum used to convict Captain Dreyfus had been the work of a Major Ferdinand Esterhazy 1847-1923. Desperate for money, the nobleman Esterhazy received from the German attaché a nice monthly pension and was furnishing the German attaché with information about the French artillery.

Fearing that the press would learn of the affair and accuse the French army of covering up for a Jewish officer, the French military command pushed for an early court martial, closed to the press, and early conviction. Dreyfus was innocent but it was already politically impossible to sort, without provoking a political scandal and perhaps causing the French government to fall. In Dec 1894 Capt Dreyfus was convicted by a military court of treason and sentenced to gaol on Devil’s Island South America, in a stone hut.

prison on Devil’s Island

As a result of the trial, France divided into two camps. Those who supported the army Versus those who believed Dreyfus was entitled to a fair trial. The Affair pitted neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend. The Impressionists were themselves split: Monet, Pissarro, Signac and Vallotton, as well as art critics Mirbeau and Fénéon supported Dreyfus. Those on the opposite side included some of Pissarro’s oldest friends: Degas, Cézanne, Renoir and Armand Guillaumin. When asked to sign the pro-Dreyfus Manifesto of the Intellectuals, Monet, Paul Signac and Pissarro signed; Renoir refused.

Anarchistic literary critic Bernard Lazare wrote a brilliant piece. L’Anti sémitisme son histoire et ses causes was published in 1894, just as the smear campaign against Dreyfus got going in the anti-Semitic press.

Foreign visitors were shocked at France’s reactionary anti Semitism. In Paris, the French flocked to hear Norwegian composer Edward Grieg’s music. Grieg (1843-1907), a friend of the artists and of Zola from his long stays in Paris, was heroic. In 1899, Grieg wrote to the Colonne Orchestra to refuse their kind invitation to him, stating clearly that it was because of French injustice meted out to Capt Dreyfus. As a result of his principled stand, Grieg’s income dropped and he was promptly ostracised by some of his old friends.

Degas, Place de la Concorde or Viscount Lepic and his Daughters, 1875, Hermitage

Émile Zola risked his career by publishing his scathing article, J’Accuse, on the front page of the Paris daily, L'Aurore in Jan 1898. The paper was run by Ernest Vaughan and Georges Clemenceau, who decided that the controversial story would be in the form of an open letter to the French President, Félix Faure. J'accuse accused the War Office and the French government of anti-Semitism and of wrongfully gaoling Dreyfus. The conviction was an appalling miscarriage of justice. His article moved French passions on both sides; anti-Jewish riots broke out across France.

J’Accuse, newspaper article by Zola, Jan 1898

Still, Zola’s letter formed a major turning-point in the Dreyfus affair and it caused the case to be finally reopened. International outrage was clear. After Dreyfus' return from imprisonment on Devil's Island and his shocking retrial and second conviction on treason, a number of nations threatened to boycott French World Fairs.

Pissarro wrote to Zola “Accept the expression of my admiration for your great courage and the nobility of your character. Your Old Comrade.” Pissarro wrote to his son, “The Dreyfus case is causing many horrible things to be said here. I will send you L’Aurore, which has very fine pieces by Clemenceau and Zola. Today Zola accuses the General Staff. Writer and art critic Jean Ajalbert has published a very brave article in Les Droits de l’homme, but the majority of the public is against Dreyfus, despite the bad faith shown in the Esterhazy affair.” Claude Monet passionately joined Émile Zola, as well.

As events built up, Pissarro’s involvement deepened. As a Jew, he felt menaced by the passions that surfaced during the tumult over the affair. His sense of justice was outraged and his health was endangered. He believed in Dreyfus’ innocence. He also believed that the forces of the Right, all the groups he despised as anti-social, were aligned behind the anti-Dreyfusards; he was distressed by the violence of nationalist mobs and anti-Semitic thugs. He even felt personally threatened with deportation.

The worst must have been Edgar Degas’ behaviour towards his long time friend and colleague. Degas crossed the street to avoid Pissarro, even though he swore he never knew Pissarro was Jewish! Degas had become a savage anti-Semite who blamed the Jews for all of France’s troubles. At breakfast he had his maid read aloud the worst passages of Drumont’s wildly anti-Semitic newspaper.

Renoir’s anti-Semitism included denouncing Pissarro's family as part of “that Jewish race of tenacious cosmopolitans and draft-dodgers who come to France only to make money”.

The hysteria did not abate. A court-martial was held in Jan 1898 for Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real spy. In 1898 the head of French intelligence, Col Georges Picquart, bravely gave evidence on Esterhazy’s guilt. Picquart was dismissed from his position and gaoled for 60 days; Esterhazy was acquitted in an hour.

Zola was soon brought to trial for his article. During his trial in Feb 1898, anti-Dreyfusards thronged outside the court room, shouting death threats to Jews and Dreyfusards alike. Zola was convicted of libel, sentenced to a 3000 franc-fine and a year of prison, and removed from the Legion of Honour! Persuaded to accept exile instead of imprisonment, Zola fled to Britain.

Zola returned to France in 1899 for Dreyfus’ retrial but died from unexplained carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902. Apparently the police were not too concerned about this strange and sudden death.

