Throughout the mid to late 19th century, Europe was in a state of social upheaval. Political changes, from the Revolutions of 1848 to the Franco Prussian war of 1871, swept the landscape while a wave of abolitionist movements emancipated slaves throughout the European colonies in America.
VFH Fellow, Jon Sensbach, professor of history of the University of Florida, is examining these abolitionist movements through the art of Camille Pissarro, an often overlooked painter who many recognize as the father of the Impressionist movement of the 19th century. Pissarro, having grown up in a Caribbean slave owning household, developed a unique insight into the struggles of enslaved and freed people which shaped his formative work and outlook.
Sensbach sat down with Chance Lee, a UVA undergraduate art major, to discuss his work studying the surprising intersection of art and the history of slavery.
What inspired you to focus on Impressionist painting?
I am a historian by training, not an art historian. So, in general, my interests have been in slavery, religion, and emancipation. In my career, I study how people of African descent left an imprint on American societies, both in North America, the Caribbean, and Latin America. I also look at how they dealt with the institution of slavery and their transition to freedom.
Pissarro grew up in a slave society in the Caribbean; his family owned slaves. He lived in a culture very different from the Impressionists most people know about. People like Manet and Degas spent their most of their lives in France. None of them grew up in a slave culture the way Pissarro did. I wanted to investigate the ways that his very different West Indian background influenced his view of the world, his evolution as a painter, and the way he saw things.
I saw an opportunity to bring two realms of scholarship together: the evolution of modern art and its intersection with slavery and abolition. Those two things are rarely talked about in conjunction with each other.
Would it be fair to say, then, that art history is a new academic field for you?
It is new as an academic specialty, but it is not new as an interest. In fact, I took my first classes in art history as an undergraduate at UVA many years ago. That got me interested from an aesthetic standpoint, but, in my own scholarship, I went elsewhere. I’m sort of coming back to an old love and rediscovering my passion for art.
Are there challenges to studying art history compared to what most people would consider “conventional” history?
The study of Impressionism has sought to place the movement in the political changes that happened in 19th century France. Impressionism emerged in this very volatile period of upheaval in French history. Art historians have not been as focused on another set of questions that I’m trying to ask; which is how did they interact with this immensely powerful human rights movement of abolition in the 19th century that swept through the Americas? From the Haitian revolution of 1803 to British abolition of the 1830s, there was a swath of emancipation movements that took place during a period of 30 years or more. These are the events I’m trying to consider.
What was Pissarro’s early life like?
He was born in 1830 on the island of St. Thomas: which is now part of the US Virgin Islands. This put him at a time when slavery was still very powerful in the West Indies. Pissarro was surrounded by people of African descent. In 1848, when he was 18 years old, the slaves on a neighboring island revolted. Word of the uprising spread, and, fearing a rebellion at home, St. Thomas’ governor freed his island’s slaves.
The impact of this on Pissarro is what I’m trying to explore. My sense is that this became a powerful, radicalizing event in his own life. He witnessed people becoming free and saw them take control of their lives in his own household. The maids and servants in his home were slaves one moment and became free the next. I’m arguing that this was the thing that emancipated his own viewpoint and enabled him to see them as people for the first time.
How did this experience influence his art?
These events happened at the very time when he was becoming interested in art. In his early years, Pissarro focused his attention on painting and drawing freed people of color. Many of his early works tried to depict freed people as what they were, people, instead of stereotypes. He was able to show that these people had hard lives. These were working people, women carrying heavy buckets of water, women bent over the washtub. This was a society that was predicated on exploiting the labor of people of color. They depended on thousands of Afro-Caribbean women to carry the water, to scrub the floors, to raise the children, and to bring the food to market that was served on the tables of St. Thomas. Pissarro portrayed all of this in a very honest, unromantic kind of way, which extended to his paintings later in life.
How were people of African descent depicted in European art up to the Impressionist movement?
There were many painters who did what Pissarro did before him, people who went to the West Indies and studied enslaved people. The struggle for them was how to portray these people, and they adopted a variety of approaches. During the wave of emancipation in the 1830s and 40s, there were a lot of portrayals of black people grateful to be emancipated: down on their knees thanking white folks. Other times, they were depicted as barbarians and savages. There was a whole set of tropes, stereotypes, and caricatures that western artists drew from to represent these people and that Pissarro worked against. He observed people in the everyday motions of their lives and painted them as is.
