The paintings that Pissarro made in and around Pontoise in 1872 and 1873, the period leading up to the First Impressionist Exhibition, have been widely recognized as the most innovative and important in the artist's oeuvre. Richard Brettell has called these years "the apex of Pissarro's career as a landscape painter," and has declared, "When the history of Impressionism is re-written 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" (op. cit., p. 160). The present painting, depicting the bucolic outskirts of Pontoise, has been described as a "well-composed and lyrical picture of the countryside" and an "outstanding landscape" from this seminal moment (D. Cooper, op. cit., p. 104).
It was during the years 1872 and 1873--the so-called "classic Pontoise period"--that Pissarro fully developed his Impressionist technique, adopting a lighter, brighter palette and a more delicate touch. Cézanne, who worked alongside Pissarro in the Oise valley, later referred to the older artist 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 explained, "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, as the name implies, lies in a commanding position on the banks of the River Oise, at the edge of the Vexin plateau nineteen miles northwest of Paris. In Pissarro's day, it was a central point for moving the regional grain harvest downriver by barge to the Seine and on to Paris, and it had been linked to the capital by rail as well since the early 1860s. Pissarro had lived at Pontoise between October 1866 and January 1869, when he decamped to the Paris suburb of Louveciennes. To escape the depredations of the advancing Prussian army during the war of 1870, Pissarro had taken refuge with his family in London. Following the massacres that marked the end of the short-lived Paris Commune, Pissarro returned to Louveciennes in June 1871, to find his house ransacked, his studio destroyed, and most of its contents, comprising nearly two decades of work, ruined. He resolutely resumed painting, and his fortunes lifted in March 1872, when the dealer Durand-Ruel began to buy up his pictures. Around the same time, he received the first commission of his career, from the banker and art collector Achille Arosa for a cycle of the four seasons. Shortly thereafter, in April 1872, Pissarro returned to Pontoise with his wife Julie and their three children, remaining this time for more than ten years.
By the time that he returned to Pontoise for this second sojourn, Pissarro had every reason to feel optimistic about his chances of success in his chosen vocation and his ability to provide for his family, who had previously never lived far from the brink of poverty. This sense of well-being may have been translated into the serenity and equilibrium which are so clearly manifest in the classic Pontoise paintings. The landscape in and around Pontoise also provided the artist with seemingly limitless artistic inspiration. His work from 1872-1873 is noteworthy for its great variety of motifs: the streets and markets of Pontoise itself; the towpaths lining the banks of the Oise; the railroad tracks and cast-iron railway bridge; the factories belonging to Chalon and Cie. and Monsieur Arneuil; the rural thatched cottages in adjacent Auvers; the wheat harvests and haystacks near Ennery. Brettell has explained, "Pissarro took Pontoise by storm, at least pictorially, when he returned there [in 1872]... He was experiencing a professional optimism he would not feel again until the 1890s. He was alive to the landscape, allowing its multiple realities to affect him more fully than ever before" (op. cit., p. 158).
The present painting has traditionally been identified as a depiction of L'Hermitage, a rural neighborhood on the outskirts of Pontoise, slightly north-east of the town center (ibid., p. 158, and J. Pissarro, op. cit., 1993, p. 115; the recent catalogue raisonné refers to the motif only as a hamlet near Pontoise, without specifying which one). Pissarro had lived at L'Hermitage in the late 1860s, and the culmination of his efforts during this first stay in Pontoise was a group of large exhibition landscapes (the so-called Jalais Hill series) that he painted of the area (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 115, 116, 119, and 121; fig. 1). Although these are clearly differentiated from the present canvas by their rich, dark palette and broad areas of thick paint, characteristic of Pissarro's pre-Impressionist production, they display the same interest in the integration of architecture into the surrounding landscape, juxtaposing the strict geometry of the small, cubic houses and cultivated fields with the non-rectilinear forms of the hills and foliage. When Pissarro returned to Pontoise in 1872, he initially settled in a house in the center of Pontoise, near the public garden. By the following year, however, he had returned to L'Hermitage, where he would remain until he departed the area for the last time in 1882. Brettell has written, "It seems clear that Pissarro considered L'Hermitage rather than Pontoise itself his home" (ibid., p. 101).
The historically agrarian community of L'Hermitage was in the process of modernizing during the period that Pissarro lived there. In the early 1860s, a long, straight road, the Rue de l'Hermitage, had been cut through the center of the hamlet, leading to the neighboring village of Ennery. By the end of the decade, this characteristically Second Empire lane was lined with cafés, a shop, gas street lamps, and sizable bourgeois homes, one of which the Pissarro family occupied from October 1873 onward. The remainder of L'Hermitage, in contrast, retained its intensely traditional character. Small houses clustered together at the base of the hillside, abutting winding country paths. The majority of the land was given over to a dense patchwork of kitchen gardens or jardins potagers, where the district's inhabitants cultivated cabbages, potatoes, and peas for sale at local markets and fairs, spading the plots laboriously by hand throughout the year. Unlike the open, spacious panorama of the Vexin wheat fields, which stretched to the north of Pontoise, the landscape of L'Hermitage was crowded, complicated, and concentrated. While the grain harvest--a mainstay of earlier agricultural imagery such as that of Millet--held little pictorial appeal for Pissarro, the jardin potager was a key element of his iconography throughout his two sojourns in the Oise valley.
