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Pissarro's harvest scenes are certainly the most felicitous and life-affirming of all the artist's many subjects. Decades of painting at Pontoise, and, after 1882, at Eragny-sur-Epte in Normandy, imbued Pissarro's images of rural life with a sense of quotidian familiarity. These images capture the lyricism of a seasonal harvest without idealizing the subject. Painted in 1891, the present work displays the long, dynamic brushstrokes that characterize Pissarro's late style, yet the two women gathering apples under a tall tree are silent, introspective figures. The painter selected gouache on silk for this image, a medium and a support that he used for painted fans. Richard Shone has written that "the size and conventional shape of this work suggest that it had no utilitarian purpose: instead, its unusual support was chosen as being apposite for an intimate seasonal moment" (A Very Private Collection: Janice H. Levin's Impressionist Pictures, New York, 2002, p.33).
The present work displays the same activity as Pissarro's Cueillette de pommes à Eragny-sur-Epte, 1888 which he worked on for two years, producing hundreds of preparatory sketches. The bending woman in the present work echoes the pose and appearance of the central figure in this substantial group picture, reflecting the painter's practice of repeating select figures in his paintings and prints from this period. Pissarro also utilized the standing figure adjusting the scarf around her head in works such as the etching and aquatint, La récolte de pomme de terre, 1882 (Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Arts, Prints, and Photographs, The New York Public Library), and the etching Baigneuse aux Oies, 1895 where she appears as a nude bather seen from the rear.
The simplicity of the two figures seen here belies the distance between Pissarro's immediate perception and the image that he ultimately produced in the studio through progressive stages of studies and preparations. After 1879, the painter increasingly defined observation from nature as a preliminary step within his painterly process. One of his techniques was to return to his figure studies of individual peasants at work, many of which he executed from life in the 1870s; he translated many of these loose sketches into tightly-worked canvases during the 1880s, and then re-worked them again as inventive gouaches like the present work in the 1890s. Commenting on this practice, Joachim Pissarro has written, "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" (in Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, p.198). Late in life, the painter 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).