Pissarro Enquiry

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, CΓ©zanne, 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



  1. Layla Sacker

    HI Clive,
    I enjoyed reading about your Pissarro inquiry because it is that instant “human to human” response to art across time or centuries that keeps me so connected to art.
    Recently I saw a movie called Cave of Dreams” where we were able to go back to some extraordinary rock paintings and you could, there too, feel the painter and feel his humanity and creativity.
    For many years I “studied” art and I think in the process of deconstructing artist, style and technique, lost that connection that you describe. I’ve got it back now!!! I enjoyed your inquiry into the mystery of little Jeanne and when I finally scrolled down to her picture you could for sure feel Pissarro’s pain.

  2. clivesir

    Hi Layla,
    I am really happy to read your comment! In a room full of paintings this is the one that reaches out to me. It sounds as if you have a real passion for art and I’m glad you recovered from the period of academic over-analysis. That can so very easily put you off for life: a big loss when art can be so … invigorating!
    Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. whatedsaid

    Beautiful post. I loved our special journey of inquiry together and thanks for tracking down Minette, with her haunting eyes. ..
    What should we do next? πŸ˜‰

  4. clivesir

    Thanks Edna! And thanks for triggering this enjoyable journey. Minette does have haunting eyes, doesn’t she – even more so on the real painting. Hmmm, where shall we travel to next πŸ™‚

  5. Shelly Sanchez Terrell

    I still remember seeing that painting with you in Oxford with the fan. It’s one of my fondest memories of 2011. That and almost being eaten by a dinosaur and climbing 1000 year-old trees πŸ™‚

    • clivesir

      …and fish and chips at the Eagle and Child pub, haunt of Tolkein and CS Lewis! That was a fun ‘playdate’ Shelly! There are plenty more places to visit and pubs to relax in for your next visit πŸ™‚

  6. Ann Saul

    Hi, Clive,
    Loved your recounting of your search for the Pissarro painting. I recently saw this painting in Pissarro’s People exhibition which is still at San Francisco till mid-January. The tenderness with which he paints her is evident.

    What to search for next? I have a suggestion. In 1867 Pissarro painted a landscape of L’Hermitage neighborhood in Pointoise, entitled The Hills at L’Hermitage. Standing on the road which winds up into the neighborhood are two women talking. One we recognize as Julie, Pissarro’s companion and their daughter Minette, who was two at the time. Look at the woman Julie is talking to–her back is towards us and her arms, clasp behind her back, are very dark-skinned. I don’t think Pontoise had many African people then, but she may have been a gypsy woman. Since artists, and Pissarro specifically, don’t make choices like that by chance, he must have had a reason that he pictured Julie talking to a dark-skinned person. Any conversation with gypsies would not have been considered “proper” even in a small place like Pontoise. Why do you think he did it? I’d love to know your thoughts. BTW, most people look at this picture for years and never notice her dark skin!

    Ann Saul

    • clivesir

      Hi Ann, that’s a challenge!
      I do know that Pissarro and his mother didn’t get on, especially since Julie was her servant originally and the mother strongly disapproved of him marrying below their “class”. I would imagine that Pissarro did it intentionally to antagonise his mother! I found a copy of the painting here: http://tinyurl.com/bux2p3y – The dark-skinned person has her face away from the viewer – I guess her identity didn’t really matter. He could easily have hidden her skin colour but her bare forearms are clasped behind her in full view so he’s obviously making a point to someone. His mother?? Conveying “you think my wife is low, but she’s lower than low! And I’m letting her, and my daughter too, mix with such people, and I don’t care!”
      How’s that? Am I vaguely anywhere near it??!

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