La cueillette des pommes was painted in 1881 and has featured in a number of monographs on Camille Pissarro, a reflection of its importance. This picture, which has passed through the hands of a number of important dealers and collectors since being inherited by the wife of the artist upon his death, dates from towards the end of the period when Pissarro had been living in Pontoise, and perfectly reflects the increased interest in the human subject and figure that had emerged during his time there. Where some of his earlier works, especially in the height of Impressionism during the 1870s, had featured natural landscapes, increasingly he sought to place people within that context, with the countryside serving as a backdrop. Certainly, this is the case in La cueillette des pommes, where the composition focusses the viewer on both the girl in the foreground collecting apples and the standing figure who is holding a stick aloft, apparently hitting fruit from the branches. Meanwhile, in the background, another girl is on her knees, picking up the fruit.
It is a mark of Pissarro's own enthusiasm for this composition and subject that he would return to it several times over the following years, ultimately creating another picture also entitled La cueillette des pommes. That second work was shown at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition, where it received a number of favourable notices, being singled out for praise from some of the other works. The 1886 picture called La cueillette des pommes, which is now in the Ohara Museum of Art, Kirashiki, having been sold to a Japanese collector as early as 1917, showed the incipient Neo-Impressionism in the distinctive, almost hatched brushstrokes that made up its surface, with dabs of different colours shown close together. In this way, Pissarro revealed his move towards the Pointillism he was developing alongside the younger artists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac at that later stage; this was a shift that did not meet with universal praise and was more accentuated in other works shown in that exhibition. While there is already a certain separation of some of the feathered brushstrokes, they nonetheless retain a cohesive sense of whole as they depict the flickering light filtering down through the trees and onto the woman and the ground. This results in a sense of dappled colour that recalls the Impressionist pictures of some of Pissarro's contemporaries, for instance Claude Monet.
Pissarro had struggled with the second version of La cueillette des pommes for some years - in a letter to his son Lucien written in 1883, he had explained that he was working on his 'Apple Eaters' (Pissarro, quoted in J. Pissarro & C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, Pissarro, Catalogue critique des peintures, vol. III, Milan, 2005, p. 539). It was only three years later that he would complete it. In the interim, he would create several other works on the theme including a distemper image in the Archives Pissarro, Pontoise, and a drawing of the girl with the stick which is now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. John Rewald, discussing the earlier example of La cueillette des pommes, the present lot, felt that this slow process of execution and resolution of the later version was to its detriment, compared to the freshness of this earlier version. The 1886 picture in the Ohara Museum of Art, 'despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it had been so long in the making, and also due to its less spontaneous technique, appears more static, the immediate charm of the subject that had originally seduced the artist having been lost in the process' (J. Rewald, Camille Pissarro, New York, 1963, p. 124). Intriguingly, it appears that Pissarro would often revisit subjects in order to explore a new means of presentation, even in the period before he created this first example of La cueillette des pommes (see R. Brettell, Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape, New Haven & London, 1990, p. 191).
The later example of La cueillette des pommes may have been less spontaneous than this predecessor, yet it is a mark of Pissarro's skills that even this earlier version was probably less spontaneous than it appears. For a start, by the time he painted it, Pontoise, where he had been living for a number of years, was far less bucolic than here appears to be the case, and the agriculture was increasingly mechanised. In addition, it appears that, in order to conjure the scene of country living that Pissarro so keenly sought, he used servants and models for his compositions (see ibid., p. 135). Thus, even before his foray into Neo-Impressionism, there was an artifice at work. It is in part with this in mind that Brettell emphasises the importance of Edgar Degas, rather than Claude Monet, on Pissarro's country views of the 1880s.
In both of his versions of La cueillette des pommes, then, Pissarro was carefully constructing reality, augmenting it in order to be able to give a more profound sensation for the viewer, echoing Degas' statement that, 'Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see' (quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself: Drawings Prints Paintings Writings, London, 1987, p. 319). Nonetheless, he was working in the tradition of Jean-François Millet, an artist with whom he had been compared in reviews of the sixth Impressionist exhibition that had taken place earlier in 1881: 'he is of the same family as that great master and faithfully upholds the tradition' (A. Valbrègue, quoted in Pissarro & Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, vol. I, p. 172). Crucially, then, Pissarro was looking forwards as well as backwards, keeping abreast of the advances being propagated by the avant garde. Indeed, it was during his time in Pontoise, not least during the early 1880s, that he was to come to influence younger artists including Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, paving the way for the development of Post-Impressionism, as well as Seurat and Signac's Neo-Impressionism.
La cueillette des pommes was inherited by Julie Pissarro after the artist's death in 1903; it then passed through the hands of several dealers before being acquired by Josef Stransky. A Czech conductor, Stransky worked for a long time for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and during his tenure saw it grow in stature and popularity, paving the way for its international success. Stransky also became an art dealer, working in partnership with Wildenstein and Co. in New York; however, La cueillette des pommes appears to have formed a part of his private collection. Indeed, it was featured in an article entitled 'The Private Collection of Josef Stransky, New York', originally printed in The Art News Supplement in 1931, which included works ranging from Ingres and Courbet to Modigliani and Pissarro. La cueillette des pommes was later owned by Evelyn Annenberg Jaffe Hall, whose second husband was the prominent New York lawyer William B. Jaffe. Both Evelyn and her husband were well- known philanthropists and acquired a great collection of Asian art, as well as numerous pictures such as this Pissarro.