The present painting depicts the meadow in front of Pissarro's house at Eragny, a tiny village on the banks of the Epte where the artist lived from 1884 until his death in 1903. During these two decades, Pissarro made approximately two hundred oils, plus scores of watercolors and drawings, that depict the gardens, orchards, and fields within a single square mile surrounding his home. Along with the paintings that Pissarro produced at Pontoise between 1872 and 1882, the views of Eragny constitute his largest and most significant body of work within the landscape genre. He painted the countryside in all seasons and at all times of day, frequently describing the weather and light conditions in minute detail in letters to his son Lucien. When the climate made it impossible for him to work outdoors, he persisted in his pictorial explorations, painting the view from the window of his house instead. He returned to the same spots in the landscape at intervals of days, weeks, or even years, varying his viewpoint to produce the impression of remarkable richness and diversity within an extremely limited stretch of terrain. Joachim Pissarro has written:
"Unlike Pontoise, whose tensions were those of a suburban town, semi-rural and semi-urban, in Eragny, no signs of industry could be observed for miles. Varied expanses of pasture and cultivated land complete the visual field. However, Eragny's earthly space is not banal. For twenty years Pissarro concentrated on this very confined area, on the visual material offered by the stretch of meadows lying in front of him, informed by poplars, gates, the river, and produced over two hundred paintings of these motifs. His representations of these fields and gardens constitute the most spectacularly intense pictorial effort to 'cover' a particular given space in his career Pissarro could never get enough of Eragny. His infrequent travels always brought him back to Eragny with renewed resources, fresh ideas, and an eagerness to paint the same and yet ever different locations once again. The years that he spent in Eragny undeniably constitute a significant episode in the history of late Impressionism" (in Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, pp. 225 and 241).
The hamlet of Eragny is located about forty-five miles northwest of Paris in the Vexin region, close to the border of Normandy. When Pissarro and his family moved there in 1884, it had a population of fewer than five hundred people. The closest market town was Gisors, about two miles away; the village of Bazincourt, which stands on the opposite bank of the Epte, could be reached by foot in fifteen minutes or less, on a road that crossed the river on a small bridge. Pissarro was immediately smitten with the region: "Yes, we've made up our minds on Eragny-sur-Epte. The house is superb and inexpensive; a thousand francs, with garden and meadow. It is two hours from Paris. I found the region much more beautiful than Compihgne. Gisors is superb; we'd seen nothing" (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., p. 499). Within days of settling into rented accommodations at Eragny, Pissarro was hard at work. In April 1884, he wrote to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, "I haven't been able to restrain myself from painting, so beautiful are the motifs that surround my garden" (quoted in Camille Pissarro, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, p. 161).
The meadow in front of Pissarro's house, across the valley from Bazincourt, was one of the artist's favorite places to paint at Eragny. The present canvas shows the meadow on a bright spring morning, with a delicate, blooming sapling in the foreground and a venerable, spreading walnut tree in the background. The walnut tree was one of the most prominent landmarks in the meadow and features in more than thirty of Pissarro's paintings. He first painted the tree in 1885, just a year after moving to Eragny (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 815; fig. 1); the present view is the very last known rendering of this familiar motif. In the intervening years, Pissarro depicted the walnut tree at all different times of day, from the pale light of morning to the richly colored hues of afternoon and sunset. He explored the pictorial possibilities that it offered throughout the seasons: with the fresh blooms of spring, the verdant leaves of summer, the colored foliage of autumn, and the bare boughs of winter. He painted the tree in fog and in flood, its branches tinged with the first hoar-frost, burdened by heavy snow, or dripping from the thaw. He even documented the magnificent growth that the tree experienced over the years, as comparison of the 1885 painting with a view from 1897 makes clear (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 1191; fig. 2). Christoph Becker has written, "These pictures only reveal the depth of their quiet charm over a period of time, as though the artist somehow wanted to transfer his own persistent observation onto the viewer" (in Camille Pissarro, exh. cat., Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 1999, p. 110).
A landscape that Pissarro painted in 1886 from the second-floor window of his house indicates the exact location of the walnut tree (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 825; fig. 3). In the foreground of the 1886 painting is the artist's garden, delimited on the left by a hennery and on the right by a low white wall. The garden is bisected by a second, higher wall, which Pissarro dismantled in 1893, immediately after purchasing the house and its grounds. On the left edge of the canvas is a barn, which he converted to a studio in the same year. Beyond the garden lies the meadow, which also formed part of Pissarro's acreage. At the far right of the painting is the dense foliage belonging to the great walnut tree; to its left is the bent silhouette of a stunted apple tree, which also appears frequently in Pissarro's work from this period. In the background of the painting, beyond the artist's property, are yet more meadows, with willows and poplars marking the meandering course of the Epte, and in the far distance is visible the steeple of the church at Bazincourt.
During the last decade of his life, Pissarro alternated his painting activities between the agrarian hamlet of Eragny and the industrial ports of Rouen, Dieppe, and Le Havre. In both his rural and his urban views, Pissarro's principal interest was to capture the ephemeral aspects of the motif. In a letter that he wrote to his son Rodo from Le Havre in 1903, the artist explained, "You know that motifs are completely secondary to me. I am more interested in the atmosphere and its effects" (quoted in J. Bailly-Herzberg, ed., Correspondance de Camille Pissarro, vol. V: 1899-1903, St.-Ouen-l'Aumone, 1991, p. 352). Despite this consistent pictorial goal, the crowded harbors and bustling streets of Pissarro's cityscapes form a marked contrast to the tranquil, bucolic scenes that he painted back home at Eragny. The gulf between city and country was widely discussed by anarchist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin during the late nineteenth century, particularly with respect to the growing tide of agrarian mechanization. Pissarro was sympathetic to the ideas of Kropotkin and his circle, and the dual subject matter that he explored toward the end of his career may well reflect an interest in the changing patterns of modern life. Kathleen Adler has concluded, "Pissarro's work of the 1890s reveals an awareness of the divide between city and country. If one extends his concept of unity, of a sense of balance and harmony, from individual works to his oeuvre as a whole, the city paintings may be seen as complementary to his many renderings of rural life" (in C. Lloyd, ed., Studies on Camille Pissarro, London, 1986, p. 107).
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, Le pré et le grand noyer en hiver, Eragny, 1885. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 26015460
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, Le grand noyer, matin d'automne, Eragny, 1897. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE 26015484
(fig. 3) Camille Pissarro, Vue de ma fenêtre, Eragny, 1886. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. BARCODE 26015477