In Vue sur la nouvelle prison de Pontoise, printemps, painted in 1881, Pissarro deftly renders the breezy skies and verdant landscape around Pontoise, a hilltop town situated twenty-five miles northwest of Paris. The painting contains many of the elements that are familiar from Pissarro's Impressionist landscape from the late 1870s (fig. 1). A sloping, furrowed field in the foreground that leads to a grassy meadow, through which a path, bordered by trees, recedes towards the town in the distance. Pissarro has clustered a group of poplars towards the right edge of the canvas leaving room on the left side for an expansive, crisp blue sky filled with puffy, meandering clouds. The row of poplars and the apple tree in the foreground function as a repoussoir, a classic pictorial device which "pushes back," directing our eye to the small group of buildings in the center of the town of Pontoise dominated by the steeple of the church of Saint-Maclou. This practice was frequently used by artists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pissarro's use of this technique demonstrates his ability to combine both new and old ideas in his work (fig. 2).
The immediate effect of this picturesque work, with its interaction of atmosphere, light and richly varied painterly effects is spontaneously lyrical, a joyous evocation of a late spring day. The natural but carefully calculated compositional balance characterizes this painting as a fully mature Impressionist work in Pissarro's oeuvre, and it is an especially successful example in the pictorial development that Pissarro avidly pursued throughout his lifetime.
Pissarro was generally regarded as the "father" of the Impressionist movement, and indeed he was the only artist to exhibit in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. By 1881, Pissarro had also benefited artistically from a close relationship with Cézanne. Cézanne and Pissarro had worked together in a relationship of intense collaboration and mutual admiration between the years of 1872 and 1877. As a result, Pissarro's painting became more assertive, his brushstroke more forceful. The broader brushstroke is convincingly realized in Vue sur la nouvelle prison de Pontoise, printemps, and Pissarro has paid particular attention to enriching the surface of the painting with a vigorous stippling effect in the paint on the trees and the ploughed field. He has used radiating, multi-directional brushstrokes to enliven the expanse of the sky, to compensate for its more limited tonal range when compared to the foliage and fields. This painting sheds light on the issues Pissarro took on in his continuing development as a painter. The artist became increasingly concerned with textural clarity in his canvases and sought solutions to the problem of over-painting too extensively. Pissarro was deeply committed to his creative process and strove to be true to his vision of the world. In a letter to his son Lucien he wrote: "I do not believe that anyone could devote--if not more talent--more care and good will to the service of his art; it takes me hours of reflection to decide on the slightest detail; is this impatience?... I think not! For I do not wish to make a brushstroke when I do not feel complete mastery of my subject, there's the rub--that is the great difficulty; without sensation, nothing, absolutely nothing valid." (quoted in Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape, Baltimore, 2006, p. 65). Some years later he turned his attention to the pointillist brushstroke and color theories propounded in the Neo-Impressionist theories of Seurat and Signac.
Pissarro spent the years from 1866 to 1868 and 1871 to 1883 in Pontoise immersed in this small, but complex, semi-urban landscape site that offered an unending variety of motifs and types of nature that the artist explored in numerous paintings, watercolors and gouaches. Pontoise is the region that is indelibly associated with Camille Pissarro, and it evokes the same powerful associations as the works by Monet in Argenteuil, Millet and Rousseau in Barbizon, and Cézanne at Aix en Provence. Pontoise was not considered a unique landscape in the same vein that the Forest of Fontainebleau was for the Barbizon School of painters, or Aix was for Cézanne, but it had also not been pictorialized by any of the French landscape painters before Pissarro, and so he laid claim to it. As Richard Bretell has pointed out: "Pissarro's eventual choice of Pontoise as 'his' landscape can be considered, at least in part, as an indication of his desire to separate himself from the influence of the recognized landscape masters with whom he worked Pontoise and its small environs constituted a relatively unrecorded landscape, lacking associations with a painter" (quoted in Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape, New Haven, 1990, p. 3). While Pontoise was not visually unique, it did supply Pissarro with both agricultural and urban subject matter. "Novelty lies not in the subject, but in the manner of expressing it." Pissaro wrote in 1884, and his paintings of Pontoise attest to the artist's conscientious and diligent approach to depicting his environment, in which he strove for purity of color and clarity of composition.
Pontoise is sited on a hill on the right bank of the River Oise, an easily navigable waterway that had enabled the town's mills and granaries to prosper. The arrival of the railroad in Pontoise in 1863 brought the town into the regional market system centered in Paris, providing extra vitality to the area's mainly agricultural economy. Pontoise depended on cottage industries, granaries and small commercial establishments, but it also boasted two factories, a chemical plant and an alcohol distillery. In 1879, the town began construction of a new prison, designed by the architect Albert Petit. It was inaugurated early in 1883 as a jail for the Val-d'Oise department, and was intended to house people accused of crimes but not yet tried, as well as those sentenced to terms of a year or less. It is unclear why Pissarro chose to depict the prison in his vibrant landscape. It is true that the artist became fairly radical in his politics, particularly towards the end of his life, as he became a firm advocate for anarchism. But Vue sur la nouvelle prison de Pontoise, printemps seems neither narrative nor allegorical in its intention. It is more likely that Pissarro recorded the prison in 1881 because it was a newly built structure that offered itself as a new motif. He appears to have chosen it as a compositional device to mark distance within the landscape and lend it a human presence. The taller and more imposing edifice is the Church of Saint-Maclou, a building that dominated the vista of Pontoise, as seen in a postcard from 1864 (fig. 3). It may be purely coincidental, or perhaps intentional, that Pissarro has depicted in such close proximity an official building intended for penal purposes, and a church, as a symbol of penitence and forgiveness.
Vue sur la nouvelle prison de Pontoise, printemps is one of the relatively few landscapes that Pissarro painted during this period that does not include figures in the distance or close-up. A close association with Degas, the master of the figure in the Impressionist circle, had inspired Pissarro to increasingly place figures in his landscapes, either as the central subject of the composition (fig. 4), or as accessory motifs.
Pissarro succeeds in recording the sensations he experienced in front of nature to render a landscape that is harmonious in its simplicity and decorative unity. Théodore Duret, a close friend of Eduard Manet and an extremely knowledgeable connoisseur of contemporary painting, was one of the first people to recognize the ease with which Pissarro could deal with a conventional view and yet find a way to render it as if he had stumbled upon it by accident. "You haven't Sisley's decorative feeling, nor Monet's fanciful eye, but you have what they have not, an intimate and profound feeling for nature and a power of brush, with the result that a beautiful picture by you is something absolutely definitive. If I had a piece of advice to give to you, I should say "Don't think of Monet or of Sisley, don't pay attention to what they are doing, go on your own, your path of rural nature. You'll be going along a new road, as far and as high as any master!" (quoted in C. Lloyd, Camille Pissarro, London, 1979, p. 70).
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, Le Chemin des Mathurins montant à travers champs, Pontoise, 1879. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 26007267
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, La Clairière à Pontoise, 1880. Fujikawa Galleries, Tokyo. BARCODE 26007274
(fig. 3) Pontoise à vol d'oiseau, 1864. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. From a postcard in the collection of M. Jean Hecquet, Paris. BARCODE 26007250
(fig. 4) Camille Pissarro, La Récolte, Pontoise, 1881. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Robert Lehman Collection. BARCODE 26007366