The paintings that Pissarro made in and around Pontoise in 1872 and 1873 are widely recognized as the most beautiful in the artist's oeuvre. Richard Brettell calls these years "the apex of Pissarro's career as a landscape painter," and declares, "When the history of Impressionism is rewritten in another hundred years, Pissarro's paintings of 1872 and 1873 will be considered his masterpieces, as great, in their way, as Corot's work from his first trips to Italy or Monet's landscapes from the late 1860s" (in Pissarro and Pontoise, New Haven, 1990, p. 160). It was during these two years--the so-called "classic Pontoise period"--that Pissarro fully developed his Impressionist technique, adopting a lighter, brighter palette and a more delicate touch. His Pontoise pictures were to have a profound influence upon a whole generation of painters, notably Cézanne and 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). Christopher Lloyd and Anne Distel have noted:
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. The artist retains a firmly controlled geometric structure as the framework for his compositions, but he employs a lighter touch in his brushwork and a brighter palette, both of which show the influence of Monet, whose technique of freely applying broken, separate patches of pure pigment Pissarro approached closely at this time. The paintings dating from the opening years of the 1870s therefore may, like those of Monet and Renoir, with good reason be described as the most purely Impressionist in Pissarro's entire oeuvre (Pissarro, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1980, p. 79).
Pontoise is a small town about twenty-five miles northwest of Paris, on the border of the Vexin and Ile-de-France regions. By Pissarro's day, it was a bustling center for poultry and agricultural supplies, with several factories and a railway linking it to the capital. Pissarro had lived there between 1866 and 1868, before departing first for London and then for Louveciennes. He returned in February of 1872, remaining this time for more than ten years. With the help of Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a homeopathic physician and amateur artist who had moved to the area the previous year, Pissarro and his family initially found rented accommodations at Pontoise. In October of 1873, they moved into a newly constructed house on the rue de l'Hermitage, a peaceful country lane running from the river Oise to the neighboring village of Ennery.
The landscape in and around Pontoise provided Pissarro with seemingly limitless artistic inspiration. Works from this period depict a complex and diverse array of motifs: the tranquil, sun-drenched streets of Pontoise itself; the rural thatched cottages in adjacent Auvers; the towpaths lining the banks of the Oise; the vegetable gardens at L'Hermitage; the plowed fields of the Vexin plateau; the wheat harvests and haystacks near Ennery; the railroad tracks and the cast-iron railway bridge; the factories belonging to Chalon et Cie. and Monsieur Arneuil. Discussing Pissarro's work from 1872-1873, Brettell writes,
The sheer variety of motifs was more important to Pissarro in these years than at any other time in his career. He was alive to the landscape, allowing its multiple realities to affect him more fully than ever before. The iconographical and the geographical range of Pissarro's Pontoise during the classic Pontoise period separates his aesthetic from the contemporary aesthetics of Monet, Renoir, and Sisley, whose response to the landscape was much less various and much more repetitive in iconography. Pissarro did not search for established or picturesque subjects in the manner described by so many writers on landscape in the middle part of the nineteenth century. Rather, he developed a mode of vision that he applied quite consistently to the various realities around him. (op. cit., pp. 158-160)
The present painting depicts one of Pissarro's favorite motifs from his years at Pontoise: the rolling wheat fields north of the town, stretched between isolated farm villages such as Ennery and Osny (fig. 1). Many critics who wrote about Pissarro in the 1870s considered him a painter of agricultural life, contrasting his frequent depictions of a working landscape with the predominantly bourgeois and leisure character of exactly contemporary landscapes by Monet, Renoir, and Sisley. Indeed, one of Pissarro's most important projects of 1872-1873, Les quatres saisons, is a series of four panoramic vistas of the wheat fields near Pontoise, each characterized by distinct seasonal markers emphasizing the regenerative cycle of nature (fig. 2). Describing Pissarro's agricultural imagery from this period, Brettell writes:
Pissarro's landscapes are distant, balanced worlds in which man and his architecture dominate nature, whose rhythms are controllable and essentially benign. Pissarro's view of agriculture in this period continues to veer away from the predominantly 'genre' character of agricultural imagery in French painting of the previous generation. The laboring figures who inhabit the foreground plane of so many landscapes of the first Pontoise period [1866-1868] become tinier and more recessive in the classic Pontoise period. The earthy, consciously crude presence of the peasant which is so important a component of mid-century agricultural imagery gives way to the landscape, with its sweeping horizons and cloud-dotted skies (ibid., pp. 152-153).
In composition and technique, the present canvas also exemplifies the very best of Pissarro's work from this celebrated epoch. The structure of the painting is insistently geometric: the expansive horizon divides the composition just above the midpoint, while the foreground is neatly organized around a series of three rolling hills, each drawing the eye deeper into the landscape. The fields are comprised of a balanced juxtaposition of green, brown, and yellow planes, suggesting a continuum among the various phases of the growing season. The facture consists of uniformly small patches of paint, which overlap subtly to achieve a unified but variegated surface. These orderly marks are relieved by short, wrist-gesture strokes that suggest the flickering of a light breeze over the verdant spring landscape. As Brettell concludes, "The style of the classic Pontoise period shows a balance between construction and sensation that Pissarro never again achieved" (ibid., p. 153).
In the summer of 1872, Pissarro was joined at Pontoise by Cézanne, nine years his junior. During the ensuing decade, the two artists frequently worked side-by-side, both outdoors and in Dr. Gachet's studio. To Cézanne, whose earlier paintings were notable for their fiery execution and violent eroticism, Pissarro's luminous palette and patient observation of nature were a revelation. As late as the 1900s, Cézanne acknowledged his artistic debt to the older painter, listing himself in an exhibition catalogue as "Paul Cézanne, pupil of Pissarro" (quoted in B.E. White, op. cit., p. 109). He described Monet and Pissarro as "the two great masters, the only two," and elsewhere wrote, "As for old Pissarro, he was a father to me; someone to turn to for advice, somebody like the good Lord Himself" (quoted in ibid., p. 109). In 1873, the year of the present painting, Cézanne painted a comparable vista of the houses and striated fields on the outskirts of Pontoise (fig. 3). Like Pissarro, Cézanne selected a high vantage point, offering a panoramic view over the verdant landscape. He also adopted from his Impressionist mentor the long, prominent horizon line, as well as the placement of a tree in the immediate foreground to accentuate the perspectival effect of the composition.
Nearly two decades later, the wheat fields of the Vexin plateau would also provide the motif for Van Gogh's last landscape paintings (fig. 4). Van Gogh moved to the Oise valley in 1890, the year before his death, and quickly befriended Dr. Gachet. He admired the doctor's collection of contemporary art, which included numerous paintings by both Pissarro and Cézanne, and enjoyed his reflections on both "the artists of the new school" and "the days of the old painters," as he wrote to his brother Theo (quoted in Van Gogh Face to Face: The Portraits, exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts, 2000, p. 221).
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, Paysage à Pontoise, 1872. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. BARCODE 23661769
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, Le printemps (from Les quatres saisons), 1872. Sale, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2004, lot 33. BARCODE 23661783
(fig. 3) Paul Cézanne, Paysage à Auvers-sur-Oise, circa 1873. Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE 23657403
(fig. 4) Vincent Van Gogh, Champs de blé, 1890. Österreichische Galerie, Vienna. BARCODE 23661790