This is a follow-up to a blog post from my friend Edna Sackson: “Thoughts from my own inquiry…“
Two weeks ago Edna (@whatEdSaid) shared a link with me called Smarthistory. Coming from Edna I knew it’d be worth a click. It turned out to be a site about Art History from Khan Academy, though from the title it could well have been general history done smartly. I spent a good few minutes exploring what turned out to be a very rewarding, information-rich resource for anyone interested in art.
Edna asked me who my favourite painter was and I told her Camille Pissarro. Never heard of him? Well, nor had I until I visited Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum ten years ago and discovered that that beautiful museum had inherited a significant number of his works. There was a fine selection hanging on their walls along with a few by better known Impressionists like Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir and Degas. I love the style and subjects that Pissarro painted, apart from the period when he played with Pointillism – for me that dotty (in both senses!) technique loses all the spontaneity and expression of Impressionism – but his other work was quite stunning.
I asked Edna if she knew that Pissarro had painted his daughter, Jeanne-Rachel, nick-named ‘Minette,’ just before she died. I hadn’t seen the painting in years but, from memory, it was unfinished and a bit rough. That hadn’t mattered – it was the emotion it conveyed and the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to finish it after her death – that’s what left the biggest mark on me.
As Edna didn’t know it, I decided to track it down for her. Meanwhile, she was doing her own enquiry, discovering new stuff which she shared with me. I learnt that he was a far more important figure than I’d given him credit for. He shunned the limelight, and spurned the aristocracy and celebrity. He saw beauty in everyday life and painted that almost exclusively. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t mingle with the rich and famous explains why he’s less well-known than his contemporaries. His work is more complex than I knew – with an element of social commentary on the things he despised. He was occupying his own Wall Street and I was growing to like this guy even more!
But I couldn’t trace the painting at all. The trouble was I had no picture of it in my mind, and the more I searched the internet the more I thought I was imagining things. I began to think I was confusing it with one Pissarro had done earlier, showing Jeanne with a fan. This I did know well – I have even shown that one to Shelly Terrell,(@ShellTerrell) another star in the firmament that is my PLN! Or maybe I was getting muddled with Felix Pissarro – there were enough pictures on the internet of that sickly-looking boy to befuddle anyone. And then further hunting revealed that Jeanne Pissarro had not died in childhood at all, had grown up and got married, and produced children who became famous painters in their turn. How could I have got it all so wrong?
Eventually, after much head scratching, the first piece of the puzzle fell into place. It turns out that Jeanne-Rachel had indeed died in 1874, just as I had thought, but old Camille and his wife went on to have another daughter who they also named Jeanne! So that was that part of the mystery solved. But what of my confusion? Had I only imagined the story of the unfinished painting? I’d found absolutely nothing on the Internet, not even a hint of the painting. I decided the only thing for it was to return to the Ashmolean to ask their experts and be prepared for a lot of blank faces.
And that’s what I did today. I needn’t have worried about the blank looks though because there, hanging on the wall, was my missing painting! I had been right after all; my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me. I was delighted to see ‘Minette’ and this time I’m not going to forget her!
It seems that this painting, because it’s unfinished, gets no mention on the Internet. Yet to me, that’s the reason why it’s one of Pissarro’s greatest pieces. As the note beside it says, ‘Its unfinished state adds to its poignancy.’
Jeanne-Rachel died on 6th April 1874, after months of illness, from Tuberculosis, aged nine years old.
Painting title: Jeanne with doll