'Portrait de Nini' is an extremely rare work, both because of its sombre yet brilliant colours; and the importance of the sitter to Pissarro. Also because Pissarro painted relatively few portraits. In depth of feeling and quality of painting, it ranks with his finest portraits.
Eugenie Estruc (1863-1931) known affectionately as 'Nini' in the Pissarro family, was the niece of Pissarro's wife Julie who had been maid to Pissarro's mother. Like her aunt, Nini was Christian and of peasant stock.
Pissarro drew, painted, and etched Nini. The 1939 Pissarro/Venturi Catalogue Raisonne (PV) reproduces six works. The Delteil Catalogue of his etchings includes one print. And the 1980 edition of his letters reproduces a drawing for this portrait.
The first portrait, a pastel in profile, was drawn in 1877 (PV 1536).
On the 22nd July 1883, Pissarro writes to his eldest son Lucien, 'I had Nini pose as a butcher's girl at the Place du Grand Martoy; the painting will have, I hope, a certain naive freshness'.
Pissarro is referring to his major 1883 market composition 'The Pork Butcher' (PV 615) in which Nini replaces an older woman as the central figure. The painting in the Tate Gallery Collection is presently hanging in The National Gallery, London.
Throughout his work, Pissarro would often base individual figures on more than one model. Given the shape and features of the head, and the sweetness of character of the young peasant woman standing alone as the principal figure in his major 1882 composition 'The Poultry Market, Pontoise'(PV576) in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena; also her similarity to Nini in 'The Pork Butcher', this figure, according to Joachim Pissarro and Christopher Lloyd, may well have been inspired, in part if not wholly, by Nini.
On 31st October, Pissarro writes to Lucien 'I received from Nini a sweet, short letter, altogether delicate and humourous. She complains that you maintain a deep silence in London. She attributes this to your sleepiness and to your incurable laziness in the morning. There your reputation is sealed'.
Later that year, Pissarro painted a standing portrait of Nini alone (PV 653).
On Christmas day, 1883, he writes to Lucien, 'Nini is here until New Year's Day, and I will profit from the opportunity to begin a portrait, provided they don't play that endless trick on me by calling her home at the critical moment'.
By the 28th December the portrait is underway, 'Nini is here. I have begun a portrait of her. I set her somewhat sulky face under her curly-blond hair with a great cherry-coloured bow on a background of dark blue! I had a hellish time getting it right. You can count on my getting the proper harmony'.
Pissarro completed this portrait in 1884. He then painted Nini as the central figure for his large 1884 tempera composition 'The Market Stall' (PV 1389) in the Glasgow City Art Gallery. That same year, he painted another large single portrait of Nini (PV 1391).
In Pissarro's oeuvre, Nini is alone in being the only subject to appear, within the space of one year, as the central figure in four very important works. It shows his deep affection for her. And significantly, that he saw in her face and character something of the simple, fresh, robust innocence he found so touching and beautiful in the young peasant women he chose to portray in many of his peasant scenes.
Pissarro's peasant women were, said Degas 'Like angels who go to market'.
During the 1880's, the human figure increasingly dominates Pissarro's compositions. Many are of peasant women. 'These representations of provincial markets as in' The Butcher', can rightly be considered among Pissarro's major contributions to the web of Impressionist imagery', writes Joachim Pissarro, the artist's great-grandson and foremost authority on his work.
It was Nini who had introduced 'a certain naive freshness' - the vital element - into 'The Pork Butcher'. And her likeness was often to appear in his work.
In a letter to his wife Esther, in 1929, Lucien writes 'You don't realize that Nini had been my first girl friend, when I was quite a small boy. I know she is not elegant; and perhaps not as clean as she could be, but she is very good-hearted, and I know she would do anything to please me'.
Yet this is a serious almost introspective portrait - very possibly due in large part, to Nini's father (of whom Pissarro made a pastel portrait - together with one of her mother - in 1874 (PV 1521 & 1522). Violence frequently followed his heavy bouts of drinking, making Nini's life very difficult. During the 1880's, she stayed increasingly away from home, and with the Pissarro family.
Lucien expressed concern to his father in several letters. 'Estruc had already fallen over when I was in Paris. We foresaw a long time ago what is now happening - and soon perhaps the delirium! Poor aunt and poor Nini'. And 'Nini is exhausted by the life her father makes her lead, 'La Pauvre' has become paler. But I think that the tranquillity and fresh air will soon put her on her feet again'.
