Camille Pissarro: Reaping the rewards
For the Impressionist master, who features in our upcoming sale of works from the Triton Collection, rural life provided a sense of health and vitality — the harvest echoing the artist's own desire to cultivate the perfect image
In Paysannes travaillant dans les champs, Pontoise, executed in 1881, Camille Pissarro depicts a group of five young women harvesting peas on the rural outskirts of Pontoise, a bustling market town about 40 kilometres northwest of Paris where he and his family had lived for over a decade.
During his career Pissarro would return to the pea harvest again and again, capturing workers in fields flooded with brilliant emerald pods. In 1881, when this work was made, he had already treated the theme in two oils, and would return to the subject again in 1884 when he moved to the rural French hamlet of Éragny. Here, the deep, blue-green contents of the women’s baskets suggest marrowfat season — the bulging pods left to ripen on lush vines.
Against this verdant landscape, the checked headscarf of Pissarro’s subject in the foreground stands out in bright red and yellow, providing a focal point in sweeping open space. The workers’ homemade clothes are otherwise neutral, the trailing hems of their skirts falling to merge with foliage. It is a scene suffused with a sense of warmth and ease, Pissarro’s subjects both blending harmoniously with the land and flourishing forth from it.
This work in gouache and black chalk is one of a number which drew on Pissarro’s rural surrounds: in previous works, the artist had pictured workers watering gardens, gathering crops or tending to animals — this physical labour occasionally giving way to scenes of rest and reverie. Here, the three figures in the foreground bend gracefully, their collective work taking on the character of a country dance, the pair of women in the middle distance pausing from the harvest to rest and converse.
Unlike Millet’s vision of the French countryside, in which labour is ceaseless and back-breaking, Pissarro associated outdoor work with health and vitality. An admirer of Peter Kropotkin’s semi-utopian theories of agriculture, he showed work as a co-operative pursuit, balanced by ample opportunities for leisure. Writer Brettell explains, ‘Pissarro was perhaps the first great painter of French rural life who actually revealed a kind of relaxed beauty in fieldwork,’ adding, ‘his politically inflected anarchist world gives rural labour a primacy in its representation of work, but that work is productive and fulfilling.’
The quietly industrious work of the pea pickers echoes the intensity of the artist’s own labour, recorded in thousands of individual touches of pigment. In letters to his son, Pissarro repeatedly likened his urgent desire to capture a scene in paint to a farmer harvesting ripe crops; in both instances, one would have to set to work without delay or risk losing everything. ‘I have experienced it, follow it!’ wrote Pissarro. ‘When you feel a certain thing, you have to do it at whatever cost. You can be sure that you will reap the rewards.’
Pissarro’s approach to creativity 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 sons. For a man of this co-operative outlook and exemplary work ethic, the harvest — here of peas, elsewhere of apples, potatoes, or hay — was a powerful symbol of his own life’s work.
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