The present landscape was painted at a critical moment of transition in Pissarro's career. For the previous four years, the pioneering Impressionist painter had been working instead in a novel and controversial Neo-Impressionist style, closely aligned with Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, respectively twenty-nine and thirty-three years his junior. Rejecting the spontaneity and irregular brushwork of the Impressionists, Seurat and his circle favored a more precise, methodical application of pigment, governed by the scientific principles of color theory. In 1890, however, the year that he painted Pâturage, coucher de soleil, Pissarro began to edge away from Neo-Impressionism, seeking to re-introduce the immediacy of plein-air landscape painting into his work. Depicting a farmer returning home with his cattle through a field at Eragny-sur-Epte, the rural hamlet where Pissarro lived from 1884 until his death in 1903 (fig. 1; see also lots 13 and 43), the present painting exemplifies this shift. John Rewald has written, "After abandoning divisionism, [Pissarro] returned to his impressionist conceptions; his work regained its original freshness, while a greater lightness and purity of color remained as a result of his divisionist experiments. Now over sixty, he devoted himself to his art with such enthusiasm, optimism, and youthfulness that he inspired veneration in all who met him (in The History of Impressionism, 4th ed., New York, 1975, pp. 568-570).
Pissarro's involvement with Neo-Impressionism began in 1885, when Signac, whom he had met earlier in the year at the studio of Armand Guillaumin, introduced him to Seurat, the driving force behind the new movement. Pissarro was immediately taken by the Neo-Impressionist technique, writing to Paul Durand-Ruel shortly after his first meeting with Seurat, "At present I am caught up in a transformation, and impatiently hoping for some kind of result" (quoted in C. Becker, Camille Pissarro, exh. cat., Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 1999, p. 103). By 1886, he had fully embraced Neo-Impressionism, which he described as "a new phase in the logical march of Impressionism" (quoted in J. Pissarro, op. cit., p. 212). In a letter to Durand-Ruel, he explained his current pictorial aim: "To seek a modern synthesis of methods based on science, that in turn is based on M.E. Chevreul's theory of color. To substitute optical mixture for mixture of pigments. In other words: the breaking up of tones into their constituents. For optical mixture stirs up more intense luminosities than does mixture of pigments" (quoted in C. Becker, op. cit., p. 103). In the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition, which opened in May 1886, Pissarro participated not as an Impressionist but as a Neo-Impressionist, exhibiting twenty paintings in a separate section of the show alongside works by Seurat and Signac. Defending Seurat's masterpiece, Un dimanche à la Grande Jatte (Dorra and Rewald, no. 139; The Art Institute of Chicago), during the planning stages of the exhibition, Pissarro unequivocally stated his alliance with the Neo-Impressionist circle: "I accept the fight" (quoted in The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874-1886, exh. cat., The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, p. 426).
Pissarro worked in a Neo-Impressionist style from 1886 until 1889. His paintings from this period, many of which depict the landscape of Eragny (figs. 2-3; see also lot 43, fig. 3), reveal two principal concepts that he imported from Seurat and Signac: the division of paint into myriad tiny brushstrokes and the use of contrasts based on pure hues and complementary colors. Despite his ardent and vocal support for the new movement, however, he never applied Neo-Impressionist techniques in the same doctrinaire manner as Seurat and Signac, integrating them instead into his own idiom to create a complex and highly innovative solution. Rather than reducing his brushwork solely to dots or points, for instance, he consistently employed a wide range of fragmented touches, including parallel diagonals and criss-crossing, comma-like strokes. Joachim Pissarro has written, "Even at the height of his Neo-Impressionist period, Pissarro took definite liberties with the 'scientific' rigor of the theories in which he, Seurat, and Signac shared a passionate interest...balancing, in a constant tension, rigor and improvisation, system and individual freedom, science and poetry" (in op. cit., p. 221).
