Les peupliers, après-midi à Eragny displays the ultimate harmony and synthesis that runs so strongly through the paintings of Pissarro's final decade, founded on a technique to which he had assiduously applied himself for almost four decades, as he, in the words of the critic Gustave Geffroy, "moved incessantly towards the ideal clarity that his intimate being sought in the exterior world" (1890, quoted in M. Ward, Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde, Chicago, 1996, p. 162). During the latter half of the 1880s, Pissarro alone among the founders of Impressionism had dared to experiment with Seurat's novel and controversial pointillist method, and he fully incorporated in his paintings the latest developments in the science of color theory. Pissarro turned away from this approach in 1890, partly because this time-consuming technique restricted his efforts to treat the variety of motifs that interested him, and he had come to realize that this discipline had become an unnecessary artifice that stood between the power of his sensations before nature and the unforced naturalness for which he strived in his painting. He took from Neo-Impressionism as much as he needed to further his own evolving synthesis. John Rewald observed, "After abandoning divisionism, he returned to his impressionist conceptions; his work regained its original freshness, while a greater lightness and purity of color remained as a result of his divisionist experiments. Now over sixty, he devoted himself to his art with such enthusiasm, optimism, and youthfulness that he inspired veneration in all who met him" (in The History of Impressionism, 4th rev. ed., New York, 1975, pp. 568 and 570).
Pissarro painted Les peupliers during the height of the summer in 1899. It had been thus far a productive and successful year. While staying in Paris during the late winter and early spring the artist had completed his first series of paintings of the Jardin des Tuileries (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 1251-1264). In March-April Bernheim-Jeune held a show of 23 paintings by Pissarro, many of which had just been acquired from the artist's dealer Durand-Ruel. There were numerous sales, and some of Pissarro's pictures that had come up in auctions also made a strong showing, enabling the artist to raise his prices closer to levels he felt he deserved, even if they were still well below the amounts for which Monet's and Renoir's canvases were routinely selling. In April-May Durand-Ruel included 36 paintings by Pissarro in an important exhibition--"a museum of an instant," as Geffroy labeled the event--in the company of works by Monet, Renoir and Sisley. The notices were generally favorable. Félicien Fágus wrote in La Revue Blanche: "Camille Pissarro has drunk light: with it he waters the sky, the earth, the grass and the peasant women sprawling in the green grass [it is what] gives his work its unquenchable shimmer." The critic for Le Moniteur des Arts wrote, "The twenty odd canvases, presented to us hereall are first class. It is always with landscapes that Pissarro is on his true terrain" (both reviews quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., pp. 288-289).
Pissarro returned to his home in Eragny-sur-Epte in June. For the past several years it had become the artist's habit to live and work for extended periods in Paris, with a stay in Rouen, during the months from the fall through spring, while spending the interim and summer months at home. These changes in locale enabled him to vary his motifs, mixing new series of urban scenes with his more familiar rural landscapes and domestic subjects. Pissarro had lived in the same house in Eragny since 1884. He purchased the property with the help of a loan from Monet in 1893; his improving financial situation enabled him to repay his friend over the course of the next three years. From a newly built studio he could survey the surrounding landscape (fig. 1). He worked indoors when direct sunlight aggravated a chronic eye problem, or would begin canvases plein air on his property (fig. 2) and in the surrounding fields when he was able, as he did in the present painting, which were then completed in the studio. On 28 July Pissarro wrote to his Lucien, who was living in London, "I am not budging from here, I have been harnessed to my work since June, I have begun some motifs in the field, some with figures. I have reason, I think, to congratulate myself on these things. I think they will be interesting" (in J. Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Letters to his Son Lucien, Boston, 2002, p. 336).
The scene Pissarro has described in Les peupliers could hardly be simpler or more prosaic: a pair of peasants, seen from a distance, are at work at the edge of a field, which is bounded by a fence and adjoins a grove of poplars seen in the background. It is nonetheless filled with innumerable touches and details that stem from the artist's acute observation and understanding of these motifs, and reveal his profound identification with this familiar locale. Note how the vertical accents of the flower stalks in the foreground are echoed in the paced arrangement of tree trunks further back, the positioning of which, together with the gently receding line of the fence, lead the eye into the deepening and darkening space of the distant woodland. The arching form of the apple tree at right reiterates the bent posture of the woman below it. Most remarkable of all is the great mass of foliage in the distance, in which each tree is individually differentiated and delineated with carefully varied brushstrokes and subtle variations in hues of green and yellow, while all contribute to the terraced effect of the whole, in which the earth appears to blossom into ascending towers of verdure. This is indeed the pictorial harmony and synthesis for which Pissarro had been striving, in which the totality of myriad effects mirrors the fertile abundance of nature itself.
Much has been written about the great series of urban scenes that Pissarro painted in Paris, Rouen, Dieppe and Le Havre between 1896 and 1903, the year of his death. He did, in fact paint more cityscapes than any other Impressionist painter. The paintings that Pissarro made in and around Eragny during this period constitute a significant series in its own right, even if, as Joachim Pissarro has pointed out, "The images resulting from these two decades of intense reflection and work have paradoxically remained the least studied in Pissarro's oeuvre" (in Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, p. 241). No other artist of his time chronicled the passing seasons of rural life in late 19th century France with such commitment and understanding, with insights valuable for their matter-of-factness and lack of sentimentality. Considering the occasion of his January 1901 show at Durand-Ruel, which included the present painting among a total of 42 canvases (see also figs. 3 and 4), Pissarro wrote Lucien, "The paintings of Eragny seem to me even better than those of Paris and of Rouen" (Rewald, ed., op. cit., p. 345). The critic George Lecomte observed:
"If the painter powerfully elucidates the fecundity of the soil, the germinations, the luxuriant growths, and the noble breadth of the earth's modulations, he always populates his fertile fields with active peasants and living animals. Creatures and objects emerge with a shining clarity: air circulates around them; dazzling vapours of gold cast halos around them. It is the glorious rapture of nature dressed overall. There is always the calming sense of space, so silent, and without any disturbance other than that, so appropriately harmonizing, of the [sun] throwing out its light. It is the essence of the countryside, the spirit of the fields that these melodious symphonies reveal" (quoted in C. Lloyd, Pissarro, New York, 1981, p. 112).
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro at his studio window, Eragny-sur-Epte. Photograph courtesy of of the archives of Privarte, Paris, and Musée Camille Pissarro, Pontoise. BARCODE 25249613
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, Laveuse dans le jardin d'Eragny, summer 1899. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 November 2003, lot 16. BARCODE 25249620
(fig. 3) Camille Pissarro, Le jardin potager et le clocher d'Eragny, summer 1899. Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art. Like the present painting, first exhibited at Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, in January-February 1901. BARCODE 25249767
(fig. 4) Camille Pissarro, Paysanne se reposant au pied d'une arbre, effet de soleil, Eragny, summer 1899. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Also first exhibited at Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, in January-February 1901. BARCODE 25249774