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Book Review - The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman (2015)

By Edited Sep 13, 2016 0 2

Background

Alice Hoffman’s “The Marriage of Opposites” written by Alice Hoffman is the fictional biography of a woman named Rachel Monsanto Pomié Petit Pizzarro, who was the mother of Jacobo Camille Pissarro, one of the famous Impressionist painters of the 19th century.  When Camille was an adult, he changed his name to the French spelling, “Pissarro.”  We will come across several “Marriages of Opposites” when we read their story.

                                   

June Morning at Pontoise

                                       June Morning at Pontoise - Wikimedia - {{PD}}

Introduction

Rachel Pomie was born in 1795 in the city of Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.  Her family were among the many Jewish settlers who came to St. Thomas to flee the Inquisition.  The residents of St. Thomas were a superstitious lot.  They believed that a crow was a harbinger of death; that a pelican embodied the spirit of a loved one, and that the color known as “haint” blue could ward off evil.  They were very conscious of magic, ghosts and spirits, medicine men and curses.

Rachel’s Childhood

Rachel was the only living child of her parents.  Her father, Moses, had a successful shipping business and allowed Rachel access to his library where she pored over his maps of the world, dreaming of going to Paris some day.  Rachel’s mother was strict and often harsh.  Rachel learned from her father to read in several languages, an exercise that allowed her to escape her sad home life.  Rachel’s family had taken in an orphan, Aaron Rodrigues, who became Rachel’s foster brother and was preferred by Rachel’s mother to her.  Her closest friends were the family’s colored maid Adelle and Adelle’s daughter Jestine.

                                                         

Camille Pissarro

                                                          Camille Pissarro - Wikimedia

An Arranged Marriage

When Rachel was 22 years old, her father’s shipping business began to fail, and Moses promised his daughter Rachel in marriage to a much older man, Isaac Petit, a widower with three children, in order to save the family business.  Rachel had three children with Isaac, but sadly, Isaac died when he was 50 years old and Rachel was 29.  Rachel was pregnant at the time with her fourth child, Hannah.  Their marriage was not a marriage of love, and Rachel’s friend Adelle, who was a psychic, told her that she would eventually marry for love.

Rachel and Frederic Fall in Love

Isaac’s nephew Frederic Pizzarro came from France to Charlotte Amalie to settle Isaac’s estate.  Frederic was 22 years old at the time, and he fell madly in love with Rachel, who was seven years older than he.  They were not allowed to be married in Rachel’s synagogue because the Jewish authorities said that their family connection was too close.  They lived together for a long time before the church officials relented, and had four children together.  Their third child was Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro, later to become a great painter.  Of her 11 children, Jacob was Rachel’s favorite son.

 

Tuileries Gardens, Afternoon Sun

               Tuileries Gardens, Afternoon Sun by Camille Pissarro - Wikimedia - {{PD}}

Jestine and Aaron Fall in Love

Meanwhile, Rachel’s dearest friend Jestine, fell in love with Rachel’s foster brother, Aaron Rodrigues.  Of course, Jestine could never be accepted by the family since she was of African heritage.  As a result, Aaron was sent to Paris to care for the family business on that side of the ocean.  Rachel wanted him to be away from Jestine, who was left behind, pregnant with her daughter Lydia.  After a while, Aaron married a French woman, Elise, and brought her to visit in the city of Charlotte Amalie.  Their purpose in coming was to bring Lydia to France, where she would have a better life than she had on the island of St. Thomas.  Jestine was devastated, but was unable to change their minds.

Jacob Studies in Paris

Rachel, like her mother, was strict with her children.  She did not like the fact that her son, whom she called Jacob, preferred to paint rather than to work at his job in the family business.  Jacob, like Rachel, yearned to go to Paris, where he could study under the great painting masters of that time.  Jacob’s father relented and sent Jacob to Paris when he was twelve, where he learned the art of drawing and painting.  Since Jacob, who now called himself by the French name Camille, knew of the tragedy of Jestine’s losing her daughter Lydia to Aaron and Elise, he was able to find Lydia in Paris.  She was happily married by that time to a man named Henri Cohen and had three daughters.

                      

Camille and Julie Pissarro

                                  Camille Pissarro and His Wife Julie - Wikimedia - {{PD}}

Camille Returns to St. Thomas

For the first time, Lydia learned of her maternal heritage from Camille.  She wrote sixty letters to her mother, Jestine, and when Camille left Paris, Lydia gave him the letters to give to her mother.  Camille was seventeen when he returned to St. Thomas, and was put to work as a clerk in their shipping business. 

Paris at Last

When Jacob was 21, he made the acquaintance of a Danish artist Fritz Melbye, who encouraged Jacob to accompany him to Venezuela to work as an artist.  Jacob was able to get away from his mother’s overbearing nature, and went with Melbye.  When he arrived back in St. Thomas two years later, he was unkempt and poor.  He received a surprise after a time when Rachel gave him a ticket to France and enough money to live on for a year, to make his dream come true.  Another surprise was that Rachel and Jestine planned to go to Paris also, and would be there before he arrived.  Frederic and one of their sons would come later after handling some business affairs.  Jestine and Rachel were greeted by Lydia and Henri Cohen.  For the first time in many years, Jestine was face to face with her daughter.

 

Jeanne Pissarro, Called Cocotte, Reading

                 Jeanne Pissarro, Called Cocotte, Reading - Wikimedia - {{PD}}

Camille Studies in Paris

When he finally moved to Paris, Camille was able to work under Melbye’s brother Anton.  When Frederic arrived, they insisted that Camille live in their quarters.  He studied with Corot and attended the Academie Suisse where he met Claude Monet.  He was also introduced to Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Gauguin.  He became a mentor to Cezanne. 

Camille and Julie Get Married

Camille became enamored with the maid in his parents’ home, Julie, who was eight years younger than Camille.  Of course, Rachel disapproved of her because she was Catholic and of a lower social class.  She was never able to accept her, even though she had the same problem in her relationship with Frederic.  After seven years, Camille and Julie were married, and they had seven children together.

Rachel Dies at 94

Rachel was 94 years old when she died.  Her daughter-in-law Julie cared for her as she aged, even though they did not have a good relationship.  It is ironic that when one of Julie’s sons wanted to become an artist like his father, Julie pleaded with him to take up another line of work.  Yet, he also became a well-known and talented painter.

                

Rue Sainte Honore in the Afternoon

                                  Rue Sainte Honore in the Afternoon - Wikimedia {{PD}}

The Paris Salon

It was the Paris Salon which dictated the art that was acceptable for exhibition.  It was the only vehicle for young artists to get exposure.  Pissarro and other upcoming artists were dissatisfied with the restrictions.  In 1874, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, along with Pissarro, held their first “Impressionist” Exhibition which horrified the critics who were only open to religious and historical paintings.  The success of the Impressionists still lives to this day.  Camille Pissarro died in Paris in 1903.

Alice Hoffman has given us an unusual picture of the life of Camille Pissarro and his family.  Although it is evident that some episodes and conversations are fiction, the story reveals much about the personal lives of a prominent family which otherwise would never be known.

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The Marriage of Opposites
Amazon Price: $16.00 $6.32 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 13, 2016)

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Comments

Jul 30, 2016 5:33pm
AngusCosGriff
This was a great book
Jul 30, 2016 6:20pm
kellapat
Yes, thanks for stopping by.
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Bibliography

  1. "Camille Pissarro." bio.. 29/07/2016. 29/07/2016 <Web >

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