Painted in 1894, Pommiers à Éragny depicts the orchards and rolling meadows that stretched westwards from Camille Pissarro's property in Éragny-sur-Epte to the neighbouring village of Bazincourt, rising in the distance beyond. Pissarro was enamoured with the open, broad countryside of the Epte valley, describing it as 'a marvel compared to everything else I see' (Pissarro, quoted in J. Pissarro & C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, Catalogue critique des peintures, vol. I, Paris, 2005, p. 89). He devoted an ambitious series of paintings to capturing and celebrating this bucolic landscape in canvases that explore this motif in different seasons, at different times of the day, and under different weather conditions. Pommiers à Éragny, with its richly textured surface, brilliant luminosity and abundant foliage, is a particularly masterful example from this series which the novelist, playwright and art critic, Georges Lecomte, described rhapsodically: 'Creatures and objects emerge with shining clarity: the air circulates around them; dazzling vapours of gold cast haloes around them. It is the glorious rapture of nature dressed overall' (G. Lecomte, quoted in C. Lloyd, Camille Pissarro, London, 1981, p. 112). For Lecomte, Pissarro had an acute ability to capture 'the essence of the countryside, the spirit of the fields that the melodious symphonies reveal' (ibid.).
In 1884, Pissarro and his family moved to the diminutive hamlet of Éragny-sur-Epte, two hours north of Paris by train, where they rented a house which was, according to Pissarro, 'wonderful and not too dear: a thousand francs with gardens and field' (C. Pissarro, letter to L. Pissarro, 1 March 1884, in J. Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Letters to his son Lucien, New York, 1972, p. 58). Two years before Pommiers à Éragny was executed, the family received financial assistance from the artist Claude Monet, enabling them to purchase the rented house and convert a barn in the garden, which faced towards Bazincourt, into a studio. Pissarro's Éragny has been likened to Monet's Giverny - a rural homestead in the Île-de-France whose countryside the artist immortalised in paint. Whereas Monet transformed his land at Giverny into a garden replete with exotic flowers and plants, Pissarro chose to leave his farm as it was, and painted, as in Pommiers à Éragny, georgic landscapes of verdant apple trees, poplars, chestnut trees and fertile fields. Indeed, in an interview of 1892 Pissarro spoke of his wish to express through his canvases 'the true poem of the countryside' - a poetry which, he explained, could be distilled from nature by creating sketches in front of the motif that would subsequently be worked up in successive stages in the studio (C. Pissarro, quoted in R. Thomson, Camille Pissarro: Impressionism, Landscape and Rural Labour, London, 1990, p. 81).
Pommiers à Éragny was painted a number of years after Pissarro had renounced his association with what he came to view as the overly proscriptive Divisionism of Georges Seurat. This canvas, nevertheless, displays the use of luminous colour, particularly the yellow-greens and pinks, which characterises his earlier Neo-Impressionist experiments. A pastel palette keyed to a bright tonality is skillfully balanced in the present painting by the rich greens of the leaves and the grey calligraphic strokes of the apple trees' branches and trunks. Passages of colour, heightened by the addition of flecks of white paint, alternate and divide the landscape into horizontal bands of coloured grasses, whilst greens, pinks and greys knit the composition together. Unlike the more regular brushwork of Pissarro's Neo-Impressionist canvases, the paint application in Pommiers à Éragny is varied and ranges from the rich impasto of the foreground, to the smaller, lively thread-like touches of the apple trees' leaves, to the feathered brushstrokes of the distant foliage. Small dabs of ochre and grey paint, interspersed with the white ground of the canvas which has been allowed to show through, indicate the houses of Bazincourt to the far left in a passage that is reminiscent of the work of Paul Cézanne. The variety of brushstrokes and textures in Pommiers à Éragny encapsulates Pissarro's description of Impressionism as an art of 'fullness, suppleness, liberty, spontaneity and freshness' (C. Pissarro, letter to L. Pissarro, 6 September 1888 in Rewald, op. cit., 1972, p. 132.
Pommiers à Éragny has a poetic and graceful rhythm to it which has been achieved through a number of compositional devices. The receding arrangement of apple trees leads the eye into the background and towards the left of the canvas. The more regular allée of trees, placed before the land rises to Bazincourt, subsequently directs the eye back to the centre of the composition and upwards towards the dense foliage in the distance. This abundance of differentiated greenery is punctuated by elegant vertical accents of poplar trees which rhyme with the church steeple, almost wholly hidden by foliage. The curving trunk of the large apple tree in the foreground - a favoured motif of Pissarro's - is repeated in the slightly arched back of a female figure who moves through the landscape. The elevated viewpoint, with its correspondingly high horizon line, absorbs and encloses this figure, suggesting, as a number of critics have noted, a 'harmonious co-existence' between the local people and the land (see J. House, 'Camille Pissarro's idea of unity', in C. Lloyd, ed., Studies on Camille Pissarro, London, 1986, pp. 15-34). This exemplifies Octave Mirbeau's observation of 1892 that in Pissarro's paintings, 'man is always seen in perspective in the vast, terrestrial harmony, like a human plant' (O. Mirbeau, quoted in K. Adler, 'Camille Pissarro: City and Country in the 1890s', in ibid., p. 107). That this figure is articulated with the same brushstrokes as the surrounding landscape, and with flesh tints that repeat those of the surrounding grasses, further illustrates Pissarro's concern with illustrating rural man's 'accord' with nature (see J. House, op. cit., 1986, pp. 15-34).
Late nineteenth century French anarchism, to which Pissarro was fervently committed, idealised rural existence, ascribing to it a social harmony which was held up as a normative model for a society becoming increasingly urbanised and capitalistic. Pommiers à Éragny could be interpreted, therefore, as an illustration of the virtues of a utopian rural existence. Certainly, the lingering effects of the economic recession of the 1880s and the political instabilities of the 1890s of which Pissarro himself was a victim - he went into self-imposed exile in Belgium the summer this painting was executed - are nowhere in evidence in this idyllic landscape. Given Pissarro's insistence that the motif held secondary importance for him, it seems unlikely, however, that this painting can be read as an overt political meditation on anarchist ideology. Rather, Pissarro's concern was to render what he termed his 'sensations' of nature in a canvas that expresses a harmony and unity between mankind and nature, motif and technique. As the artist wrote in 1890, 'I started to understand my sensations, to know what I wanted when I was in my forties, but only vaguely; when I was fifty, that is, in 1880, I had an inkling of the idea of unity, but I could not express it; at sixty, I am starting to see a way of expressing [it]' (C. Pissarro, letter to Esther, 5 May 1890, in J. Bailly-Herzberg, ed., Correspondance de Camille Pissarro, vol. II, 1886-1890, Paris, 1986, p. 349).