Gazing to the northeast from Pontoise in the direction of the nearby town of L’Auvers, located further downstream on the Oise river, Pissarro has depicted in this vividly atmospheric landscape the hamlet of Valhermeil, nestled in the cradling hills that rise west of the river, viewed from the heights of Le Chou. The site was only a short walk and climb from the artist’s home at 85, quai du Pothuis, the address in Pontoise to which he and his family had moved during the summer of 1881 from their earlier quarters on the rue de l’Hermitage in the same town. On 27 August Pissarro’s daughter Jeanne Marguerite was born at this new address, which was listed on a census taken around this time as the residence of the artist, his wife Julie, and their five children. The house still exists, having been largely rebuilt and transformed in appearance, at what is now 21, quai Eugène-Turpin. Paul Cézanne, his partner Hortense Fiquet and their son Paul, Jr., had been staying since early May just down the street, at no. 31. They would remain in Pontoise until October. Cézanne’s presence during this time, and his great friendship with Pissarro, refreshed and further consolidated during 1881 and again the following year, would prove to be a significant element in the story of this picture, which Pissarro painted during the summer of 1882.
Cézanne’s long association with Pissarro began in 1872, and lasted for the better part of a decade. Theirs was one of the great opportune partnerships which Barbara Ehrlich White has recounted in her book Impressionists Side by Side (op. cit., 1996)–most noteworthy among others are Degas and Manet, Monet and Renoir, Manet and Morisot, Morisot and Renoir. Joachim Pissarro further explored the implications of this remarkable meeting of artistic sensibilities, and the resulting fruitful exchange of the ideas they brought to play, in the 2005 exhibition Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne & Pissarro (exh. cat., op. cit), leaving no question that together these two painters furthered in a truly profound and substantial manner the evolution of modern art. It is well known that Cézanne publicly listed himself in catalogues of the early 1900s as a “pupil of Pissarro” (B. E. White, op. cit., 1996, p. 109), in homage and gratitude to the older painter, nine years his senior. He would later memorably praise his friend to Emile Bernard in a letter of 1905 as the “humble and colossal Pissarro,” later telling Joachim Gasquet in conversation: “we may all descend from Pissarro” (ibid.).
The manner of their exchange was less lopsided than these statements may suggest, which came near the end of Cézanne’s life, and were possibly intended to rectify some nasty remarks he made during the 1890s, which Pissarro forgivingly attributed to Cézanne’s increasing struggle with diabetes and other ailments. Their interaction had actually been as momentous for Pissarro as it was for his younger colleague. Indeed, as recorded in the 2005 exhibition catalogue, Pissarro had declared that in Pontoise Cézanne “came under my influence and I his” (p. 123). The two painters were, as White has described, “motivated by what they could learn from each other. During that time they made twenty side-by-side paintings in their very distinct styles. They were not looking to forge a common style; rather, each was trying to enhance his uniqueness by capturing his sensations in front of nature... They painted together because they respected and admired each other’s art and felt comfortable being influenced by each other” (op. cit., 1996, p. 107).
Cézanne, on the other hand, surely had the longer road to travel when he set up his easel alongside Pissarro’s and they worked together from shared motifs. He “was like a boiling cauldron with the cover on,” as White has described him. “His intensity was legendary...” (ibid.). Cézanne was notorious for his idiosyncratic technique; in his early paintings he had slathered thick paint on his canvases with the knife, often creating astonishingly self-revealing scenes of violent and voyeuristic fantasies about women. Hardly anyone took his work seriously, and many even laughed at this young madman, cruelly mocking his attempts to show in the Salons. By patiently bringing Cézanne more closely into the absorbed and careful study of motifs seen in nature, to which Cézanne responded in kind, Pissarro in effect helped to transform the wild man from Aix into the powerful, prescient artist whom many 20th century painters would claim as their greatest predecessor.
The present painting by Pissarro, and Cézanne’s rendering of the same motif (Rewald, no. 463), come near the very end of this mutually productive period of joint working sessions. Pissarro’s landscape done from Le Chou is clearly dated 1882, and the similarities apparent in Cézanne’s view, which must have been seen from a vantage point in which the latter was standing only a few yards to the right of his friend, strongly suggests the same date. As Rewald has acknowledged in his entry for this Cézanne painting and a related work done nearby (his no. 492; private collection), “Cézanne’s movements throughout 1882 are not well known,” but he believes the artist spent that summer in the country, while his son was on holiday from school, “and also seems to have seen Pissarro again, in whose company he must have worked once more” (The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1996, vol. 1, p 331, nos. 492 and 493). White seconds Rewald’s assertions, also placing Cézanne “in the Pontoise area, during the spring, summer and fall [of 1882]... It was during this period that he and Pissarro painted their last side-by-side works, View of Valhermeil Houses on the Way to Auvers-sur-Oise [Cézanne] and Paths and Slopes of Auvers [her title for the present painting by Pissarro] (op. cit., p. 138). She points out that Theodore Reff first noticed the side-by-side relationship of these two paintings, which he mentioned in his article “Cézanne’s Constructive Stroke”, Art Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 3, autumn 1962.
