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  • Writer's pictureAnn Saul

PISSARRO: Springtime in the Orchard

Orchard in Bloom, 1872, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., PDRS 248

Camille Pissarro painted Orchard in Bloom in the spring of 1872 in the fields and orchards of Pontoise. It was a homecoming of sorts. Pissarro had lived in Pontoise before, from 1866 to 1868 when he moved to Louveciennes. Then in 1870, the Franco-Prussian war forced Pissarro and his family to flee, first to Brittany and then to London. When he returned to Louveciennes in 1871, he found that most of his paintings and drawings—a lifetime of work—had been destroyed. A few months later, in early April 1872, he moved his family back to Pontoise to begin anew.

This painting captures the promise of spring and new beginnings. The trees heavy with blossoms speak of fruit to come. The plowed earth, warm under the midday sun, provides a fertile bed for seeds that will yield the summer’s vegetables. This small orchard was probably close to Pissarro’s home at 16 rue Malebranche (now 18 rue Revert).1 The tall gray shadowy spire in the distance is probably the bell tower of the Cathédrale Saint-Maclau, which is situated on a high hill in the center of town where Pissarro lived.2

Pissarro places the focal point, the large straight flowering tree, well to the left of center, creating an asymmetrical composition. He divides the painting in the center with a path running straight back to the vanishing point on the horizon (this is a favorite device of the artist). On the left are the flowering trees; on the right, the fertile fields give way to the town. Then he ties the two together with a broken diagonal, from the bent tree which extends to distant foliage and points to the bell tower.

The warmth of the sun turns the earth reddish mauve, dark patches showing its rough furrows. The tree trunks, solid in shades of greenish grey, make dark purple shadows on the ground. The branches are beginning to leaf out in shades of dark forest to pale apple green. The bright blue of the sky is tinged with pale lavender near the horizon and falls to earth to accent the man’s pants and the woman’s apron.

This painting, made in April 1872, was promptly purchased by Paul Durand-Ruel in just three months, July 1872. It now lives at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., ensuring that the promise of spring is available to one and all.

1Pissarro: Critical Catalogue of Paints, Vol. I, p. 135 and Vol II, p. 202.

2An etching made of this Pissarro painting by Gustave Marie Greux in 1873 uses the title An Orchard in Louveciennes. However, the catalogue raisonne (Vol II, p. 202) places this painting after Pissarro’s return to Pontoise. Because of my many visits to houses where Pissarro lived in Pontoise, I identified the gray shadow in the distance as the Cathédrale bell tower. I verified the closeness of Pissarro’s house to the Cathédrale on the map. I have also visited the house where Pissarro lived in Louveciennes, which is on the outskirts of town and not near any bell tower that I recall. I welcome any comments on this difference of opinion.

I am honored that my latest book, Abstract Pissarro, was included in a review by David Carrier for Hyperallergic

Abstract Pissarro is available online at Bookshop, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

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