On an idyllic day in mid-spring, the fruit trees in full bloom, a young boy stands on a sun-dappled path, beating enthusiastically on a small toy drum. The location is Pissarro's garden at Pontoise, and the boy is five-year-old Georges Pissarro, the fourth of the artist's eight children. He is clad in knickers, a belted dress jacket, and a jaunty straw hat, and his luxuriant, reddish-blonde locks, the color inherited from his mother's side of the family, fall just past his shoulders. Although bourgeois French boys typically had their hair cut short around the age of five, Pissarro--a true anarchist, who would never have imposed a haircut on an unwilling child--allowed Georges and his brothers to keep their tresses long well past this time. Richard Brettell has suggested that the drum here may have been a birthday present to Georges in November, in which case he was still reveling in it months later (exh. cat., op. cit., p. 107). He stands with his feet close together, his ramrod straight posture echoing the upright trunks of the trees around him, his head lowered in concentration as he bangs the drum with faux martial authority. Brettell has called L'Enfant au tambour "the most enchanting of Pissarro's portraits of Georges," explaining, "The boy dominates this private landscape, which is aquiver with dancing strokes of paint" (ibid., p. 107).
Unlike many of his Impressionist colleagues, who shunned traditional marital life, Pissarro was a quintessential family man. Despite his frequent stays in Paris, he doted on his brood of children, teaching them to draw and paint (with the exception of his daughter Jeanne, whom his wife Julie insisted should have a more traditional upbringing) and patiently nurturing their intellectual development. Brettell has written, "Pissarro's children were so central to his life that any reading of his letters or any biography of the artist is filled with their presence--his pride in them, his worries about their health, his attempts to convince them to work in their own way, his encouraging them to read and think more ambitiously. He became the kind of father he never had, less a restraining force on the lives of his children than an anxiously patient guide to life" (ibid., p. 117).
Although Pissarro did not document his children's lives as assiduously as Morisot or Renoir did, he painted all of his offspring from time to time (especially as they got older and were more apt to remain still), assembling over the years a charming and intimate record of his domestic life. L'Enfant au tambour is one of five known oil paintings of Georges, all of them dated between 1877 and 1878 (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 532, 580, 583-584). It is unusual among Pissarro's portraits of his children in depicting its subject in a moment of play, rather than quietly drawing, painting, writing, or reading. We might imagine Pissarro rounding the corner in his garden, perhaps lured by the steady beat of the drum, and being charmed by the sight of his young son, his cheeks flushed with the warmth of spring, absorbed in his spirited music-making.
Very few of Pissarro's portraits of his children were exhibited or sold during his lifetime, suggesting that the artist wished to retain them for his personal collection. After Pissarro's death, the present painting passed to his wife Julie, who later gave it to Georges himself, by then a successful artist. After painting in an Impressionist style during his early years, Georges had gone on to produce extremely popular decorative canvases and Art Nouveau objects, including stained-glass windows, screens, rugs, tapestries, enamels, and glazed earthenware. The crowning event of his career was a solo exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1914. From 1894 on, he signed his works Manzana, a pseudonym borrowed from the maiden name of his paternal grandmother.