Along with Argenteuil, the town of Louveciennes, where Pissarro lived from 1869 until 1872, has become virtually synonymous with the birth of Impressionism. A picturesque enclave seventeen kilometers west of Paris, near Versailles and the Forest of Marly, Louveciennes (and neighboring towns such as Bougival) had long attracted a sizable colony of artists, but it was the Impressionist painters above all who embraced the region. Monet and Renoir were already settled nearby when Pissarro moved to Louveciennes in 1869, and Sisley would follow two years later. This was the exact period that saw the Impressionist movement take shape as a serious challenge to the art establishment in France, characterized by active and varied brushwork, a heightened palette, an interest in depicting the effects of light and weather, and innovative compositions that transform unassuming views of the suburbs and countryside into compellingly modern images. Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts have written, "It was almost certainly at Louveciennes that the dominant ideas, soon to give birth to the Impressionist group, were developed. And it was at this particular juncture that Pissarro's manner underwent its first stylistic changes: the quest for chromatic harmony, the shift of his palette towards lighter tones, and the smaller, individual brushstrokes--they all made their appearance during these years" (op. cit., p. 123).
Pissarro arrived at Louveciennes in the spring of 1869, accompanied by Julie Vellay (whom he would marry the following year) and their two young children. The family rented a spacious house at 22, route de Versailles, immediately alongside the Marly aqueduct. They had been settled there for just over a year when the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War forced them to flee to London. When they returned in June 1871, they found that their house had been pillaged by the Prussian army. Despite these trying circumstances, the artist's years at Louveciennes proved extremely productive. By the time that the family left for Pontoise in April 1872, Pissarro had painted more than seventy views of Louveciennes, focusing on the route de Versailles and other roads leading to and from the village center. Joachim Pissarro has written, "Each composition offers a different study of the same road to Versailles where Pissarro lived, under different weather or light effects and from slightly shifting viewpoints: thus, these riveting works...offer not merely an immediate precedent for the opening of the Impressionist decade but also point towards the end of Impressionism, in the 1890s, when serial procedures were explored by Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and Cézanne" (op. cit., 1993, p. 72).
The present painting depicts the post-house at Louveciennes, which stood at the western end of the route de Versailles, near the entrance to the grounds of the Château de Marly. The post-house appears in three townscapes that Pissarro painted before the Franco-Prussian War, all of them looking west along the length of the route de Versailles. Two of these are winter scenes, with the post-house visible on the left side of the road in the middle distance; the remaining one was painted in the spring from a spot farther along the route de Versailles, approaching the wall that encloses the château grounds (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 140-141 and 152; figs. 1-2). Following his return to Louveciennes after the war, Pissarro reprised this same view in an autumnal scene (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 209) and also experimented in a trio of snowscapes with depicting the post-house from other vantage points, varying the type of perspective and the angle of the road to the picture plane. One of these shows the house from a spot on the opposite side of the route de Versailles (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 221), while the present canvas and a nearly identical view were painted from the Royal Gate at the château, looking back towards the post-house and its outbuildings (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 215; fig. 3). The smaller house at the left side of this scene was the residence of the blacksmith Pierre Huet, which stood almost directly across the street from Pissarro's own home and also appears in several other paintings (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 139, 149-150, 164-165).
