Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)
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Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

Le pré à Éragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)
Le pré à Éragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi
signed and dated ‘C. Pissarro. 1901.’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
25 3/4 x 32 in. (65.3 x 81.3 cm.)
Painted in 1901
Galerie Druet, Paris by 1917 (no. 8896)
Private collection, Paris.
Galerie Nathan, Zurich by 1977 (no. C-1922).
Private collection, Europe, by whom acquired from the above and thence by descent; sale, Sotheby’s, London, 25 June 2008, lot 54.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
J. Pissarro & C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, Pissarro, Catalogue critique des peintures, vol. III, Paris, 2005, no. 1382, p. 847 (illustrated).
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Emanating the subdued warmth and melancholic light of a late summer afternoon, Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi exemplifies the great mastery of colour and light that Camille Pissarro achieved in his ultimate, great series of landscapes. Painted in 1901, the work depicts a stretch of land at Eragny. Far removed from Paris and surrounded by family farms and picturesque fields, Eragny offered Pissarro a place of refuge and a source of endless inspiration. The artist had settled there in 1884; by the year of his death in 1903, he had painted 350 views of the countryside surrounding his home. No one before him had shown a similar dedication and curiosity for a single plot of land. Celebrating that ineffable visual quality of the interaction between landscape and light, Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi illustrates Pissarro’s heartfelt sensibility for the charm and beauty that a humble provincial countryside could inspire. 

Composed of a symphony of dense, fleshy dabs of paint, Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi exemplifies the uninhibited technique Pissarro achieved in the last decade of his career. Like great masters such as Titian and Rembrandt had done before him, Pissarro had been able to find in old age a bold assurance that allowed him to dispense with the rigorous method of his earlier works in favour of direct expression. Works such as Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi had indeed followed a period of strict discipline: in the 1880s, inspired by the work of Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, Pissarro had abandoned the intuitive approach of Impressionism to experiment with the rigorous colour theory of Pointillism. Methodically approaching his paintings, Pissarro started working more in his studio, filtering his knowledge and first hand experience of nature through a systematic, semi-scientific approach to light and colour. Yet, the death of Georges Seurat in 1891 marked a point of closure in Pissarro’s involvement with Neo-Impressionism. From that moment onwards, the artist would gradually return to nature, painting outdoors and freeing up his technique. Drawing from his life-long observance of nature and trusting the infallible ability of his well-trained eye, in the 1890s Pissarro imbued his paintings with renewed spontaneity, creating evocative pieces such as Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi

Abandoning the strict method of Pointillism meant that, in the 1890s and early 1900s, Pissarro could re-introduce in his works a certain degree of colouristic improvisation. While the carefully constructed harmonies of Pointillism had required the artist to work in layers, waiting for each to dry before applying the next one, now the artist was able to work once again wet on wet, allowing tones to merge and blend with more freedom. In Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi, the effect of this technique is visible in the foliage of the trees and along the grass in the foreground: the edges of each brushstroke are soft, allowing darker and lighter hues of green to be combined, suggesting the effect of light reflection. Freed from the systematic approach of Pointillism, Pissarro’s late landscapes gained in rhythm and dynamism. In Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi light pervades the picture, awakening the landscape: golden touches of paint break up the greens, reviving the composition with a sense of vibrancy and movement. Pissarro, nevertheless, retained certain lessons he had learnt while experimenting with Pointillism. His palette maintained a heightened brightness and the artist continued to employ certain complementary tones – purple and pinks – confident of their ability to lift the light effects in his pictures. In Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi this is visible in the foreground, in which the artist juxtaposed touches of icy-grey to green in order to convey a strip of shadow, or in the tree near the small figure, in which small dabs of purple express a receding area and a shift of light. Fruit of Pissarro’s Impressionist sensibility and benefitting form his latest experiment with Pointillism, works such as Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi express the ultimate culmination of style in the artist’s career.

One of the most important consequences of Pissarro’s detachment from Pointillism had been his return to nature. In 1896, in a letter to his son Lucien, the artist rejoiced: ‘…it feels so good to me to work outdoors again. It has been two years since I last attempted this adventure’ (quoted in Camille Pissarro: Impressionist Innovator, exh. cat., Jerusalem, 1994, p. 172). As he resumed working in front of the motif, Pissarro became once again fascinated by the shifting changing light effects of the day and by the landscape’s response to them. The precision of title of Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi is indicative of Pissarro's artistic preoccupations at the time: the seasonal (‘été‘; summer), climatic (‘soleil‘; sun) and temporal (‘fin d’après-midi‘; late afternoon) conditions of the picture are carefully noted. It is as though Pissarro wished to stress the singularity of the fleeting moment he had captured with this precise landscape. This idea that painting had to seize an irreproducible moment was indeed central to Pissarro’s conception of Impressionism. When, in 1900, the young Henri Matisse had asked Pissarro ‘What is an Impressionist?’, the artist replied: ‘An Impressionist is a painter who never makes the same painting twice’ (R. Shikes & P. Harper, Pissarro: His Life and Work, New York, 1980, p. 311). In their atmospheric subtlety, works such as Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi convey Pissarro’s great sense of respect for and understanding of the volatile, changeable appearance of nature. The artist explained: ‘…there is spring, summer, autumn, winter, air, light. Harmonies, admirable and infinite subtleties in nature. The whole thing is to pay close heed to them’ (Pissarro in 1902, quoted in Camille Pissarro: Impressionist Innovator, exh. cat., Jerusalem, 1994, p. 172). 

At the time Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi was executed, Pissarro had reached a certain economic stability. In the same year that the present work was completed, Pissarro’s Pont Corneille à Rouen, brume du matin was sold for the record price of FFr10,000. Meanwhile, his paintings were being exhibited internationally: in 1898 the artist participated in exhibitions in Pittsburgh, Moscow, Berlin and Munich. Nevertheless, in the early 1900s, Pissarro was still financially responsible for all his children and for his two grandchildren. The pressure of such responsibility induced the artist to paint fervidly: in 1901 alone, Pissarro completed fifty paintings. Throughout those years, the artist divided his time between the countryside at Eragny and cities such as Paris, Dieppe and Le Havre. Works such as Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi offered peaceful, pure counterparts to the more industrial, bustling urban scenes the artist painted in those cities. A genuine countryside man, Pissarro seemed nevertheless to prefer his natural landscapes to the atmospheric views of modern cities and harbours. Commenting on an exhibition which took place at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in January, Pissarro wrote to Lucien: ‘Today my show opens at Durand-Ruel’s: forty-two canvases. The paintings of Eragny seem to me better than those of Paris and of Rouen’ (Pissarro, letter to his son Lucien, 14 January 1901, in J. Rewald, ed., Letters to His Son Lucien, London, 1980, p. 345). Bathed in a golden light, Le pré à Eragny, été, soleil, fin d’après-midi celebrates Pissarro’s ultimate return to nature, in a wonderfully evocative example of the resolute spontaneity of the master’s late style.

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