This work will be included in the forthcoming Camille Pissarro digital catalogue raisonné, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.
La récolte presents the modest yet idyllic scene of four rural workers at harvest time. Along with apple-picking, the production of hay was one of Pissarro’s favourite manifestations of communal rural labour, which Ralph Shikes has called the artist’s ‘most philosophically significant theme’ (R. Shikes, ‘Pissarro's Political Philosophy and his Art’, in C. Lloyd, ed., Studies on Camille Pissarro, London, 1986, p. 41). Pissarro’s paintings of rural labour counter the ‘realist’ notion that labour was difficult, demeaning, and without leisure as previously pictured in the more fatalist depictions of workers by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Pissarro instead pictures a tranquil scene, in which the rural worker and the landscape exist in harmony with one another, the movement of the brushstrokes across the silk little distinguishing the sky, field, and figures. The visual rhythm of Pissarro’s flowing lines reflects the rhythm of the land, which sees its culmination and starting point with the harvest, a continuity that has led Arsène Alexandre to identify the artist as a ‘historian of the fields’ (A. Alexandre, l’Exposition Camille Pissarro, Durand-Ruel, Paris, 1896, p. 14, in Richard R. Brettell, Pissarro and Pontoise, London, 1990, p. 131).
In 1872, Pissarro moved with his family to Pontoise, where he stayed until 1882. The abundance of paintings and sketches he produced during the period to capture rural labourers, showing him regularly re-work the motif of a figure bent down to the ground, is evidence of his familiarity with contemporary rural life. Simultaneously, the lack of individuality in the figure’s faces uplifts Pissarro’s images of communal labour towards utopian myth in line with his increasingly anarchist sympathies.
The apparent modesty of La récolte belies the distance between Pissarro's immediate perception and the image that he ultimately produced in the studio through progressive stages of study. Pissarro increasingly defined observation from nature as a preliminary step in his painterly process. Joachim Pissarro commented on his great-grandfather’s practice: ‘Contrary to a cliché which has long persisted, Pissarro, largely following Degas's impulse, cultivated the changed effect produced by memory, i.e., he let time elapse before he returned to his records of his immediate visual perceptions. The result for both artists was that they were working further from the objective truth but closer to truth of their own sensations’ (J. Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, p. 198). Late in life, Camille wrote to his son Lucien: ‘I stand more than ever for the impression from memory: you get less of the thing itself, but vulgarity goes also, to let the truth, half seen and felt, emerge’ (quoted in ibid., p. 165). In Eragny, where Pissarro moved in 1884, Pissarro translated his many loose sketches into tightly-worked canvases depicting scenes of hay-making. The delicate touch of La récolte preserves on silk the intimacy of Pissarro’s study of the land and its labourers.