Pruniers en fleur, Pontoise depicts a sunny spring morning on the outskirts of Pontoise, a bustling market town about twenty-five miles northwest of Paris where Pissarro lived in 1866-1868 and again from 1872-1882. When Pissarro and his family moved to Pontoise in 1866, it was a town of about six thousand inhabitants. The local economy was based on produce markets and the grain trade; the barge port in Pontoise was perfectly situated to facilitate shipment of the regional harvests from the Vexin plateau down the river Oise to Paris. Pissarro was likely drawn to the varied and picturesque terrain in the vicinity; not far from the river were rolling hills, sloping fields and winding lanes, especially in the vicinity of L'Hermitage, an outlying hamlet where the artist rented a house. Pissarro's friend Charles Daubigny lived upriver in Auvers-sur-Oise, but no other artists were then working in Pontoise.
The current work was painted circa 1876, at the apex of Pissarro's career as an Impressionist landscape painter. Christopher Lloyd and Anne Distel have described Pissarro's work from this period as "the most purely Impressionist in [his] entire oeuvre," and have written, "Stylistically, the first half of the 1870s is perhaps Pissarro's best known creative period, and the canvases painted [then] have been more readily appreciated than those painted at any other time in his whole career" (Pissarro, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1980, p. 79). Pissarro's work from Pontoise also had a profound influence upon a whole generation of painters, notably Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, who came to the Oise valley to work alongside the older artist. Cézanne later referred to Pissarro as "the first Impressionist," and proclaimed, "We may all descend from Pissarro" (quoted in B.E. White, Impressionists Side by Side, New York, 1996, p. 109).
With its unabashedly rural subject matter, Pruniers en fleur, Pontoise embodies a critical shift in Pissarro's iconographical interests that took place in 1874. The artist's work from the preceding two years is noteworthy for its sheer variety of motifs: the streets and markets of Pontoise; the towpaths lining the banks of the Oise; the railroad tracks and cast-iron railway bridge; the factories belonging to Chalon and Cie. and Monsieur Arneuil. In 1874, however, this iconographical and geographical range gave way to a phase of intensive experimentation with peasant life and agricultural imagery. He turned his attention away from the modern center of Pontoise and began to focus instead on the rural landscape and vegetable gardens of L'Hermitage.
One impetus for this change was perhaps the advice of the eminent critic Théodore Duret (1838-1927), an ardent supporter of the Impressionists. In a letter dated December 1873, Duret encouraged Pissarro to concentrate on pastoral motifs: "I persist in thinking that nature, with its rustic fields and its animals, is that which corresponds best to your talent. You do not have the decorative feeling of Sisley, nor the fantastic eye of Monet, but you do have what they don't, an intimate and profound feeling for nature. If I have any advice to give you, I would tell you not to think of either Monet or Sisley; go your own way; in your path of rustic nature, you'll go into a new path, both as far and as high as any master" (quoted in R. Brettell, Pissarro and Pontoise, New Haven, 1990, p. 165). Pissarro apparently took Duret's advice to heart. Brettell has concluded:
"The magnitude of the change experienced by Pissarro in 1874 is difficult to overemphasize, and it is clear that the ultimate source of his new ruralism was Duret. The critic realized with an exaggerated clarity the difference between the two major Impressionist landscape painters, Monet and Pissarro, and encouraged them to develop what he defined as their own specialties. He pushed Pissarro away from the site-based, total landscape, from his role as historien de Pontoise toward the role that he would occupy, at least intermittently, for the rest of his life--historien des champs" (ibid., p. 168).