On a warm spring day in 1892, seated at a makeshift table set out among the trees in the garden of Pissarro's home at Eragny, three of the artist's children are busy at work doing their school lessons, or following their father's example, perhaps even drawing. The oldest boy, on the viewer's left, is Pissarro's son Ludovic-Rodo, then aged fourteen. The smaller boy, seated in the center and wearing a broad brimmed straw hat, is Paule-Émile, eight years old, the painter's youngest child. Both sons would grow up to become successful painters. The hatless young girl seated at right is the artist's eleven-year old daughter Jeanne-Marguerite, known as "Cocotte." Pissarro painted a smaller canvas around this time, showing Paule-Émile facing Jeanne-Marguerite across the same outdoor table, having their lunch (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 935).
As is so often the case in Pissarro's paintings, the activity depicted in Enfants attablés dans le jardin à Éragny is hardly out of the ordinary in the course of everyday domestic life at the artist's home. Nevertheless, the magnificent treatment which Pissarro has accorded this corner of his garden, and especially the sheltering canopy of abundant foliage above it, imparts a deeper resonance to this gentle scene. An underlying theme is surely the artist's belief in an innate human capacity for harmony and happy endeavor. Here he has depicted personal industry in its most youthful, innocent and unassuming kind, exploring and learning about the beauty of the world, in an environment which represents both nature and the guiding hand of human design conjoined. The branches of two trees intertwine to form a small portal like arch behind the children; the space in which their altar-like table has been placed is bound on each side by the pronounced ascending line of an absolutely straight, pillar-like tree trunk. Together these arboreal elements trace the architectural outlines of a grand natural temple. In this humble version of Eden in Éragny, the three young innocents flourish and grow.
An enriched pictorial subtext of this kind is not uncommon in Pissarro's paintings, and often stems from Pissarro's life-long dedication to the fundamental principles of anarchist thinking: egalitarianism, freedom from tyranny, the joy derived from honest, unexploited labor, and a belief in the evolution of society toward a more peaceable and harmonious condition. Pissarro abjured the headline-grabbing terrorists and assassins who operated on the extreme militant fringe of the anarchist movement. Instead he looked forward to "a better time when man, having achieved another mode of life, will understand the beautiful differently." He declared, "All arts are anarchist when they are beautiful and good. Proudhon says in La Justice that love of earth is linked with revolution, and consequently with the artistic idea" (quoted in R.E. Shikes and P. Harper, Pissarro: His Life and Work, New York, 1980, pp. 238 and 241).
In the spring of 1892, around the time he painted the present picture, there had been a round-up of anarchists in Paris following a series of deadly bombings. Pissarro contributed to a fund that helped provide for the detained men's children. He had recently received a copy of The Conquest of Bread, the latest book by Peter Kropotkin, the leading international voice of anarchism, which he assessed in a letter to the writer Octave Mirbeau: "One must admit that if it is utopian, in every way it is a beautiful dream. As we often have had examples of beautiful dreams become realities, nothing prevents us from believing that it will be possible one day, unless man fails and returns to complete barbarism" (ibid., p. 241).
Pissarro's admirers were alert to this progressive and visionary element in the artist's work, which is often overlooked today. "Not only does M. Pissarro paint," Mirbeau wrote, "but he knows why he paints and what he paints. He applies his reason to it as a technician and as a philosopher... He contributes, as does everyone who makes something useful, beautiful, to the general harmony of the universe" (ibid., p. 240). Indeed, Enfants attablés dans le jardin displays in full measure the ultimate synthesis of Pissarro's sage outlook and peerless technique that runs strongly through the paintings of his final decade and a half, founded on pictorial aims and progressive ideals to which he had committed himself for almost forty years. The critic Gustave Geffroy wrote in 1890, "He is a personal artist, of beautiful vision and sure execution, and that was the essential thing... He has moved incessantly towards the ideal clarity that his intimate being sought in the exterior world" (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--dared to experiment with Georges Seurat's novel and controversial pointillist method, and he fully incorporated in his paintings the latest developments in the science of color theory. Pissarro painted his last pictures of this kind in 1890-1891 (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 578; fig. 1), 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 rigorous 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 use of color and painterly technique. 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" (The History of Impressionism, 4th rev. ed., New York, 1975, pp. 568 and 570).
The lingering influence of pointillism, freely and loosely adapted as a form of divisionism, is particularly discernible in Enfants attablés dans le jardin in the dappled effect of light on the foliage. Pissarro rarely resorted to quick, summary effects. Instead, it was his normal procedure to rework in his studio the initial plein air version of a scene, with the result that each tree and variety of foliage has been clearly differentiated by means of specifically inflected brushstrokes and subtle variations in hues of green and yellow, all contributing to the terraced effect of the whole. The vernal earth appears to blossom forth and emanate outwards in ascending waves of verdure. This is indeed the pictorial harmony and synthesis for which Pissarro had been striving, in which the totality of myriad painterly effects mirrors the fertile abundance of nature itself.
