A few years ago, American author Alice Hoffman visited an exhibition of Camille Pissarro’s art in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She knew that Pissarro was one of the leading artists of Impressionism, but when she learned more about his Jewish roots and his family history on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, she was inspired to write a book based on this real-life story. The result, The Marriage of Opposites, is her twenty-fifth novel.
About writing books based on history, Hoffman says, “It’s a process of layering fact and fiction. I want all the historical references to be correct, but I am also creating characters, both the ones based on historical characters and the ones who are completely imagined.” How does the historical Rachel compare to the heroine of The Marriage of Opposites?
Rachel Manzana Pomié was born in 1795 on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. Her family was French-Jewish; her father, Moses Monsanto Pomié, was a successful merchant. Rachel married Isaac Petit, a local Jewish merchant whose first wife, Esther, had died. Their marriage ended in tragedy in 1824: Rachel was pregnant with their fourth child when Isaac died at the age of 50.
Rachel was left to raise her four children (Joseph, Emma, Delphine and Isaac), as well as Isaac’s three children from his first marriage, on her own. She also needed to find a way to manage her deceased husband’s business. Help arrived when Isaac’s nephew Frédéric Pissarro traveled from France to St. Thomas to assist as the executor of Isaac’s will. Frédéric was a 22-year-old bachelor and a French Jew of Portuguese extraction. While he was organizing the Petit family’s business affairs, he and Rachel became romantically involved. Rachel became pregnant in 1825, and the couple decided to marry.
In addition to being a Danish colony and a thriving center of trade, St. Thomas was home to a community of Jewish immigrants from France, Portugal, Spain, and other European nations. The synagogue of St. Thomas forbid the union between Rachel and Frédéric, on grounds that a Jewish man could not marry his aunt, even an aunt by marriage. Meanwhile, Rachel gave birth to a son, Félix Pissarro, in 1826. When Rachel and Frédéric defied the synagogue elders by marrying privately in a Jewish ceremony, the elders publicly informed the local Jewish community that the marriage had been performed without their knowledge and was therefore invalid. Isaac Petit’s brother David (still living in Bordeaux, France) also objected, possibly angered by seeing Frédéric take over the Petit business and property.
This public debate over Rachel and Frédéric’s marriage continued for eight years; the synagogue of St. Thomas finally granted formal acknowledgement of the marriage in 1833. In the meantime, the Pissarros had three more sons: Moses Alfred, Jacob Camille (known as Camille) and Aaron Gustave. The family lived on the main commercial street of Charlotte Amalie, a port city of St. Thomas, and Rachel and Frédéric expanded their retail business from clothing to hardware and general goods. Rachel’s children from her marriage to Isaac Petit were also part of the household, so it was a large and close-knit family. As a woman raised in the early nineteenth century, Rachel had received little formal education; however, she was known for being practical and sharp-witted, if also temperamental at times.
And what about young Camille Pissarro, who would become a famous artist? Camille was sent to France in 1841, when he was 11, to attend boarding school near Paris. As an adult and a struggling artist, he settled in Paris to live and work, and his mother and some of his siblings joined him there. His father, Frédéric, frequently traveled between St. Thomas (where he still had business interests) and France, and Camille often acted as head of household in Frédéric’s absence. Even when they had separate households—Camille in Paris, and his parents in a nearby suburb—the Pissarros were still closely connected.
In 1860, however, another romantic scandal occurred in the Pissarro family. Camille fell in love with Julie Vellay, a young woman working as a cook’s assistant in his parents’ house. When Julie became pregnant and Camille informed his parents of their intention to marry, Frédéric and Rachel objected. In their eyes, this marriage was socially and religiously impossible: Julie was a country girl, a servant and a Christian. They refused to give their blessing, and this objection was a financial concern for Camille and Julie, since without their approval Camille could not inherit their property. However, he remained devoted to Julie; they eventually married in 1871 and had seven children together. Even after Frédéric’s death in 1865, Rachel refused to bless their union or to treat Julie with affection.
Rachel Pomié Petit Pissarro died in 1889, at the age of 94, at her home in Paris. Shortly before her death, Camille made an etching showing her sleeping in a curtained bed with a candle burning on a bedside table beside her. He grieved for her; despite her volatile temper and her refusal to accept his marriage, she had been a lifelong support to him in other ways. As one of Camille Pissarro’s biographers has noted, Rachel’s views had been shaped by her own difficult experiences. She had written to him once, when he was mourning the death of his young daughter, that life could be harsh, calling it “this world where there are very few pleasures for very many sorrows.”