Painted in 1891, Fenaison à Eragny is a beautiful and absorbing painting that combines Pissarro's interest in depicting the simple life of the countryside with his ceaseless interest in innovation. This painting sings with light and colour, yet at the same time is pointedly not a glorified depiction of the rural idyll. Instead, this arcadian theme is presented with the customary frankness for which Pissarro was so much admired.
Pissarro had moved to Eragny from Pontoise in search of a rural retreat, increasing the distance between himself and Paris, which was spreading its industrial and touristic tentacles into the countryside. Eragny provided such an adequate shelter for Pissarro that it remained his home for the rest of his life. Indeed, the year after he completed Fenaison à Eragny he purchased the house he had rented there, in part through the financial assistance of his friend Monet.
Eragny was far enough away that Pissarro could once again submerge himself in an unspoilt landscape. As is clear in Fenaison à Eragny, the human figure was becoming more and more of a focus for him in his paintings of this period, and Eragny was far enough from Paris that the farming methods used were still often those continued from the pre-industrial era. There is a timelessness to the theme that adds to it a certain hieratic dignity: in Fenaison à Eragny, the harvest continues in the same way that it has for centuries, following a pattern that all too soon would change.
It is strange, over a century later, to see this picture as revolutionary in its content, yet at the time these simple portrayals of the peasants at work, presented without any gloss or allegorical or religious meaning, were considered scandalous. These were not the stylised and formalised peasants of Millet's paintings, although of course there are similarities. Instead, Pissarro's scenes of country life had provided the ever-political Pissarro with the opportunity to depict and celebrate the agricultural working class in their element. It was a continuation of his Impressionist 'ethic' that prompted him to portray this scene of harvest as he had seen it, but this was considered a shocking assault on the public's taste - in the light of Pissarro's rumoured politics, it must have smacked of accusation somehow to some of his patrons. Certainly these were not the paintings that most buyers appeared interested in, and even his dealer Durand-Ruel hinted that he should change his tack. When Pissarro exhibited a group of these bold pictures, of which many took similar themes to Fenaison à Eragny, there was outcry from some quarters, and characters such as Octave Mirbeau leapt to his defence:
'Critics love anecdotes; they are only moved by sentimental vulgarities. There are none of these in the work of M. Pissarro... The eye of the artist, like the mind of the thinker, discovers the larger aspects of things, their wholeness and unity. Even when he paints figures in scenes of rustic life, man is always seen in perspective in the vast, terrestrial harmony, like a human plant. To describe the drama of the earth and to move our hearts, M. Pissarro does not need violent gestures, complicated arabesques and sinister branches against livid skies. A hillside in silhouette under a sky with a wandering cloud is enough. An orchard, with its apple trees in rows, its brick houses in the background and some women under the trees, bending and gathering the apples which have fallen to the ground, and a whole life is evoked, a dream rises up, soars, and such a simple thing, so familiar to our eyes, transforms itself into an ideal vision, amplified and raised to a great decorative poetry' (Mirbeau, in Le Figaro, 1892, quoted in R.E. Shikes & P. Harper, Pissarro: His Life and Work, New York, 1980, pp.261-62).
Despite the outcry, this exhibition marked a watershed in Pissarro's life as an artist, as it was the first in which all his pictures were sold, a fact that helped him purchase his house that year. This also showed that, despite Durand-Ruel's misgivings, the public were ready for paintings such as Fenaison à Eragny, which condensed Pissarro's new, colourful but unflinching view of the countryside and country life.
1891 was a momentous year in its own right for Pissarro, as it was filled with personal tragedy. This began with the death of Theo van Gogh, who had been helping Pissarro and exhibiting his works and whom the artist respected hugely. With him, Pissarro was able to state his intentions and find his wishes respected, perhaps a reflection of the intense relationship between Theo and his brother Vincent, who had died only shortly before him. Another blow came in the form of the death of the Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat. For half a decade, since his initial meeting with Signac, and then with Seurat, in 1885, Pissarro had been intrigued by the potential of dividing colour and thereby forming a more intense overall visual effect, as is visible in Fenaison à Eragny. Pissarro's interest in Pointillism was based in part upon the brushwork that he had, by coincidence, been developing more and more at the time, but was consolidated by his new awareness of the theories of colour and colour perception of Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood, introduced to him by the young Pointillists.
While Pissarro never fully embraced this scientific way of constructing a painting, he used aspects of these theories in order to increase the intensity or harmony of certain areas of his pictures. In Fenaison à Eragny, Pissarro has painstakingly built-up a surface comprised of tiny, tessellated strokes of pure colour, allowing him to flex his Pointillist muscle. The presence of reds and yellows within the green of the grass, and conversely greens and blues in the shadow on the face of the main figure, add a shimmering vitality to the painting, to its surface, and heighten the sense of colour and, by extension, of volume within the picture.
Pissarro's loose adherence to the precepts of Pointillisme was due to his natural inclination towards a spontaneous and painterly reaction to nature. However, the infinite concentration and application involved in creating a painting with such feathered and meticulous brush-work as Fenaison à Eragny meant that he spent far longer creating the picture, and indeed his output during this time was far lower than before. Gone was the pleinairisme of his full Impressionist paintings. Pissarro now painstakingly created his paintings in the studio, without the pressure of changing light and weather, working from sketches. This method had been a novelty for Pissarro, and in fact opened up whole new realms of painterly possibility, allowing him to create paintings that the constraints of his Impressionist discipline had formerly prohibited. The year after Fenaison à Eragny was painted, he wrote to his son Lucien to congratulate him, having heard that he was now painting in the studio as well:
'I learn with pleasure that you have begun painting in the studio... It is certain that work in the studio is identical from the point of difficulty with work in the outdoors, but it is absolutely different from the point of view of métier, methods and results. It does not do to seek from studio work that which is not possible, just as out of doors it doesn't do to seek anything except direct and instantaneous sensations' (Pissarro, quoted in K. Adler, Camille Pissarro: a biography, London, 1978, p. 138).
In this way, the studio paintings of Pissarro's Neo-Impressionist period gave him great scope for innovation and advance.
As well as being a historic painting in terms of Pissarro's life, Fenaison à Eragny also has a long and historic provenance that provides an insight into the reception of the artist both during his life, and later. Bought the year that it was painted, it almost certainly formed part of Adolphe Tavernier's collection. Later, after the posthumous retrospective, it passed through the famous collection of Dr. Alfred Gold, who owned many works that now grace an international array of museums. Fenaison à Eragny was then bought and sold in Scandinavia, where it formed a part of the important Turitz collection in Stockholm.