The year 1892 had marked a significant change in Pissarro's fortunes: he had been selling his work more consistently and at higher prices than any time previously in his career. At the beginning of the year Durand-Ruel organized and opened the artist's first and long overdue retrospective, a show of fifty paintings and twenty-one gouaches from all periods. Mirbeau congratulated Pissarro, "I am very happy that the exhibition is working... It's working because your hour has come--alas, late in the day--I have heard it sounding, because it cannot be that a man like yourself, an artist of your stamp--despite the imbecility of people--does not triumph in the end" (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., vol. I, p. 232). In his review of the show for Le Figaro, Mirbeau declared, "I know of nothing more beautiful and touching than to see M. Camille Pissarro, so youthful in spite of this white beard, preserving all the enthusiasms of youth and, far from the clamour of coteries, juries and hideous jealousies, pursuing, with the ardours of old, one of the most beautiful and notable bodies of work in our time" (quoted in ibid., pp. 232-233). The critic Gustave Geffroy pointed out, correctly as time would prove, that "this collection of works will lay the foundation, once and for all, of Camille Pissarro's reputation with the public at large" (quoted in ibid., p. 233).
Pissarro and his family had lived in the same rented house in the small village of Éragny since 1884. While he undertook painting campaigns in Paris, Rouen, London (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 944; fig. 2) and other distant urban locales, he rarely wandered far afield when he spent time at home, and he preferred to paint his garden and the surrounding fields, which he could view from his second floor studio window (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 977; fig. 3). In May 1892 Pissarro learned that his landlord needed to sell the house. Encouraged by continuing success following his recent retrospective, the artist decided to buy the property, and arranged for loans from Durand-Ruel and his friend Claude Monet. The deed was signed in July, making the 62-year old Pissarro a homeowner for the first time in his life. A sense of contentment and well-being, a state of serenity such as that he had rarely come close to knowing in his long and often trying career, now seemed real, and his quiet joy found expression in the three children in the garden, oblivious to all worldly cares, enjoying the spring air and the engrossing work at hand, much like the artist himself when he painted.
The present painting was not among the numerous works which Durand-Ruel acquired directly from Pissarro during the years following the 1892 retrospective (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 1029; fig. 4), or sold by the artist's trusted broker Alphonse Portier (Pissarro and Duran-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 938; fig. 5); instead it entered the collection of Julien-François Tanguy (1825-1894), affectionately known among his many artist friends as Père Tanguy. Trained as a color grinder, this humble and generous soul opened up his own small shop in 1873 at 14, rue Clauzel. He was unstinting in extending credit, and often accepted paintings from artists in lieu of payment, which he would later sell at modest prices when the rare opportunity arose. For many years his shop was the only place where one could see recent works by Cézanne. Tanguy fell ill in 1892, and a collection was taken up to aid him and his wife--Pissarro may have given him Enfants attablés dans le jardin with this purpose in mind. Following Tanguy's death in 1894, this painting was included in the sale of his collection to benefit his widow, where it was purchased by Durand-Ruel. A subsequent owner of note was Joshua Logan (1908-1988), the American director and writer who worked on both stage and screen. Logan received a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for co-writing the Broadway musical South Pacific with Rodgers and Hammerstein. His most famous Hollywood directorial credits include Picnic, Bus Stop, Sayonara, and South Pacific, all filmed between 1955 and 1960.
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro at his studio window, Éragny-sur-Epte. Photograph courtesy of the archives of Privarte and Musée Pissarro, Pontoise.
Barcode: 2800 0709 FIG
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, Paturage, coucher de soleil, Éragny, 1890. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 May 2008, lot 16.
Barcode: 2800 0631 FIG
(fig. 3) Camille Pissarro, Jardin de Kew, Londres, allée de la grande serre, 1892. Sold, Christie's London, 2 December 1991.
Barcode: 2800 0624 FIG
(fig. 4) Camille Pissarro, Poiriers en fleur, Éragny, 1894. Sold, Christie's London, 24 February 2008, lot 15.
Barcode: 2800 0600 FIG
(fig. 5) Camille Pissarro, Vue de ma fenêtre, inondation, effet du soir, Éragny, 1893. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 May 2008, lot 13. Barcode: 2800 0617 FIG
(fig. 6) Camille Pissarro, Femme à la brouette, 1892. Sold, Christie's London 29 June 1999, lot 11.
Barcode: 2800 0594 FIG