Did Pissarro’s art reveal anything about the lives of emancipated people or their experiences that previous artists didn’t?
One of the things that Pissarro documented was that freed slaves still had an incredibly hard life. Those people may have been legally free, but in many ways, they faced challenges just as difficult as slavery. The state was often involved in putting limits on their freedom. It would pass new laws that prohibited former slaves from voting or owning property. Pissarro documented the struggles to secure and consolidate freedom in a straightforward an honest way that some other artists did not.
Did Pissarro’s fellow Impressionists follow his lead?
While in many ways Pissarro was unique, he did share some experiences with his contemporaries. I’m making the case that the Impressionists were thinking about emancipation and considering it in their work more than we realize. Because our focus as viewers is on the images of Parisian parties and French city life that the Impressionists are famous for, it’s easy to forget they were also interested in people of African descent.
The most famous example is Olympia, a painting by Manet of a courtesan attended by a black servant. Most academic dialogue is focused on Olympia and her come hither look from her place in the bed. Not much attention has been paid to her servant, Laura, who offers her a bouquet in the image. She plays a significant role in the evolution of that painting and the way Manet framed the picture.
You also have Paul Gauguin, who is very famous for going to Tahiti and painting these noble savage visions of Tahitian women. Before he did that, however, he spent six months in Martinique in the West Indies where he left many canvases of black women going about their daily lives in much the same way Pissarro did.
Why isn’t Pissarro more well-known today compared to other impressionist painters like Monet?
There’s a broad consensus that artists like Monet left an archive of unforgettable images. Pissarro produced many works comparable in quality, but other Impressionists’ visions had a kind of popular appeal that Pissarro never achieved. Artists like Manet and Renoir painted the joys of bourgeois life: boating parties, dances, people in cafes. Pissarro was not interested in that. Throughout his life, he admired and identified with working class people. His work was not quite as marketable as that of his contemporaries.
There is a second reason why Pissarro’s work isn’t as widely recognized, an artistic misfortune that Pissarro fell victim to. When the Prussians invaded France in 1871, Pissarro fled to England. The Prussians occupied his house and destroyed many of his paintings. These would have been paintings from around the time he was generating the Impressionist movement and could have established him as the progenitor of the style, doing wonders for his reputation had they not been destroyed. Unfortunately, we’ll never know what they looked like.
Were there any prominent artists of African descent working at the time?
There were some in North America such as the very famous Henry Tanner. There were others in the West Indies as well. How much someone like Pissarro or Manet would have known about them I’m not sure. The famous white American painter, Winslow Homer, who portrayed African Americans during reconstruction in the US, would have been familiar with them. He would also have struggled with conflicting visions of African Americans as people instead of property.
At the time, there was a parallel, and in some cases overlapping, tradition of African American painting. There were black portrait painters in the Antebellum South in the US, for example. There was a lively tradition of black painters making a living being very skilled at their craft.
What will the end product of your research be?
I am writing a book called The Art of Freedom: Camille Pissarro and the Age of Emancipation. Currently, I’m doing research for and writing the book at the same time. I’ve already completed two chapters. It’s a rare luxury to work at your desk and write full time. You don’t get that when you’re teaching full time.
Does your VFH fellowship enable you to do things you couldn’t otherwise?
Yes, the best part of being a fellow is having my own office space where I can think through these issues. As academics, we’re doing lots of things all at the same time, so the freedom to make this purely an intellectual endeavor and to pursue the kinds of questions one is interested in is an extraordinary luxury I will always be grateful for.
I’ll say as well that the chance to talk about one’s subject in venues like this, to talk to the other fellows in residence at VFH, and to hear their stories is a part of the experience that VFH supports. VFH promotes questions of importance to the humanities and has a broad vision of what the humanities are. That’s why I was drawn to the VFH’s mission. So far, it’s all coming together quite nicely.
About Jon Sensbach
Jon Sensbach teaches early American history at the University of Florida. He is the author of Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Harvard, 2005) and A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 (North Carolina, 1998).