Painted in 1872, Le repos sous les arbres dates from what has been referred to as the height of Pissarro's Impressionism. It was that year, following his return to France after his time spent in self-imposed exile in England during the Franco-Prussian War and its resultant chaos and bloodshed, that Pissarro rediscovered Pontoise, near which Le repos sous les arbres appears to have been painted. This work sings of a tranquillity and a state of leisure and relaxation that is a million miles from the conflict. Le repos sous les arbres is suffused with a cool crisp light, it is filled with the freshness of the countryside, with colours that convey the scene perfectly, and also with that crucial Impressionist element-- the dimension of sensation. This large painting is not mere illustration, but instead conveys a combination of atmosphere and information. Pissarro would convey this concept concisely when he explained that, 'An Impressionist is a painter who never makes the same painting twice' (Pissarro, quoted in R.E. Shikes & P. Harper, Pissarro: His Life and Work, New York, 1980, p.311).
Pissarro had already lived in Pontoise in the 1860s. However, considering its location so close to many of the other place names familiar in the history of Impressionism-- for instance Argenteuil, Auvers, Bougival and Louveciennes-- Pontoise had remained unpainted, uncelebrated in the paintings of either Pissarro's contemporaries or his predecessors. This was all the more surprising considering the similar proximity to Paris and the similar form of the landscape. That the countryside here was not littered with other artists may of course have been one of the incentives for Pissarro's move. Another might have been the trauma of finding his ransacked home in Louveciennes, where he found that many of his possessions and indeed the house itself had been vandalised to a point nearing destruction. Alongside his furniture and the structure of the house, most of the paintings he had left were destroyed-- some had been used as a form of carpeting so that the Prussian officers would not dirty their boots when walking on the mud; others had been used as aprons during the slaughter of poultry; and even on Pissarro's return, some of the local laundry maids could apparently be found wearing more aprons fashioned from his landscapes. Pissarro himself estimated that he had lost 1500 paintings, works which charted the very creation of what would later come to be termed Impressionism.
Pissarro was a man of great integrity and spirit, and rather than let this tragic desecration weigh him down, instead resumed his painting with all the more vigour and enthusiasm. Following his exposure to the works of Turner and Constable during his time in London, his ideas about painting had evolved further. Indeed, there is something Constable-like about the lush foliage in Le repos sous les arbres, as well as in the contrast between the greens and the sky. Pissarro was absorbing many influences, although no single influence ever managed to have an overbearing sway on the direction of his painting, which remained primarily a direct pictorial means of channelling visual sensation. However, one artist whose influence Pissarro was more than willing to admit to at this time was Paul Cézanne. It was during this period at Pontoise that the two artists worked together, and while in many senses Cézanne was supposed to be the pupil, Pissarro the master, this learning was nonetheless very much a two-way process. Pissarro was deeply impressed by Cézanne's thoughts on art, and also by the sheer novelty and passion that resulted in many of his paintings. Despite being notoriously gruff and difficult as a character, Cézanne appears to have been comfortable with Pissarro and his family, and even moved to Pontoise with his own small family in order to be closer to them. One could argue that already in the screening trees in the foreground of Le repos sous les arbres the influence of Cézanne can be perceived. However, it was primarily later in 1872 and in the following two years that the two artists had their most profound interchange of ideas.
Another older influence can be perceived in Le repos sous les arbres by noting its similarity to Poussin's Printemps, from his Quatre saisons series-- it may not be a coincidence that, of the four paintings that Pissarro created for his own Quatre saisons series, the only canvas dated was Printemps, which like Le repos sous les arbres was painted in 1872. As in Le repos sous les arbres, in Poussin's work on the same subject, figures are shown almost absorbed by the greenery of the landscape. Where Poussin's painting of Spring shows Adam and Eve, Pissarro's Le repos sous les arbres appears to show a far more modern and tangible vision of earthly paradise, with a family at rest and at play in the countryside.
This aspect of the painting may be even more apt when one considers the figures on the right, who appear to be a young boy and a young girl. These may well be Pissarro's own children, Lucien and Jeanne-Rachel (also known as Minette), who would have been nine and seven years old respectively at the time that Le repos sous les arbres was painted. This adds to the sense of domesticity, of fun, of intimacy and of comfort with which Le repos sous les arbres is suffused.
Pissarro's previous anxieties were falling away as he experienced more and more financial security during this period. Despite the fact that, as well as Lucien and Minette, Pissarro had two infant children by this time, meaning more mouths to feed, he was at last receiving a decent sum from a proper dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who that year bought many of his works, and even exhibited them internationally. Pissarro's friends were relieved and happy to find that his paintings were being shown and sold in Paris, where they stood out in their freshness against many of the works even of his fellow Impressionists. During the course of 1872, Durand-Ruel bought twenty-two canvases from Pissarro, and paid a goodly sum for them, which itself supplemented the artist's small allowance. However, despite this recognition, the Impressionists were still refused permission to exhibit in the Salons, and were even denied permission to hold a Salon des Refusés.
As well as the purchases of Durand-Ruel, Pissarro was lucky enough to have a collector who made semi-regular purchases through three decades of the artist's life: Jean-Baptiste Faure. A celebrated baritone singer, Faure befriended several of the Impressionists during his life, and actively collected their works. He was painted several times by Manet, with whom he appears to have been closest-- a closeness that is reflected in the fact that his collection included some sixty-seven paintings by the artist. He likewise possessed more than sixty works by Monet. Already cited as a buyer of Pissarro's works in the early 1870s, it is a tribute to Faure's loyalty to his artists, and his friends, that he also attended the artist's funeral in 1903. Faure disposed of a vast swathe of his collection following the death of his wife, but Le repos sous les arbres appears to have been one of the works with which he could not part, instead passing subsequently through his family. It is a tribute to the quality of Le repos sous les arbres that it has passed through the hands of many distinguished dealers and collectors, including those of the industrialist Henri Cannone, who possessed a fantastic array of Impressionist masterpieces which he assembled just during the period that the movement was gaining true recognition. This impressive history continued, not least when Le repos sous les arbres came to enter the world-famous collection of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, many of whose treasures are now housed in the celebrated museum of the same name in Madrid.