Camille Pissarro spent two weeks during September 1892 as the guest of the writer Octave Mirbeau and his wife Alice at their country home in Les Damps, a hamlet in the department of the Eure in northern France. The artist eagerly anticipated the visit throughout the summer, both for the company—Mirbeau was among the most sensitive interpreters of his work and a fellow advocate of anarchist ideals—and for the splendid motifs to be found at Les Damps. “And your garden? Have you spruced it up, decked it out, made it more attractive for me?” Pissarro wrote to his friend in July. “If time allows, I will gladly set down a memory of it on a magnificent size 30 canvas” (Letter no. 807). The grounds at Les Damps did not disappoint, and the painter was hard at work within a day of his arrival. “I have begun four landscapes,” he reported to his son Lucien, “which seem to me superb in motifs and effects, with the hills in the background” (Letter no. 816).
The present canvas—a stately size 30 (73 x 92 cm.), just as Pissarro had planned—depicts the sumptuously planted and immaculately tended terrace immediately adjacent to Mirbeau’s house, a sliver of which is visible at the far left of the scene. The focal point of the composition is the luxuriant flower bed at the right, which comprises a late summer’s pageant of colors, scents, and textures—a veritable laboratory for artistic experimentation. A young girl on the terrace seems transfixed by the spectacle, gazing upon it with a child’s natural wonder and receptivity that forms a proxy for the artist’s own intuitive response to the motif. “One must be free of everything but one’s own sensations,” Pissarro instructed Lucien in a letter from Les Damps, perhaps with this particular painting in mind (Letter no. 816).
Pissarro built up the canvas from myriad tiny touches of complementary hues—blue and orange, green and red—to create a dense tapestry of color that seems to vibrate before our eyes, evoking the heady, immersive effect of the garden. Although the chromatic scale reflects the artist’s brief phase of experimentation with divisionism in the late 1880s, the robust and varied handling surpasses any technical formula, revealing his intense, personal absorption in the landscape. “There is something almost culinary about the way the material of the paint has been applied and manipulated on the surface of the work,” Joachim Pissarro has written. “It is breathtakingly painterly, the result of an incredibly multifarious technique, alternating between thick impasto composed of several underlayers of paint, and tiny fragmented strokes revealing Pissarro’s supple and confident hand” (op. cit., 1993, p. 237).
The heterogeneous, organic forms of the flowers and trees contrast with the crisply linear edging of the garden beds, which marks out an enclosed haven for the child on the terrace—perhaps a relative or neighbor of Mirbeau, roughly the same age as Pissarro’s youngest son Paul-Émile. In the middle distance, beyond the diminutive figure, the sweep of the terrace guides the viewer’s eye toward a low boundary wall and a screen of trees, which frame a partial vista over the gently rolling hills of the Seine valley. Pissarro made two smaller paintings of Mirbeau’s terrace that focus, respectively, on the garden plantings and this wider landscape prospect (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 953 and 956); the fourth canvas from Les Damps depicts a more rustic corner of the property near the henhouse (no. 955). Only in the present scene did Pissarro connect the cultivated world of the terrace with the fertile, agricultural terrain beyond, conjuring a utopian vision of the whole of France as an expansive, communal garden.
The sojourn at Les Damps, by Pissarro’s own account, was a great success. “You spoiled me royally,” he wrote to Mirbeau, “and I don’t know how to thank Madame Mirbeau for going to such trouble. As soon as I got home, I looked at my four canvases in white frames. Though they didn’t show to good effect in your place, they’re rather good.” His only regret was that he had not had time to paint more: “The cabbages with a garnishing of sunlight; they would have been beautiful to do” (Letter no. 818). In December, Durand-Ruel purchased nineteen recent paintings from Pissarro, including the present canvas and two others from Les Damps; Pissarro held back the smallest from the series as a gift for Mirbeau. “I think you have the cream of the crop,” Pissarro assured the dealer when he inquired about the missing painting (Letter no. 846). Durand-Ruel’s acquisitions enabled Pissarro to repay 7000 francs of the loan that the better-heeled Monet had made to him earlier in the year to purchase his house at Éragny, which he had rented since 1884.
In March 1893, Durand-Ruel featured all four paintings from Les Damps in an important solo exhibition of Pissarro’s work, with Mirbeau loaning his canvas for the occasion. Anticipating the open-ended serial modality of the artist’s final decade, the majority of the pictures in the show—31 of a total of 46—came from three different projects that played off one another formally and thematically, creating links between public and private, city and country, and so on. “The Série des jardins de Kew depicted the casual and open sweeps of the London city garden, dotted with finely attired figures,” Martha Ward has written. “The Série des vues de ma fenêtre à Éragny showed agricultural landscapes in different seasons with fruit trees and a steeple-gauged hillside. The Série des jardins represented the opulent gardens of Octave Mirbeau, with exotic flowers, sheltered and overgrown spaces, a place of solitude” (op. cit., 1996, p. 254).