Who Was Camille Pissarro? Originally Published July 10-11, 2020.

In 1995, an American art collecting couple, Bruce and Robbi Toll, bought the 1887 painting Picking Peas, by Camille Pissarro, for $800,000.  They lent it to the Marmottan museum in Paris, where it came to light that it had been confiscated from its Jewish owner, Simon Bauer, in 1943 by the Germans occupying France.  Bauer’s family filed suit.  In November 2017, a French court ruling returned the painting to Simon Bauer’s descendants.  (Bauer had survived the war because a railwaymen strike stopped the train that was taking him to a concentration camp.  He did lose 93 paintings, though.)

Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro was himself Jewish.  He was born July 10, 1830 (19 Tammuz, 5590), on St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies.  His French father of Portuguese Jewish descent had years prior traveled to St. Thomas to settle the estate of his uncle and subsequently married his uncle’s widow.  This did not thrill the small Jewish community in St. Thomas, and the couple’s children were outcasts.  When Camille was twelve years old, his folks sent him to a boarding school in France.  It was quite a long distance away, but his education in French art blossomed.  He drew and painted a great deal, and he continued to do so after completing school and returning to St. Thomas, where he got involved in his family’s mercantile business. 

Soon he met Danish artist Fritz Melbye (1826-1869) who had learned painting from his older brother Anton, and had left Denmark in 1849, deciding to settle in St. Thomas.  Fritz took young Camille under his wing and soon convinced him to concentrate on his art.  In 1852, the two friends left for Venezuela, and lived and worked in Caracas until 1855 when Camille returned to Paris and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Suisse.

Pissarro would work closely with Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, and would eventually become a part of the group that included Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas.  Developing a new way of looking at the world and art, they were working outside the French artistic establishment, and their works were barred from Salon exhibits.

Meanwhile, somehow Camille got involved with his mother’s maid Julie Vellay, and they would have eight children and a wonderful marriage.  During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), they fled to London.  When they returned home to France, they discovered that the majority of Camille’s existing body of work had been destroyed.    (There is a website that shows a good deal of Pissarro’s work, Camille-Pissarro.org, well worth looking at.  Pissarro captured a substantial snapshot of what the French world looked like in his time.)

In 1873, Pissarro gathered 15 artists to create an alternative to the Salon, and in 1874 they held their first exhibition.  The result was a clear circumscription of what Impressionism encompassed.  They held several more exhibitions before drifting apart.  In the 1880s, Pissarro became friendly with Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and delved into pointillism.  In his later years, he suffered from eye problems and had to paint inside looking out.  He passed away in Paris in 1903.

And so to today.  The Bruce E. and Robbi S. Toll Foundation, based in Palm Beach, Florida, run by the collectors who had bought Picking Peas (painted c. 1887), gives primarily to Jewish organizations, including the National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia, and also funds arts and culture, higher education, and hospitals.  The Tolls are not, however, so sanguine about paying for the crimes of the Vichy collaborators with the Nazis, and have continued to appeal their case about returning the work to the Bauer family.  On July 1, 2020, their appeal of the case was rejected by the Court of Cassation (highest appeals court of France), thus ending the legal process and letting stand the decision that the painting go to the Bauer family.  According to the BBC, the Tolls say they intend to appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights.