This lot is being offered for sale following a settlement between the consignor and the heirs of René Gimpel. The settlement resolves any dispute over ownership of the lot with the heirs of René Gimpel, and ownership will pass from the consignor to the buyer of the lot.
The early 1880s was a critical period of transition for Pissarro. His landscape production, so characteristic of the 1870s, dwindled in favour of monumental figure paintings. At the same time, his brushwork evolved toward uniformly small, evenly distributed, and carefully controlled touches of paint, closer to Cézanne’s constructivist stroke than to the free, painterly handling of the Impressionist idiom. Finally, his technical practice became more complex, involving greater studio work and increased preparatory drawing, and he began a series of works in other media, including watercolours, gouaches, and prints. Richard Brettell has described the early 1880s as ‘the most extensive period of pictorial experimentation in Pissarro’s career,’ and has explained, ‘All of these varied interests suggest a fundamental questioning of the kind of painting normally associated with Impressionism, the plein-air sketch, and a more complicated, highly mediated relationship with ‘reality’ than a simple optical one. For Pissarro in this period, a simple equation between seeing and representing was both undesirable and impossible’ (R. Brettell, Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape, New Haven, 1990, p. 184).
Pissarro was not alone among the Impressionists in his embrace of figure painting during the early 1880s. Around the same time, Renoir began to enlarge and classicise his figures, increasingly focusing on society portraits and on timeless themes such as the female nude. In the case of both artists, the explanation for this shift in subject matter was partially commercial. Renoir was cultivating new haut bourgeois patrons such as the publisher Georges Charpentier and his wife; Pissarro, in turn, was heeding the advice of the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel to vary his production in the face of a struggling art market, adding genre paintings to his landscape repertoire. More broadly, Pissarro’s scenes of peasant life reflect the Impressionists’ widespread abandonment around 1880 of overtly contemporary subject matter. Brettell has written, ‘Pissarro’s technical experimentation and his prolonged study of...the human figure must be seen as part of a general reaction against [modern] landscape painting by the advanced painters of the 1870s who contributed so significantly to its independent history’ (ibid., p. 197).
The present painting depicts two of Pissarro’s eight children, Ludovic-Rodolphe (Rodo) and Jeanne-Marguerite (Cocotte), being watched over by a maid or nanny in the garden of their home. The canvas was painted in the spring or summer of 1884, shortly after the Pissarro family had moved to Eragny, where they would live for the rest of the artist’s life. Rodo and Jeanne were five and three years old respectively.
Unlike many of his impressionist colleagues, who shunned traditional marital life, Pissarro was a quintessential family man. Despite his frequent stays in Paris, he doted on his children, teaching them to draw and paint (with the exception of one of his daughters, Jeanne, whom his wife Julie insisted should have a more traditional upbringing) and patiently nurturing their intellectual development.
Although Pissarro did not document his children’s lives as assiduously as Morisot or Renoir did, he painted all his offspring on occasion, and the three youngest more often than their elder siblings, especially in the 1890s. He was increasingly successful by this time and was able to spend longer periods of time at home in Eragny, and he was also now an older father, more relaxed in his paternal role and delighted by the antics of his spirited offspring. Rodo, who is best known today for having compiled the first catalogue raisonné of his father’s work, is depicted as an infant in two paintings with Julie and as serious young man absorbed in his reading in later pair of canvases (Pissarro & Durand-Ruel Snollaerts nos. 581, 591, 989, 1247). Jeanne, who remained at home far longer than her brothers, appears in a dozen paintings, almost all of which date to her teenage years. The present canvas is unusual in Pissarro’s oeuvre in portraying his offspring as young children, less apt to remain still than their more mature counterparts, and may have been inspired by the poignant sight of Rodo and Jeanne in their broad-brimmed sunhats with matching red ribbons, hesitantly exploring the grounds of their new home.
Interestingly, however, Pissarro chose not to place the children in the forefront of his painting, reserving that position for the figure of their caretaker, who turns her head away from the viewer to supervise her young charges. The painting is part of a small group of canvases that Pissarro produced in the 1880s – alongside a much larger series of peasants at work or at rest in gardens and fields – that depict young women sweeping, washing dishes, or otherwise helping in the household, their demeanour relaxed and their labours only lightly taxing. Brettell has written, ‘Pissarro turned domestic service from a class-based system of perpetual servitude into healthy, clean, and comfortable work...There is little suggestion in these paintings of bourgeois opulence or class division’ (ibid., p. 145).
The painting also creates the impression of a warm, safe haven for Pissarro’s young children; an entirely enclosed scene, there is no glimpse of sky, and the winding path, rather than leading to distant horizons, is bounded by a brick wall at the rear of the garden and by bushy foliage on either side. In the background, a second woman tends a bed of flowers at the edge of the path, reinforcing the sense of a sheltered, cultivated space. Although the children play independently, they are visually linked to both the maid and the woman gardening by the touches of blue and red in their costumes, which stand out in the predominantly green and ochre palette. The surface of the canvas, moreover, is covered by a densely woven tapestry of short brushstrokes, which integrates the various sections of the canvas into a unified whole.
Pissarro gave this painting as a gift to his cousin Alfred Nunès, who had helped Pissarro on occasion in the artist’s leaner years and was perhaps particularly fond of young Rodo and Jeanne. Nunès was the mayor of the resort town of Yport, just below Fécamp on the Normandy coast. In 1883, he had commissioned Renoir to paint full-length, nearly life-sized portraits of his two children Robert and Aline, aged ten and eight respectively. The boy is depicted in a sailor costume at the seaside, the girl with a parasol in the family’s garden (Daulte nos. 446-447; Dauberville nos. 1207 and 1260; Barnes Collection, Philadelphia, and Private collection). Renoir complained to Paul Bérard about the project: ‘[I am] busy...with two brats who make me furious... I hope it will work out’ (Pissarro, quoted in Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation, New York, 1995, p. 60). Though he himself was known to linger long over sociable meals, he also criticized his excessively gregarious hosts: ‘There are a few too many parties, that’s the weak point... for at their place you spend the whole day at the table’ (Pissarro, quoted in ibid., p. 60).