Today, nearly a century and a half since these paintings were done, it remains usefully instructive to place them again side-by-side for the sake of comparison. It is apparent from Cézanne’s canvas that he has already developed his “constructive stroke,” his “classical style” as White has called it (op. cit., 1996, p. 138), in which he applied a regular array of small, rectangular marks of paint, following a localized directional bias, which taken together serve to give form to the mass and volume of the landscape elements, and a unifying sense of order as well, while at the same time flattening and compressing them within the context of the picture plane. Only in the cloudy sky does Cézanne allow his handling of the brush freer rein. Paul Gauguin and Armand Guillaumin had also been working in Pontoise during the previous summer of 1881. Profiting from Pissarro’s experience and skills as a founding Impressionist; Gauguin’s own technique during this formative period owes much to the Pissarro’s example. He was nevertheless intrigued by what must have seemed like a peculiarly single-minded approach that Cézanne was pursuing at the same time. He wrote tongue-in-cheek to Pissarro in July 1881: “Has M. Cézanne found the exact formula for a work acceptable to everyone? If he’s found a recipe for compressing the exaggerated expression of all his sensations into a single and unique procedure, do please try to get him to talk in his sleep” (V. Merlhès, ed., Correspondance de Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1984, no. 16, p. 21).
During the early 1880s Pissarro had been mainly concentrating–for the first time as an Impressionist–on painting the figure. He normally viewed his rural neighbors as he would encounter them in a landscape context, seen close-up or in the middle distance, as if on a stage, within an enclosed sense of space. His landscape production was relatively sparse during this period. Working in the fields around Pontoise with Cézanne must have provided Pissarro the welcome occasion to move off this new avenue of research, take long walks outdoors and paint more distant vistas, to learn new ways of organizing deep space while integrating fore-, middle- and distant grounds, such as he has done here and other landscapes of this period.
Pissarro’s approach to the hillside motif seen here also relies on small brushstrokes laid down side-by-side, evidence of the impact that Cézanne’s presence and personal sensation of the motif had been exercising on his own work. The veteran Impressionist, however, is altogether freer in his treatment, adjusting the facture of his brushstrokes to more precisely suit the welter of grasses and wildflowers in the foreground, as well as the varied forms of arborial foliage in the distance. He has criss-crossed his brushstrokes in the sky to suggest the filtered light of a hazy summer day. Whereas Cézanne had created an analytic and nearly abstract experience of nature, reduced to an essential but nonetheless constricted pictorial vocabulary, Pissarro instead relies on a wealth of small, subtly nuanced contrasts, ranging from tiny points of color to broader strokes, weaving a finely detailed, completely unified field of sensations. The dazzling abundance of nature is everywhere in evidence.
Having undertaken his composition with a pre-determined conceptual framework in mind, Cézanne pursues his inclination to seek out the underlying permanence in nature. He describes the world as firmly perceived in the mind, fixed there to become the permanent memory which documents his understanding of what he has seen. Pissarro, on the other hand, had become the consummate improviser, enjoying each motif for its experimental possibilities, while relishing the transient aspect of the natural world. Unlike Cézanne, he goes on to project a palpable and particular sense of the entire ambience and atmosphere characteristic of a specific locale, observed at a certain point in time, giving a precise and faithful accounting of every observable aspect, thereby creating for the viewer an all-encompassing experience of the motif, including relative warmth or cold, the precise quality and character of light, and even feeling the calm or movement in the very air that one might have breathed there. “The humble, colossal Pissarro” evokes nature–as he felt it, at the very instant when he experienced it–in its fullest brilliant, living glory.
Camille Pissarro, circa 1880. Siro-Angel collection, Paris.
(fig. 1) The hamlet of Valhermeil, Pontoise. Postcard, Alain Mothe collection.
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, photograph, L Pissarro Archives.
(fig. 3) Paul Cézanne, Maisons a Pontoise, près de Valhermeil, 1882. Private collection.
(fig. 4) Camille Pissarro, Vue sur le nouvelle prison de Pontoise, printemps, 1881. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 6 November 2007, lot 7.