While the majority of Pissarro's views of the route de Versailles are structured around the plunging diagonal of the road as it recedes into depth, the present painting instead shows the road running parallel to the picture plane. The perspectival thrust leading into the composition is thus mitigated, allowing the viewer's eye to roam in a more leisurely way over the tranquil, snowy landscape. Notably, neither of the two figures in the painting is actually traversing the route de Versailles. The woman is approaching the road from the left, her shadow on the snowy grass marking out the path that she took to enter the scene and providing the viewer with a point of access as well. The man on horseback has paused at the door of the post-house, in the same way that our eye comes to rest here--at the painting's most prominent landmark--as we scan the vista. Pissarro's principal interest was to capture the muted harmonies of white, brown, blue, and gray that comprise this peaceful winter landscape, as well as to experiment with the balance of masses along the length of the road. In his other painting of the same view (fig. 3), he includes two additional trees at the left of the composition and another large building beside the post-house, identified alternatively as the adjoining stables (J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., p. 180) or a Second Empire country house that in fact stood some three hundred yards up the road (R. Brettell, op. cit., 1990, p. 6). The omission of these features in the present canvas opens up the sky and loosens the rhythm of the scene, enhancing the quiet and serene quality of the frosty rural scene.
Indeed, it was at Louveciennes that the cold-weather landscape first emerged as a major subject in Pissarro's oeuvre. During each of the two winters that he spent in the town (1869-1870 and 1871-1872), Pissarro painted at least ten effet de neige compositions, ranging from vistas of the route de Versailles and other major lanes in Louveciennes peopled with villagers to more contemplative views of houses, trees, and fields. In some of these, the landscape is shown in the immediate aftermath of a blizzard; in others, it glistens with hoar-frost, ice, or partially melted snow. Inspired by the range of visual effects offered by winter scenes, Pissarro returned to this theme repeatedly over the course of his career and exhibited his snowscapes widely. Katherine Rothkopf has written, "For Pissarro, nature was at its most inspiring and colorful during the coldest time of year. It is his lifelong dedication to exploring all the motifs of winter that distinguishes him among his fellow painters of effets de neige" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, p. 54).
The present painting has an exceptionally important early provenance. The first owner was probably Gustave Arosa, a Parisian banker (and the godfather of Paul Gauguin) who, together with his younger brother Achille, was one of the very earliest collectors of Pissarro's work. Between 1872 and 1873--even before the First Impressionist Exhibition--the Arosa brothers acquired at least four of Pissarro's recent landscapes from Louveciennes, most likely including the present one (also Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 160 and probably nos. 198 and 228). At the same time, Achille Arosa requested from Pissarro a cycle of overdoors representing the four seasons, the first commission that the artist had ever received from a collector and one of his finest achievements of the early 1870s (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 238-241; Christie's, New York, 6 November 2007, lot 11). The first panel in this landmark cycle to be executed was L'Hiver, which Pissarro made at Louveciennes around the same time that he painted the present canvas. When Pissarro saw Les Quatre Saisons again nearly two decades later at the auction of Achille Arosa's collection, he found L'Hiver the most successful, perhaps revealing his enduring preference for this snowy season: "The canvases are well preserved, gray and delicate, particularly Effet de neige done at Louveciennes, which is very good" (quoted in J. Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Letters to his son Lucien, New York, 1972, p. 168).
Three of the Pissarro landscapes belonging to the Arosa brothers, probably including the present one, were included in a sale of Gustave's collection in 1878, which he organized to raise capital following a series of financial reversals the previous year. By this time, there were still only a very few collectors who had amassed equally impressive groups of paintings by Pissarro, most notably Gustave Caillebotte, Dr. Paul Gachet, the pastry chef Eugène Murer, and the opera singer Jean-Baptiste Faure. The three Pissarro landscapes from the 1878 Arosa sale depict Louveciennes in spring, fall, and winter, and Richard Brettell has suggested that Gustave may have viewed them as a seasonal cycle comparable to the celebrated one that his younger brother had commissioned (op. cit., 2007, p. 18).
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, La route de Versailles, Louveciennes, soleil d'hiver et neige, circa 1870. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. BARCODE: 28855323
(fig. 2) Camille Pissarro, La diligence sur la route de Versailles, Louveciennes, 1870. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE: 28855347
(fig. 3) Camille Pissarro, Le relais de poste, route de Versailles, Louveciennes, effet de neige, 1872. Sold, Christie's, New York, 12 May 1999, lot 8. BARCODE: 28855354