In June 1899, after spending the winter and spring painting cityscapes in Paris, Pissarro returned to Eragny, a rural hamlet on the banks of the Epte that had been his home—and the principal inspiration for his art—for fifteen years. He devoted a few days mid-month to scouring the wider region for promising motifs for his summer campaign, but came away empty-handed. “It’s mainly panoramic,” he wrote to his son Lucien, “whereas I want little nooks.” In the end, he found nothing that inspired him nearly as much as the single square mile of gardens and meadows around his own house. “It’s very beautiful here—you can make a masterpiece out of next to nothing,” he exclaimed, as though discovering the familiar countryside anew (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, pp. 290-292).
The first half of the year had brought Pissarro a good measure of success. Bernheim-Jeune gave him a solo exhibition in March-April, and Durand-Ruel included 36 of his paintings in an important Impressionist group show the next month, a mini-retrospective tracing his artistic achievement since 1870. Both events were well-received, and sales were strong. “Camille Pissarro has drunk light,” declared the critic Félicien Fágus in La Revue Blanche. “With it he waters the sky, the earth, the grass” (quoted in ibid., p. 288). Nevertheless, Pissarro was relieved to be home again, with his wife Julie and their two youngest children Jeanne and Paul-Emile, amidst the landscape that he knew so well. “I am not budging from here,” he told his eldest son Lucien in late July. “I have been harnessed to my work since June, I have begun some motifs in the field, some with figures. I have reason, I think, to congratulate myself on these things. I think they will be interesting” (J. Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Letters to his Son Lucien, Boston, 2002, p. 336).
Paysage avec peupliers, temps gris, Eragny, completed before Pissarro left home again in early September for a coastal sojourn at Varengeville, is surely one of the canvases that he had in mind. Depicting a quiet but ceaselessly animated corner of nature, the painting is a veritable celebration of the rich pictorial incident that Eragny had to offer the plein air painter. The trees, each with its own distinctive character, are painted in tiny touches of myriad different hues of green, with light mauve shades in the overcast sky as counterpoint. A wooden fence, the rustic product of traditional hand labor, divides the foreground into two parts, equally verdant and lush—on the left a meadow grown tall with delicate wildflowers and on the right a small kitchen garden. The fence enters the scene at the bottom left and recedes obliquely into depth, beckoning the viewer into the landscape to enjoy its bucolic charms.
Market gardens of the sort seen here had staunchly resisted the tide of mechanization that had transformed grain cultivation on the Vexin plateau by the late nineteenth century, remaining quintessentially rural. Spaded by hand rather than with a plow, they required constant care throughout the agrarian cycle, most of which was undertaken by the women of the household. In the present canvas, Pissarro has depicted two women picking vegetables—very likely peas trained on stakes at the far right and cabbages or lettuces alongside. The women seem to work in collective harmony, one bending and the other stretching, as if in an Arcadian country dance. Occupying only a small corner of the composition, dwarfed by the tall trees, they are an integral part of the natural landscape, suggesting the health and vitality of rural life at Pissarro’s Eragny.
Pissarro had settled in this rustic paradise in April 1884, after spending most of his early career at the bustling suburban town of Pontoise. His financial situation became increasingly dire after the crash of the Paris stock market in 1882, which almost ruined Durand-Ruel, and he had a growing family to support—four children at home, plus a baby on the way. For almost a year, Pissarro searched the countryside near Paris for a large house at moderate rent, with appealing landscape motifs close at hand. When he visited Eragny, some forty-five miles northwest of the capital in the Vexin region, he was immediately smitten. “Yes, we’ve made up our minds on Eragny-sur-Epte,” he wrote to Lucien, already away in London. “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” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, p. 499).
During the ensuing two decades, Pissarro never ceased to delight in his adopted home. When the property came up for sale in 1893, he hastened to purchase it with a loan from Monet and converted the barn into a proper studio. Working at his rolling easel in every season and at all times of day, he painted the gently rolling hills and meandering river banks within a short walk of his house; even more frequently, he sought his motifs in the meadows and fields immediately beyond his garden wall. 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. “Pissarro could never get enough of Eragny,” Joachim Pissarro has written. “His travels always brought him back with renewed resources, fresh ideas, and an eagerness to paint the same and yet ever different locations once again” (Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, p. 241).
The Rockefellers acquired the present Paysage avec peupliers, temps gris, Eragny from the dealer Sam Salz in 1953. “Peggy particularly liked this Pissarro when we first saw it,” David Rockefeller recalled. “This very beautiful, peaceful landscape in mostly greens and grays now hangs in our living room at Hudson Pines” (M. Potter et al., op. cit., 1984, p. 130).