Despite the freedom with which he adapted the Neo-Impressionist approach, Pissarro soon began to have serious misgivings about the new movement. In a letter that he wrote to his son Lucien in 1888, just three years after he had met Seurat and Signac, Pissarro explained, "I think continually of some way of painting without the dot. I hope to achieve this but I have not been able to solve the problem of dividing the pure tone without harshness. How can one combine the purity and simplicity of the dot with the fullness, suppleness, liberty, spontaneity, and freshness of sensation postulated by our impressionist art? This is the question which preoccupies me, for the dot is meager, lacking in depth, diaphanous, more monotonous than simple, even in the Seurats, particularly in the Seurats" (quoted in C. Becker, op. cit., p. 104). He continued to express doubts about Neo-Impressionism in 1889: "Up until this moment, I haven't found what I desire; the execution doesn't seem to me to be quick enough and doesn't respond simultaneously enough to sensation" (quoted in M. Ward, Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde, Chicago, 1996, p. 117).
Pissarro seems to have been frustrated in particular by the lack of immediacy and the loss of direct contact with nature that Neo-Impressionism entailed. In marked contrast to the bulk of his oeuvre, Pissarro's canvases from the late 1880s were worked up almost entirely in the studio, based upon tiny oil sketches or watercolor notes that he had made before the motif. At the end of his experiment with Neo-Impressionism, Pissarro described to Monet his joy at resuming work en plein air: "It seemed so good to me to work outside, it had been two years since I last dared to attempt the adventure" (quoted in J. Pissarro, op. cit., p. 224). In addition, the Neo-Impressionist technique was both painstaking and arduous. At the height of his Neo-Impressionist phase, Pissarro produced only nine or ten paintings each year, complaining, "It is really taking too long. I might have to go back to my old style. This is quite embarrassing! At least, it will have helped me to do more precise work" (quoted in ibid., p. 225). In contrast, he painted thirty-five canvases in 1885, the year before he embraced Neo-Impressionism in earnest, and twenty-four canvases in 1890, when he began to look toward different pictorial horizons.
Painted in this latter year, Pâturage, coucher de soleil retains the vivid color contrasts of Neo-Impressionism, but shows Pissarro once again loosening his pictorial touch. The landscape was painted at the day's end, the sky a tapestry of dramatic sunset hues. It depicts a pasture at the edge of Eragny, beyond the garden and the meadow that lay in front of Pissarro's house (see lots 13 and 43). The trees in the middle ground line the Epte, a meandering river that flows into the Seine at Giverny, about thirty miles downstream. On the opposite bank is the village of Bazincourt, the church steeple of which is visible at the right side of the scene. Just a few months before he made this painting, Pissarro had his first one-man exhibition in Paris in six years. Held at Theo Van Gogh's branch of Boussod et Valadon on the Boulevard Montmartre, a venue closely associated with Impressionism, and garnering the support of such champions of Impressionism as Gustave Geffroy, the show reflected Pissarro's mounting reconciliation with his old Impressionist colleagues. Martha Ward has written:
"In his catalogue essay, Geffroy provided the model of how to incorporate Pissarro's neo-impressionist 'episode' within a narrative that gave priority to the linear development of the individual. Geffroy legitimated Pissarro's quest for science as an extension of the artist's lifelong desire to develop his own innate qualities of vision (defined as intimate, sweet, and bright). Although Pissarro had allowed his individuality to be subordinated to method for a brief period during his involvement with neo-impressionism, he had emerged from this unfortunate phase able to accomplish what neo-impressionism sought to achieve, Geffroy claimed, but without the disagreeable 'point'... Geffroy's text did what had to be done and what was no doubt hoped for by Theo Van Gogh and Boussod et Valadon: it brought Pissarro back into the fold of impressionist respectability, reassuringly asserting that the artist had, as it were, come back to his senses" (in op. cit., pp. 162-163).
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro at his studio window, Eragny-sur-Epte. Photograph Archives of Musée Camille Pissarro, Pontoise. BARCODE 25249613
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, Briqueterie Delafolie à Eragny, 1886. Sold, Christie's New York, 9 May 2007, Lot 39. BARCODE 24155700
(fig. 3) Camille Pissarro, Prairie à Eragny, temps gris, 1888. Sold, Christie's New York, 8 November 2006, Lot 11. BARCODE 24159876