Hameau aux environs de Pontoise depicts a woman leading a cow along a tranquil country path, either from village to pasture or vice versa; the lane very likely continues to the town center of Pontoise, and the painting thus encodes the transitional nature of the semi-rural hamlet (compare fig. 2). In the immediate foreground, we see the very corner of a jardin potager, with a row of bushy cabbages ready for harvest and a low, make-shift fence running along the garden's edge. The leaves of the trees have just begun to show tinges of yellow and red, suggesting that the canvas depicts a day in the very early autumn; it was sold to Durand-Ruel on 21 October 1872, presumably soon after it was painted.
The composition is divided into three horizontal zones, the internal architecture of the scene quietly sensed but never obtrusive. The path allows the viewer a clear point of entry into the scene at the bottom left, but rather than continuing into depth, it turns parallel to the picture plane, delineating the boundary of the foreground zone. The large tree at the far left edge marks the starting point of the viewer's movement along the path, while the tree in the very center of the composition, near the bend in the lane, signals our progress through the sunlit scene. The middle ground of the composition is occupied by a row of jostling houses, a screen of low saplings or bushes softening their cubic planes. The ochre-colored roofs are silhouetted against a low, grassy hill divided into two abutting fields, which comprises the final zone of the composition. A dense copse of trees extends across two-thirds of the hill's ridge, suggesting the passage from cultivated land into forest. The facture consists of uniformly small touches of paint, which overlap subtly to achieve a unified but variegated surface, highlighting the different textures of the grass and trees, earth and sky. Brettell has concluded, "The style of the classic Pontoise period shows a balance between construction and sensation that Pissarro never again achieved" (ibid., p. 153).
Pissarro was not the only artist to draw inspiration from the semi-rural outskirts of Pontoise during the early 1870s. In July or August of 1872, shortly before the present scene was painted, Pissarro was joined in the Oise valley by Cézanne, nine years his junior. The two painters frequently worked side-by-side through early 1874, and thereafter intermittently until 1882. To Cézanne, whose earlier paintings were notable for their fiery execution and violet 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 exhibition catalogues as "Paul Cézanne, pupil of Pissarro" (quoted in B.E. White, op. cit., p. 109). Although Cézanne's views of the region (e.g. fig. 3) are characterized by a flattened space that contrasts with Pissarro's concern for creating a sensation of distance, and by broad, bold strokes that take the place of Pissarro's subtle gradations and fine chromatic scales, both artists were building upon an underlying geometric order in composing their landscapes. After visiting the 1895 retrospective of Cézanne's work at Vollard's gallery, Pissarro pointed out, "You can see the kinship there between some works that he did at Auvers or Pontoise, and mine. What do you expect! We were always together!" (quoted in Cézanne and Pissarro: Pioneering Modern Painting, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2005, p. 113).
The unabashedly rural subject matter of the present painting presages a critical shift in Pissarro's iconographical interests that would take place in 1874, two years after his return to Pontoise from Louveciennes. At this time, the sheer range of motifs that characterized his work from 1872-1873 gave way to a phase of intensive experimentation with peasant life and agricultural imagery, not only at L'Hermitage but also at Montfoucault (where his close friend Ludovic Piette lived) and, especially late in the decade, at Chaponval and Le Valhermeil, rural hamlets midway between Pontoise and Auvers. One impetus for this change was the advice of the eminent critic Théodore Duret, an ardent supporter of the Impressionists. In a letter dated December 1873, Duret encouraged Pissarro to concentrate on pastoral motifs: "I persist in thinking that nature, with its rustic fields and its animals, is that which corresponds best to your talent. You do not have the decorative feeling of Sisley, nor the fantastic eye of Monet, but you do have what they don't, an intimate and profound feeling for nature. If I have any advice to give you, I would tell you not to think of either Monet or Sisley; go your own way; in your path of rustic nature, you'll go into a new path, both as far and as high as any master" (quoted in R. Brettell, op. cit., p. 165). Pissarro took Duret's advice to heart, retreating from his role as historien de Pontoise and moving toward the role that he would occupy, at least intermittently, for the rest of his life--that of historien des champs.
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, Les coteaux de l'Hermitage, circa 1867. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, Gardeuse de vache, vue sur la côte du Valhermeil, 1874. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(fig. 3) Paul Cézanne, Petites maisons près de Pontoise, circa 1874. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.