“I’m at Kew, taking advantage of this exceptional summer to throw myself headlong into my plein air studies in this stunning park,” Pissarro wrote to Octave Mirbeau in July 1892, brimming with enthusiasm for his new motifs. “Dear friend, what trees! What lawns! What lovely imperceptible undulations of the countryside! It’s a dream” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, vol. III, p. 616).
Pissarro had arrived in London in late May, for the third of four voyages that he would take to the English capital over the course of his career. The impetus for this trip was concern for his eldest son Lucien, who had settled in London two years earlier. Lucien had fallen in love with Esther Bensusan and sought her family’s blessing for their marriage. Her father, however, was adamantly opposed to the union, reproaching Lucien for his career choice–he too was an artist–and his lack of religious piety. Having encountered staunch resistance from his own parents when he decided to marry Julie Vellay, Pissarro was eager to spare his son such a conflict. “There’s no other solution but to ask her father for her hand,” he advised Lucien. “I’m willing to do what’s necessary to try to secure it for you” (ibid., vol. I, p. 236).
On his arrival in London, Pissarro settled into the flat in Bayswater that Lucien shared with his brother Georges. By 10 June, however, he had begun to paint at Kew Gardens, and late in the month, he moved to rented quarters above a bakery at the corner of Gloucester Road and Kew Green to be closer to his motifs. Although his efforts to win over Jacob Bensusan were in vain (Lucien and Esther married on 10 August without her family present), his artistic endeavors were an unreserved success. He painted eleven large canvases during his summer stay, eight depicting the lush Gardens and three of the splendid vista from his balcony over the adjacent Green. “They are delightful, relaxed works,” Alan Bowness has written, “in which Camille seems to have happily returned to the manner of painting natural to him, abandoning the dogmatic theoretical approach of the neo-impressionists” (The Impressionists in London, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1973, p. 16).
The present canvas captures the view west from Pissarro’s balcony, with the parish church of Saint Anne’s, the focal point of Kew Green, visible between the trees. In the foreground is Kew Road, with a horse-drawn omnibus transporting passengers to nearby Richmond. The discretely spaced orthogonals of the road bed and railing, the tree trunks, and the church roof and steeple lead the eye into depth at a measured pace, while the sun-dappled foliage, rendered in myriad tiny touches, emphasizes the plane of the canvas and calls attention to the painter’s hand. In two related canvases (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 941-942; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons), Pissarro rendered the view north from the balcony, across Kew Green towards the Thames, and south over bustling Kew Road, anticipating the late series that he would paint from various hotel windows in Paris, with their multiple, interrelated angles of vision.
Pissarro returned home to Eragny in mid-August, so pleased with his paintings from London that he immediately invited Mirbeau and Monet to come and see them in his studio. The dealer Alphonse Portier expressed interest in purchasing the canvases in the fall but the artist demurred, hoping to sell them instead to Durand-Ruel, whose clientele was better heeled. His strategy paid off. Durand-Ruel was delighted with the new paintings, acquiring six of them in December 1892 and three more, including Saint Anne’s Church à Kew, the following year.
In May 1894, Durand-Ruel featured the present painting in a retrospective of Pissarro’s recent work at his gallery in the rue Laffitte. Although sales were slow, the critical response was tremendous. “This exhibition must be considered, in my opinion at least, as the most perfect as well as the most lofty display of the art of this truly original painter,” Gustave Geffroy wrote in Le Matin, “who enlightened art-lovers have long hailed as a master of color” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, vol. I, p. 248).