Dating from the peak of the impressionist movement, the present double-sided work Laveuses au bord de l’Oise, Pontoise and Pouallier à la maison rouge, Pontoise exemplifies the distinctive style, subject matter and compositional motifs that have come to define Camille Pissarro’s pioneering form of Impressionism. Depicting two equally accomplished compositions from rural life, Laveuses au bord de l’Oise, Pontoise and Pouallier à la maison rouge can be displayed either side. Both scenes are situated in Pontoise, the small rural town in the Île de France where Pissarro was living at this time. Like Cézanne and Aix, or Monet and Argenteuil, Pissarro’s name is now inseparable from Pontoise. He painted the landscape and country life here with a constant enthusiasm; indeed perhaps no other painter depicted one locale as much as Pissarro portrayed Pontoise.
Laveuses au bord de l’Oise, Pontoise portrays two apron-clad women diligently washing laundry on the bank of the river Oise. Their dedication, vigor and strength is palpable in the midst of bountiful nature. Pissarro’s muses take centre stage in relatively large scale within this scene of daily country life and likely originated during one of Pissarro's sojourns at Montfoucault, an isolated, rural hamlet that was a day's journey from Pontoise or Paris. Pissarro made three trips to Montfoucault between 1874-1876, seeking out new themes and reassessing his technical approach to painting. In a letter to the French writer and collector Théodore Duret, Pissarro reported on his pictorial research in Montfoucault, stating: 'I have started working on figures and animals. I have several projects of genre painting. I am timidly experimenting with this branch of art, so much illustrated by first-rank artists: this is rather bold' (Pissarro quoted in J. Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, p.146). This canvas comes within the context of nine oils and gouaches on this theme that Pissarro made over the course of his career, at Montfoucault and Pontoise in the later 1870s and then at Eragny in the ensuing two decades (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 419, 548, 589, 1010, 1217; Pissarro and Venturi, nos. 1409, 1439, 1489). Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts likens the poses of the two women in Laveuses au bord de l’Oise, Pontoise in particular to the earlier painting, Le Berger à Montfoucault, soleil couchant from 1875-1876 and a later composition, Berger et Laveuses à Montfoucault from 1881 (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 426 & 665). The latter work was exhibited at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition the following year, whereupon Alexandre Hepp exclaimed in Le Figaro, 'Pissarro places his peasant women in front of the actual work they are doing; here they are washing on the bank of a watercourse, their sleeves rolled up, the small of their backs straining, their hands red, they are caught working and are gloriously real' (op. cit., pp. 385 & 444-445).
Pissarro’s protagonists are depicted in the midst of the elements, dappled in the sunlight that radiates through the trees and bounces off the shimmering water. Their presence expresses a sense of harmony between the domestic world and nature, in what appears as a celebration of life in a rural community. An admirer of the anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin’s theories of the modern countryside, Pissarro contrasted the quiet reverie of his rural workers with the intensity of his own artistic efforts, recorded in a dense facture of thousands of individual touches of paint.'Pissarro turned domestic service from a class-based system of perpetual servitude into healthy, clean, and comfortable work', Richard Brettell has concluded, 'and, because of this, his paintings are subtly but profoundly anarchist' (Pissarro’s People, exh. cat., Williamstown, Massachusetts, 2011, p. 145).
Pouallier à la maison rouge, Pontoise further depicts the artist’s henhouse at Pontoise, a rustic farmyard full of animated, healthy, poultry. Happily pecking and stalking their patch, their bright, vibrant colours and fluffy plumage suggest health and abundance within their community. They again hark back to compositions from Pissarro’s explorations in Montfouault such as Ferme a Montfoucault from 1874, now resident in the Albright Knox Museum, Buffalo, New York (Pissarro & Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 375). These works share in common a celebration of farm life and its natural abundance, presenting a merry flock of avian life that reveres a quotidian, rural idyll. Pissarro’s abounding belief in the simple joys and honesty of purpose to be found within the flora and fauna of nature would produce some of the finest examples of his work, deeply rooted in the belief that the modern countryside was as significant a subject as any great narrative within the history of painting.