Col Georges Picquart

Although they lived to see Dreyfus’ petition for a retrial, neither Pissarro nor Lazare lived to see the verdict reversed. Pissarro, 73 and Bernard Lazare, 38 died in the same year, 1903. When Pissarro died, Degas would not even attend the funeral of his oldest, most intimate friend.  All this begs one major question - should an artist's shady past matter, when it comes to thinking about his value to the art world?

Dreyfus was only fully vindicated in 1906, 3 years after Pissarro was buried in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery. The bitterness remained for a VERY long time. It took another 100 years before streets in Paris were named after these two French heroes: Avenue Emile-Zola and Place Alfred-Dreyfus were inaugurated in the 15th Arrondissement of Paris in 2001.

Avenue Emile-Zola and Place Alfred-Dreyfus

Readers might like to analyse Ruth Harris' book The Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France, published by Allen Lane in June 2010. The book is particularly useful regarding the strong influence of uncontrollable and to some extent unpredictable currents coursing around France during the Belle Epoque, including the role of the mass press.


ChrisJ said...

It was indeed a very ugly time in France - and has taken on much symbolic significance.

Trying to answer the question of artistic contribution vs. personal history would fill volumes

Hels said...

G'day Chris and thanks.

The question about whether an artist (or writer or scientist)'s shady past should matter, when it comes to thinking about his value to the thinking world.. comes from Joan Altabe in the St Petersburg Art Examiner (see the reference above). I don't agree with Altabe's conclusion, but I do applaud her raising a very provocative moral question.

Alberti's Window said...

Great post! My interested in the Dreyfus affair was piqued by a comment that you once left on my blog. Although I had a general idea of the history, I really enjoyed reading the specifics that you outlined. I'm going to use this post as a resource for my future 19th century lectures.

Wasn't Renoir horrible? I like him less with each passing day.

Hels said...

Tony Englehart said about Degas: "Degas never married and was hard to maintain a friendship with due to argumentative and brash personality.

After the political scandal involving Captain Alfred Dreyfus, Degas became anti-Semitic and ceased relationships with all of his Jewish friends. The eccentric painter believed to be an artist one mustn’t have a personal life. This belief would leave Degas alone until his death in 1917."

I wonder why art historians have said about Renoir's ability to deal with other people with dignity.


BigJack said...

I heard you speak at a conference on Pissarro, Degas, Zola and Dreyfus. But I cannot remember what you said about Cezanne. Was he neutral?

Hels said...


Unlike Degas and Renoir, Cezanne may not have been bitterly and crudely anti-Semitic. But neither would he sign the Manifesto of the Intellectuals that called for freeing Dreyfus.

The consequence for Capt Dreyfus was sad. But the real loser was Zola who had been Cezanne's closest friend since primary school days in a country town!

Zola had risked his career and even his life for Justice, and what did Cezanne do? The artist dumped his closest old friend with indecent haste. To use an old phrase, the Dreyfus Affair continued to split the nation.

Young at Heart said...

how absolutely fascinating.....thank you!!

artlover15 said...

Maybe the Impressionists were just Grumpy Old Men by the middle 1890s, way past their radical days.
All over, red rover!

Hels said...

Young at Heart and artlover, many thanks.

There may be something to the Grumpy Old Men argument. In the 1860s, these men were thought to be young, radical and not at all respectful of traditional art values.

By 1894, these same men were either dead (Manet), almost dead (Sisley), paralysed (Renoir), blind (Degas) or very old (Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet). New waves of modernism were overtaking the art world and Impressionism was beginning to look just a tad old fashioned.

Mandy Southgate said...

All this begs one major question - should an artist's shady past matter, when it comes to thinking about his value to the art world?

That is such an excellent question. And if we answer in the affirmative, does the onus lie on us to find out artists' histories and philosophies before appreciating their art?

I can be extremely intolerant and will turn my back forever on actors, musicians and authors if I don't like their politics. The way I see it, I will defend to the ends of world a person's right to freedom of speech and expression but I don't feel the need to put money in their pockets while doing so.

Hels said...

Even if we decide to judge a person on their art or literary production and not on their behaviour, the genie is out of the bag.

For example Paul Gauguin did not want to be slowed down by his family so he sent his wife and five very young children to her parents in Denmark and never saw them again.

Charles Dickens forbad his ten children from ever speaking to their own mother because he found his wife boring and flabby. After 10 deliveries, who wouldn't be flabby?

Jackson Pollack was a fall-down drunk who died in a single-car crash and killed his young passenger as well. And on it goes.

Perhaps there is no such thing as a decent human being... we are all critically flawed. Perhaps it is best not to know how people lived.

Mandy Southgate said...

Your last sentence pretty much sums it up: "Perhaps it is best not to know how people lived".

Given my background in psychology, I feel far more able to forgive a drunk or a manic depressive than, for example, Mel Gibson for his anti-semitic rants.

Hels said...

Amy said...

I didn't know Degas was the artist Pissarro referred to the most in his correspondence. Great information regarding the artist.

Hels said...

I have added a reference to Ruth Harris' book The Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France, 2010.

Val said...

Thank you for this article. I will read it in time for next week's lecture on the Dreyfus Scandal.

Hels said...


also, if you have time, find the Ruth Harris' book, Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France. Not a happy time for France.

Hels said...

I cannot find how to leave a comment or create a link with the Sci.Hi Blog. But I recommend you read The Dancers of Edgar Degas