The present landscape depicts an apple orchard near 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 and meadows (and the peasants who worked them) 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.
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 Compiègne. Gisors is superb; we'd seen nothing" (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, vol. I, 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). Pissarro purchased the property in 1893 with the help of a loan from Monet, and his improving financial situation (see below) enabled him to repay his friend three years later.
Pommiers et faneuses was painted in 1895, more than a decade after Pissarro had moved to Eragny. With the exception of intermittent short trips to Paris to attend exhibitions or visit a doctor for recurring eye problems, Pissarro spent the whole of the year painting at Eragny; it would not be until 1896 that he began to undertake extended urban campaigns, first to Rouen and Paris and later in the decade to Le Havre and Dieppe. He painted outdoors a great deal throughout the spring and summer of 1895, writing to Lucien in early October, "The bad weather has returned. After slaving away in earnest, I'm going back to the studio. I think the work after nature is finished" (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, vol. I, p. 260). In the present landscape, he has set up his easel in a copse of apple trees that have begun to bear fruit, suggesting that the scene was painted in the late summer or early autumn. The leafy, unpruned branches of the trees occupy nearly the entire upper half of the canvas, leaving only a narrow band of sky visible at the top left. The viewer has the sense of being engulfed in vegetation, which is rendered in tiny, flickering touches that run the gamut from a sunny yellow-green (where the light filters through the branches) to a deep emerald tinged with shadowy blue.
Although the apple trees dominate the composition, they are not the sole protagonists of the scene: two diminutive female figures stand in the middle distance, raking hay into low piles. During his two decades at Eragny, Pissarro painted at least eight other scenes of hay-making (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 766, 848, 866, 919, 951, 1004-1005, 1393; figs. 1-2; see also Christie's, London, 28 November 1994, lot 13, and 6 February 2006, lot 56). Along with apple-picking, the production of hay represents one of the artist's favorite manifestations of the theme of communal rural labor, which Ralph Shikes has called "his most philosophically significant theme" ("Pissarro's Political Philosophy and his Art," in C. Lloyd, ed., Studies on Camille Pissarro, London, 1986, p. 41). Pissarro's support of the anarchist cause reached its peak in the 1890s, and his paintings of peasants working together to plant and harvest the crop, while far from programmatic or polemical, may reflect the semi-utopian ideal of rural community exalted by anarchist writers like Peter Kropotkin. In Pommiers et faneuses, for instance, the two women stand in identical poses and hold their pitchforks at the same angle, raking to a single rhythm in an image of harmonious cooperative effort. The rhythmic nature of their work, in turn, evokes the cadenced rhythm of farm life as it follows the cycle of the seasons. The parallel stance of the two women is echoed and extended in the parallel bands of shadow that the tree trunks cast on the grass, suggesting a healthy relationship between worker and nature, labor and earth. Shikes has written, "Pissarro's vision is of men and women perfectly integrated into their natural environment. At the heart of these paintings is his wish to picture a world that was passing and needed preserving for the ideal society of the future" (ibid., p. 53).
The celebration of rural labor in Pissarro's paintings from Eragny also reflects his own reputation as a tireless, almost fanatical worker. His letters to his sons are filled with references to the strenuous physical and mental demands of his vocation, which he envisioned as analogous to the unrelenting routine of the peasant. When he finds a promising motif or sensation, he is seized by a sense of urgency, just like a farmer at the moment the crops are ripe; in both cases, one must set to work without delay and work unflaggingly, or all may be lost. "I have experienced it, follow it! When you feel a certain thing, you have to do it at whatever cost. You can be sure that you will reap the rewards" (quoted in J. Pissarro, op. cit., 1993, p. 186). His approach to creativity, moreover, was not that of the isolated and brooding genius; instead, he saw himself as a member of a community of like-minded individuals working toward a common goal, and he assumed the role of teacher for younger artists as well as for his own sons. For a man of this cooperative outlook and exemplary work ethic, the harvest--here of hay, elsewhere of wheat, apples, potatoes, or peas--was a cogent symbol of his own life's work.
The year after it was painted, Pommiers et faneuses was featured in an important exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, which marked a sea change in Pissarro's commercial fortunes. For much of 1895, the artist's letters indicate that he was frustrated by the low prices that Durand-Ruel was offering him, discouraged by his own (and the dealer's) difficulty in finding buyers for his art, and concerned about his mounting struggles to make ends meet. In late September, pleased with his recent work, he asked Durand-Ruel for a solo show: "Will I be able to count on having one of your rooms for an exhibition in the spring? I'll have a series of ten or so fairly large figure paintings, a few landscapes, new things, and together with those you already have in your possession, they'll add up to a respectable body of work" (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, vol. I, p. 38). To Pissarro's relief, Durand-Ruel agreed. The exhibition opened the following year on April 15th and was an unqualified triumph, pushing up Pissarro's prices and freeing the sixty-five-year-old artist from money problems at long last. "My exhibition is a huge success," he wrote to Lucien. "There were a great many people eager to see me whom I didn't have time to meet. Even Renoir congratulated me!" (quoted in ibid., p. 267). The critics were extremely flattering as well, with Gustave Geffroy describing Pissarro as "one of the masters of landscape painting in our time" and the periodical L'Art de France hailing the exhibition as a must-see: "Whatever the tyrannical power of the two current salons of 1896 [the Salon du Champ de Mars and the Salon des Indpendants], it is essential, for anyone wishing to keep abreast of progress in the arts, to visit the Impressionist master's one-man show" (quoted in ibid., p. 267).
The first owner of the present painting may have been the prominent Rouen industrialist Félix-François Depeaux, whom Anne Distel has described (along with the Havemeyers) as one of the most important "second generation" collectors of Impressionism (Impressionism: The First Collectors, New York, 1989, p. 29). Depeaux had been impressed by Pissarro's exhibition at Durand-Ruel's gallery in February 1892 and bought his first painting by the artist later the same year (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 301). Pissarro and Depeaux met in person during the artist's campaign in Rouen in January-March 1896, and the collector purchased at least four paintings from the Durand-Ruel show that spring (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 279, 798, 1120, and 1122); it is possible that he acquired the present canvas at the same time. In 1909, Depeaux made a bequest of fifty-three paintings to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, including works by Pissarro, Sisley, and Monet; this remains today one of the largest and most significant collections of Impressionist painting in France outside of the Musée d'Orsay.
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, Fenaison à Eragny, 1892. The Art Institute of Chicago.
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, Fenaison à Eragny, 1893. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.