Camille Pissarro spent two weeks during September 1892 as the guest of the writer Octave Mirbeau and his wife Alice at their country home in Les Damps, a hamlet in the department of the Eure in northern France. The artist eagerly anticipated the visit throughout the summer, both for the company—Mirbeau was among the most sensitive interpreters of his work and a fellow advocate of anarchist ideals—and for the splendid motifs to be found at Les Damps. “And your garden? Have you spruced it up, decked it out, made it more attractive for me?” Pissarro wrote to his friend in July. “If time allows, I will gladly set down a memory of it on a magnificent size 30 canvas” (Letter no. 807). The grounds at Les Damps did not disappoint, and the painter was hard at work within a day of his arrival. “I have begun four landscapes,” he reported to his eldest son Lucien, “which seem to me superb in motifs and effects” (Letter no. 816).
The present Jardin et poulailler—a stately size 30 canvas (28 7/8 x 36 1/4 in.), just as Pissarro had planned—depicts a luxuriant, late summer’s pageant of flowers on a corner of Mirbeau’s property near the henhouse, which is partially visible in the middle distance at the far right. Pissarro built up the canvas from myriad tiny touches of complementary hues—green and red, blue and orange—to create a dense tapestry of color that seems to vibrate before our eyes, evoking the heady, immersive effect of the garden. Although the chromatic scale reflects the artist’s brief phase of experimentation with divisionism in the late 1880s, the robust and varied handling surpasses any technical formula, revealing his intense, personal absorption in the landscape. “One must be free of everything but one’s own sensations,” Pissarro instructed Lucien in a letter from Les Damps (Letter no. 816).
Mirbeau was an eager participant in the great horticultural boom that swept France in the late 19th-century, when flowers became available in a far richer array of varieties than ever before. He tended the grounds at Les Damps with care, exchanging plants and practical advice with fellow gardeners Monet and Caillebotte. “We’ll talk gardening, as you say,” he wrote to Monet at Giverny in 1890, “because as for art and literature, it’s all humbug. There’s nothing but the earth” (quoted in Painting the Modern Garden, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art, 2015, p. 54). Although Pissarro was not the hands-on gardener that his colleagues were—his wife Julie, formerly a florist, cared for their flower beds and vegetable plots at Éragny—he found in the modern garden, with its newfound range of colors, scents, and textures, the ideal subject for his own burgeoning art of sensations.
Mirbeau’s sprawling property at Les Damps featured both traditional, formally bedded French gardens and English-style “wild” gardens, in which plantings were allowed to grow naturally in drifts and cascades of color. Pissarro captured these contrasting horticultural paradigms in the two largest canvases—size 30 pendants—that he painted during his stay with Mirbeau: a view of the immaculately tended terrace adjacent to the manor house (J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts., no. 954; Christie’s New York, 13 May 2019, lot 29A) and the present Jardin et poulailler, with its untamed profusion of varied perennials. Here, a narrow, well-trodden path through the banks of blossoms conjures the physical immersion of the visitor in the garden. The only man-made structures—the titular henhouse and a small, wooden trellis—are almost entirely engulfed in foliage, creating a utopian vision of an Edenic haven far removed from the modern, industrial milieu.
The sojourn at Les Damps, by Pissarro’s own account, was a great success. “You spoiled me royally,” he wrote to Mirbeau, “and I don’t know how to thank Madame Mirbeau for going to such trouble. As soon as I got home, I looked at my four canvases in white frames. Though they didn’t show to good effect in your place, they’re rather good.” His only regret was that he had not had time to paint more: “The cabbages with a garnishing of sunlight; they would have been beautiful to do” (Letter no. 818). In December, Durand-Ruel purchased 19 recent paintings from Pissarro, including the present canvas and two others from Les Damps; Pissarro held back the smallest from the series as a gift for Mirbeau. “I think you have the cream of the crop,” Pissarro assured the dealer when he inquired about the missing painting (Letter no. 846). Durand-Ruel’s acquisitions enabled Pissarro to repay 7000 francs of the loan that the better-heeled Monet had made to him earlier in the year to purchase his house at Éragny, which he had rented since 1884.
In March 1893, Durand-Ruel featured all four paintings from Les Damps in an important solo exhibition of Pissarro’s work, with Mirbeau loaning his canvas for the occasion. Anticipating the open-ended serial modality of the artist’s final decade, the majority of the pictures in the show came from three different projects that played off one another formally and thematically, creating links between public and private, city and country, nature and artifice. “The Série des jardins de Kew depicted the casual and open sweeps of the London city garden, dotted with finely attired figures,” Martha Ward has written. “The Série des vues de ma fenêtre à Éragny showed agricultural landscapes in different seasons with fruit trees and a steeple-gauged hillside. The Série des jardins represented the opulent gardens of Octave Mirbeau, with exotic flowers, sheltered and overgrown spaces, a place of solitude” (Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde, Chicago, 1996, p. 254).
Shortly thereafter, Pissarro and Mirbeau suffered a rift in their relations. In July 1893, Mirbeau reneged on his offer to present Lucien’s etchings to Henry Roujon, the Director of Fine Arts for France, and abandoned his plan to have the artist’s second son Georges paint decorations for his dining room. “Mirbeau has not behaved nicely at all,” Pissarro lamented to Julie, “he has carried the thing, I think, to the point of cruelty” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, p. 243). Although the two men never regained their earlier intimacy, Mirbeau continued to advocate for Pissarro’s art in print and published a moving tribute when his third son Félix died from tuberculosis in 1897 at age 23; at Pissarro’s own funeral in November 1903, Mirbeau followed in the cortège of mourners directly behind the artist’s surviving sons.