Pissarro too wrote with deep disquiet to his son. 'Father Estruc was up to his foolish ways yesterday evening. It appears he was in a terrible state, furious with a street boy who had irritated him; as a result of losing his balance, he created a disturbance in the street, and they were obliged to use force to bring him home. His rage turned on your aunt and on Nini to such a point that they had to tie his hands and feet. A doctor who had been called, witnessed the actual event; and finally, for the sake of peace and quiet, calmed him. The Police Commissioner is acquainted with the facts. It has made Nini, poor girl, ill…….It would be better for Nini who has nowhere to go, if she could nevertheless leave her mother and come and rest in Eragny'.
Nini's unhappiness touched the compassionate Pissarro. Furthermore, at the time of making this portrait, he was experiencing severe financial difficulties. He had four children (his daughter Minette had died in 1874) and another child (Paul-Emile) was expected.
John Rewald wrote of Pissarro's domestic situation during this time. 'Camille Pissarro's wife, a sturdy Frenchwoman of peasant stock, bore several children who filled the house with their boisterous play and innocent quarrels. In the midst of much turmoil and burdened with cares, often misunderstood by his wife - for the interminable succession of problems embittered her character - Pissarro who so seldom experienced the joy of knowing his family secure, accomplished the miracle of creating works distinguished by their calm and beauty'
It is fascinating to compare the resemblance of the 1883 pastel portrait of Madame Pissarro which Rewald reproduces in his Pissarro monograph (Abrams P.56) with this portrait. A charcoal drawing of Nini (c.1890) is reproduced full page (63) in the same publication. As is 'The Pork Butcher'.
On the 20th November 1883, a month before beginning this portrait, and following an unsuccessful showing of his work in London earlier that year, he wrote to Lucien 'Remember that I have the temperament of a peasant. I am melancholy, harsh, and savage in my works. It is only in the long run that I can expect to please, and then only those who have a grain of indulgence; but the eye of the passer-by is too hasty and sees only the surface. Whosoever is in a hurry will not stop for me. As for the young misses touched also with the modern neuroticism, they are even worse. The romantics were much less ferocious! If they looked into the past they would see to how slight a degree the old masters were - how shall I say - precious, for they were indeed elegant in the artistic sense of the word'.
At times, I come across works of mine which are soundly done and really in my style. And at such moments, I find great solace. But enough of this. Painting, Art in general, enchants me. It is my life. What else matters? When you put all your soul into a work, all that is noble in you, you cannot fail to find a kindred spirit who understands you. And you do not need a host of such spirits. Is that not all an artist should wish for?
That same month, Pissarro received a letter from his dealer Durand-Ruel. 'I am terribly sorry to leave you without a penny, but I have nothing at all at the present moment. I must even greet misfortune with a smile and I have to give the appearance of being almost rich'.
It is entirely possible that something of Pissarro's own sombre mood is reflected in this portrait. But also his profound reverence for the old masters. And for Rembrandt.
In Pissarro's 1891 etching 'The Vegetable Market, Pointoise' (Delteil 97) Nini again appears as the central figure. And then in the summer of that same year, she seems very credibly to be the seated peasant woman in 'Two Young Peasant Women Talking' in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (see Christopher Lloyd's accompanying letter). The painting, one of the most beautiful and important of all his peasant compositions, was completed the following January.
'Camille Pissarro' wrote the art critic and collector Gustave Geffroy, 'is above all a poet of the intimate: he extols the delights that surround us, the sweetness of life that he can savour at home, at his door, in the yard, in the garden. He does not feel the need to go very far to discover the décor of happiness. He knows that everywhere light visits all things, endows them with splendour or softness, reveals them with liveliness to our eyes and our spirit'.
This portrait has, until 1998, been owned by the artist's family. It will be reproduced in colour in the revised Pissarro Catalogue Raisonne being prepared by Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts. To their knowledge, the painting had, until the 1999 Fort Lauderdale Pissarro exhibition, never been included in any Pissarro or miscellaneous exhibition.
'If we observe the totality of Pissarro's works, we find there, despite the fluctuations, not only an extreme artistic will which never lies, but what is more, an essentially intuitive pure-bred art. He looked at everybody, you say! Why not? Everyone looked at him too, but denied him. He was one of my masters. And I do not deny him.' Paul Gauguin.