To be included in the forthcoming Camille Pissarro catalogue raisonné being prepared by Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
The present work belongs to the great sequence of large-scale, monumental figure pictures executed by Pissarro at the beginning of the 1880s. These paintings, each a sensitive evocation of the humble simplicity of rural life, show Pissarro assimilating the twin influences of Millet and Corot within his own confident idiom, seeking to inform his subjects with a Classicism and timelessness that seemed to lie outside the Impressionist concern with the ephemeral. Other important works from this group include Jeune paysanne prenant son café (P&V.547; The Art Institute of Chicago), Etude de figure en plein air, effet de soleil (P&V.542; The Toldeo Museum of Art), Portrait de paysanne (P&V.547; The National Gallery of Art, Washington) and Jeune fille à la baguette, paysanne assise (P&V.540; Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
Painted in 1883, Paysanne se chauffant is an absorbing and intimate genre picture whose luminous feathered brushwork prefigures the Pointillism that in only two years would be consolidated in his Neo-Impressionism. Here, the tiny brushstrokes that have been used to create this dappled, richly textured painting lend the picture a shimmering intensity, while also pushing the bright face of the contemplative woman into bold relief. The Pointillism that Pissarro had developed on his own, independent of the Neo-Impressionists, but which would lead to their working together to establish that movement, is here painterly rather than scientific, making the picture visually lush, despite its frugal theme. This frugality itself is relieved and enlivened by Pissarro's own rich humanity, here evident not only in the sympathetic portrayal of the paysanne, but also in the playful dog that peeks into the canvas and which appears to be demanding the subject's attention.
The year 1883 was a turbulent one for Pissarro. Although it ended with his move to Eragny, which would remain his home until his death, before that he had been almost itinerant, seeking out a new place to paint. Another factor that had prompted Pissarro's move had been the precarious financial situation in France, which was making itself felt amongst all the Impressionists, and most of all Pissarro, whose huge family depended on him. In his paintings, though, Pissarro turned this first-hand knowledge of monetary want to his advantage, allowing it to fill his genre images of peasants in the countryside with an acute understanding. Paysanne se chauffant is neither a patronising celebration of the honest life of the country folk so espoused by earlier artists, nor a critical piece. Instead, keeping in tune with Pissarro's own political beliefs, it is an honest, even realist, depiction of the life of the provincial paysanne.
Only the year before Pissarro painted Paysanne se chauffant, the critic Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote of his genre works that 'the human figure often takes on a biblical air in his work. But not any more. Pissarro has entirely detached himself from Millet's memory. He paints his country people without false grandeur, simply as he sees them. His delicious little girls in their red stockings, his old woman wearing a kerchief, his shepherdesses and laundresses, his peasant girls cutting hay or eating, are all true, small masterpieces' (Huysmans, quoted in C. Becker, 'Pissarro, Impressionist Artist', pp. 37-142, in Becker, Camille Pissarro, Ostfildern, 1999, pp. 88-96). So too Paysanne se chauffant: the girl warming herself is absorbed in her own world. She appears tired and cold, and her posture combines both the honesty of Pissarro's realism with a mysterious, static, hieratic dignity. This picture is filled with a grace as forlorn as that of the girl herself. There is nothing allegorical, nothing biblical, only the simple fact of the woman warming herself.
Pissarro insisted on creating scenes that portrayed the country people engaging in country activities in order to capture a social reality as distinct as the light that his Impressionist colleague's sought to render in their landscapes. However, in many of these paintings, he in fact used his family as models, and carefully composed each image in order to all the more perfectly convey the 'reality' of the scene. So his butcher girls and his peasants are often his daughters. This was made all the more necessary by the time-consuming meticulousness of his surface, and the length of time that applying these tiny dabs of paint would take. The combination of this laborious process and the engaging theme in Paysanne se chauffant show the extent to which Pissarro found that, as he wrote to his son the same year,
'Painting, art in general, enchants me. It is my life. What else matters? When you put all your soul into a work, all that is noble in you, you cannot fail to find a kindred soul who understands you, and you do not need a host of such spirits. Is not that all an artist should wish for?' (Pissarro, 1883, quoted in K. Adler, Camille Pissarro: A biography, London, 1978, p. 98).