Why Did Pissarro Do This?
The Hills at l’Hermitage, Pointoise, c. 1867, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
Always pushing the edge of creativity and inventiveness, Pissarro painted The Hills at L’Hermitage, Pontoise in 1867, seven years before the first Impressionist Exhibition. But it demonstrates all the elements of Impressionism—the light palette, a scene of everyday life, and depiction of the weather.
It is the largest painting ever made by Pissarro. Paul Durand-Ruel, his agent, bought the painting in March 1873 and sold it the same day to Jean-Baptiste Faure, a famous operatic baritone who sang in Paris and London.
The people in Pissarro’s paintings are integral to its composition, but they are not there to tell a story. In fact, they often raise questions that have no answers. In this painting, a woman and little girl are talking to another woman. Most scholars agree that they are in fact Julie, the painter’s wife, and his daughter Minette. They are talking to a woman whose back is towards us, but we can see from her arms clasped behind her back that she has dark skin. This is especially noticeable because the skin of Julie and Minette are very light, almost pink.
Who is this dark-skinned woman? Is she an African or a gypsy woman? What is the conversation between these two women from obviously different backgrounds? As provocative as this question may be, the women are just two small elements in the painting. The difference in skin-color is so subtle that it goes unnoticed by many viewers. When you remember that everything in a painting is due to the artist’s choice, you wonder why Pissarro raised this unanswerable question.