In December 1889, Pissarro sent a series of drawings to his nieces, Esther and Alice Isaacson, that were intended to educate the two women about the horrors of modern capitalist society. The sheets were bound within a cover designed by Pissarro’s eldest son, Lucien, and entitled Turpitudes sociales—translated roughly as “social disgraces.” The album is unique in Pissarro’s work in its overt expression of his political beliefs. Each drawing depicts a scene of disgrace, hardship, or scandal, and is accompanied by a passage taken from anarchist or literary texts. The title page features an aged, bearded man brooding from a hilltop overlooking Paris; the word anarchie vibrates over the city like rays from the rising sun. In the twenty-eight episodes that follow, Pissarro chronicles bourgeois marriages for money, the sumptuous burial of a cardinal, the horrible working conditions in factories, and the corruption of bankers. His parade of images illustrating suicides, starvation, poverty, drunkenness, and exploitation closes with a scene of violent insurrection by the urban working class.
The drawings have the look of being hastily sketched, although Pissarro is known to have labored over them, carefully choosing his scenes, characters, and captions. Pissarro sent twenty-two of the twenty-eight drawings to the Isaacsons in December 1889; he likely delivered the final six sheets by hand when he visited the sisters in London in late spring 1890. Perhaps Pissarro realized that sending this provocative political manifesto through the mail would have resulted in the book’s seizure and possibly his arrest.
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