Pissarro painted Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise on a balmy day in early spring 1881, when some of the trees had reached full leaf while others remained bare. He did not have to go far to find the motif that inspired this complex, carefully considered canvas. The Jardin de Maubuisson was a cluster of kitchen gardens that lay just behind his home at L’Hermitage, on the outskirts of Pontoise. The scene is a veritable catalogue of the visual pleasures that Pissarro found in this rural enclave, where local families cultivated cabbages, potatoes, and peas for sale at market. Two women stoop to tend a plot of land beneath cirrus clouds scudding across a bright blue sky; the pitched roofs of the cottages on the gently sloping rue du Haut de l’Hermitage peek through the thick vegetation, which rustles in a light breeze.
This painting–with its systematic color harmonies, uniformly small and controlled touch, and sophisticated, receding space–moreover reveals Pissarro’s mounting concern with the creation of a modern style that would transcend Impressionism, a project that he pursued in dialogue with Cézanne. “All of these [elements] suggest a fundamental questioning of the kind of painting normally associated with Impressionism, the plein-air sketch,” Richard Brettell has explained, “and a more complicated, highly mediated relationship with ‘reality’ than a simple optical one” (Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape, New Haven, 1990, p. 184).
Pontoise, as the name implies, lies in a commanding position on the banks of the river Oise, at the edge of the Vexin plateau nineteen miles northwest of Paris. In Pissarro’s day, it was a central point for moving the regional grain harvest downriver by barge to the Seine and on to Paris, and it had been linked to the capital by rail as well since the early 1860s. When Pissarro first moved to the region in October 1866, he opted to settle at L’Hermitage, slightly north-east of the town center, rather than in bustling Pontoise itself. In April 1872, after a three-year stint at Louveciennes, he returned to Pontoise and rented a house near the public gardens in town; by the following year, however, he had returned to L’Hermitage, where he would remain until he departed the area for the last time in 1882. “It seems clear,” Brettell has written, “that Pissarro considered L’Hermitage rather than Pontoise itself his home” (ibid., p. 101).
The historically agrarian community of L’Hermitage was in the process of modernizing during the period that Pissarro lived there. In the early 1860s, a long, straight road, the rue de l’Hermitage, had been cut through the center of the hamlet, leading to the neighboring village of Ennery. By the end of the decade, this characteristically Second Empire lane was lined with cafés, shops, gas street lamps, and sizable bourgeois homes, one of which Pissarro and his family occupied from October 1873 onward. The remainder of L’Hermitage, in contrast, resolutely retained its traditional character. Small houses clustered tightly together at the base of hillsides, abutting winding country paths, while the majority of the land was given over to a dense patchwork of kitchen gardens, which were tended laboriously by hand throughout the year. Unlike the open, spacious panorama of the Vexin wheat fields, which stretched to the north of Pontoise, the landscape of L’Hermitage was crowded, complicated, and concentrated. The grain harvest, a mainstay of older agricultural imagery such as that of Millet, held little pictorial appeal for Pissarro; the kitchen garden, in contrast, was a central element of his iconography throughout his years in the Oise valley.
Of all the many corners of this densely packed landscape, so rich with visual incident, the Jardin de Maubuisson was one that Pissarro especially favored. The site provided the artist with the subject for one of the largest and most important canvases from his first stay at L’Hermitage in the late 1860s, on the very cusp of Impressionism (J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 115; Národní Galerie, Prague). “What living earth, what greenery bursting with vitality,” Zola exclaimed when that painting, a wide panorama, was exhibited at the Salon of 1868. “After looking at it for a few minutes, I felt as if the countryside was opening up in front of me” (quoted in op. cit., 2005, p. 108). In 1872, within weeks of his return to Pontoise, Pissarro painted a very similar composition in the lightened palette and fleet, broken touch of the “new painting” (no. 263). He set up his easel in the Jardin de Maubuisson yet again in 1876-1877, at the height of his Impressionist manner, and painted three closer, more intimate views, focusing now on the contrast between the rectilinear geometry of the houses and the burgeoning, organic forms of the flowering pear trees (J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 440, 493-494; Barnes Foundation, Merion and Philadelphia, and Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
By the time that Pissarro painted the present Jardin de Maubuisson in 1881, he had embarked upon a period of intense aesthetic experimentation, seeking “a new phase in the logical march of Impressionism,” as he would later tell Durand-Ruel (quoted in J. Pissarro, op. cit., 1993, p. 212). His technical logistics became more complex, involving greater preparatory drawing and studio work, and his brushwork evolved toward a densely packed profusion of parallel touches, closer to Cézanne’s constructivist stroke than to the free, painterly handling that practitioners of the Impressionist method typically favored.
In the present scene, Pissarro has employed this newly insistent, systematic facture (which would eventually lead him to Neo-Impressionism) for the foreground plane of vegetation, imbuing the landscape with a heightened sense of structure and substance while retaining the sensuality and specificity of Impressionism. The parallel bands of stippled color in the garden plot lead the eye into the middle ground, where they find their echo in the horizontal rooflines of the houses, partially visible among the trees. Pissarro has treated the houses and sky with a planar simplicity that contrasts with the sheer multiplicity of touches in the greenery, enhancing this sense of spatial recession. The hues of the architecture, however, re-appear as accents–blue, russet, and cream–throughout the crops and trees, integrating the distinct zones of the picture into a unified whole.
In his quest to liberate his painting from the transience of Impressionism, Pissarro benefited from the extraordinary partnership that he had enjoyed with Cézanne since 1872, when the younger artist first joined him to work at Pontoise. Although Pissarro initially served as mentor to Cézanne, encouraging him to adopt the luminous palette and loose brushwork of Impressionism, the relationship increasingly evolved toward one of reciprocal dialogue and influence. When Pissarro worked in the Jardin de Maubuisson in 1877, Cézanne stood alongside him, painting nearly the identical motif but with a greater emphasis on the inherent geometric structure of the view (Rewald, no. 311). In May 1881, soon after Pissarro painted the present view, Cézanne arrived in the Oise valley for his last extended sojourn, taking up residence a few blocks away from his friend at L’Hermitage. He painted in the Jardin de Maubuisson once again, employing an increasingly rigorous version of the constructivist stroke that had inspired Pissarro’s own recent experiments with facture (Rewald, no. 484; Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal). “At the beginning, the sage Pissarro endeavored to calm the ferocious young Cézanne,” Joseph Rishel has concluded, “but, as time passed, the pupil progressively found himself in the lead, encouraging the older artist to follow his example in testing the limits of Impressionist landscape painting” (Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 229).
Camille Pissarro, Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise, soleil, 1876. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia and Merion Station.
Camille Pissarro, Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise, printemps, 1877. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Camille Pissarro, Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise, circa 1867. Národní Galerie, Prague.
Paul Cézanne, L’Hermitage à Pontoise, 1881. Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal.