Le grand noyer a l'Hermitage signed and dated 'C.Pissarro.1875' (lower right) oil on canvas 32.5 x 40.8cm (12 13/16 x 16 1/16in).
PROVENANCE By descent to Ludovic-Rodolphe Pissarro, the artist's son, 1904. Frau E. Grob-Müller. Brauerei Müller, Baden, Switzerland. Sale [Property from a Swiss Estate], Sotheby's, London, 28 June 1995, lot 126 (where purchased by Dr. Rau).
EXHIBITED Aargau, Aargauischer Kunsthaus, Jubiläums-Ausstellung aus Aargauischen Privatbesitz, No. 1: von den Impressionisten bis zur Gegenwart, 1960, no. 314.
LITERATURE L. R. Pissarro and L. Venturi, Camille Pissarro, son art - son oeuvre, San Francisco, 1989, vol. II, no. 315 (illustrated). J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, Pissarro, Critical Catalogue of Paintings, Paris, 2005, vol. II, p. 306, no. 417 (illustrated).
Camille Pissarro's sequence of views of Pontoise, the neighbouring hamlet of L'Hermitage and the surrounding countryside form the centrepiece of his long career. They show the already very experienced painter finding his full maturity, pushing the boundaries of Impressionism, and acting as a guide and an inspiration to younger contemporaries such as Cézanne and Monet.
Pissarro first exhibited at the official Salon in Paris in 1859 and continued to follow the official precepts of the artistic establishment, if unevenly, through the following decade. Corot and Daubigny were his major influences in this period, and like them Pissarro insisted on painting en plein air, working directly from nature. Increasingly, however, he found the strictures of these earlier masters limiting. While Corot made sketches in the open air, his pictures were then usually finished in the studio with untidy elements eliminated and the artist's initial impressions of the subject sublimated to more harmonious aesthetic and technical preconceptions. In contrast, Pissarro focussed much more on exploring the real world as he experienced it, preferring to finish his pictures in a single sitting while still immersed in his feeling for the landscape. This approach, depicting the natural world and the daily lives of workers without weighty symbolic meaning, painted in raw brushstrokes of pigment applied wet on wet, was in direct opposition to the perfect finish and romantic nuance of Corot and his peers. The public was hostile to such vulgar and commonplace scenes and the Academy was scandalised by the sketchy finish. In 1874, having been denied access to the official Salon, the principal marketplace for new art, Pissarro, Monet and Cézanne, with a small group of sympathetic artists, staged a rival exhibition in the studio of the photographer Nadar. The critic Louis Leroy snidely criticised the paintings for giving only an impression of their subject, but Impressionism was launched.
Le grand noyer à l'Hermitage dates from the year following this defining exhibition. In its loose, speedy exploration of the play of light through the foliage to the left, and the sympathetic handling of paint in the depiction of a rutted track leading past a strolling peasant to the homestead beyond, the work expresses a great deal of what these groundbreaking artists were trying to achieve. That it seems so harmonious and natural to modern eyes is true indication of the success of their revolution. As Richard Brettell has noted 'the 1870s are at the very core of Pissarro's career ... in that decade he became an Impressionist, severing, at least partially, his strong links with French artists of the nineteenth century and working more fervently with the young rebels whom he had met at the Académie Suisse and the Café Guerbois in the early 1860s' (R. Brettell, 'Camille Pissarro: a revision', Pissarro, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1980, p. 16).
Pissarro's relationship with Cézanne, one of those 'young rebels', is instructive. Although he was only a few years older, Pissarro acted as a mentor and guide, both in organising their exhibitions and in pushing the boundaries of their painting into what became Neo- and Post-Impressionist phases. Indeed as a mark of respect, for a time following his death Cézanne proudly described himself in exhibition catalogues as 'Cézanne, pupil of Pissarro'. In 1874 the younger artist moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, five miles from Pontoise, and the two artists often pitched their easels side by side in the surrounding countryside. Cézanne's Maison et arbre, quartier de l'Hermitage may be his companion piece to the present work (fig. 1; J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, New York, 1996, no. 222). The comparative flatness of the latter picture, and the more conventional handling of light, gives an interesting commentary on the relationship between the two artists at the beginning of this pivotal decade in their collaboration. Joseph Rishel suggests that 'Pissarro is justly credited with having transformed Cézanne's style and, to some degree, his temperament by encouraging him to interact more fully with nature and by initiating him into a more deliberate, less subjective approach to his craft. That mutual influence that ensued between these two artists over the next ten years is one of the great chapters in the history of nineteenth century painting. At its beginning the sage Pissarro endeavored to calm the ferocious young Cézanne, but, as time passed, the pupil progressively found himself in the lead, encouraging the older artist to follow his example in testing the limits of Impressionist landscape painting.' (J.J. Rishel, Cézanne, exh. cat., Paris, Grand Palais, and elsewhere, 1995-1996, p. 229).
Pissarro first stayed in Pontoise, 30 miles northwest of Paris, in 1866-68, returning in 1872 following the destruction of his studio at Louveciennes during the Franco-Prussian War. He lived at various addresses in the town, mostly in the neighbourhood of L'Hermitage, until 1882. His more than 300 paintings of the town and surrounding area chart this incredibly fertile period. The exact location of Le grand noyer à l'Hermitage was identified by the artist's son Ludovic-Rodo as the rue de la Côte du Jalet, now rue Victor Hugo, the old road from the hamlet into the centre of Pontoise, and a short walk from 18, rue de l'Hermitage, where Pissarro was living at the time. The white house in the centre of the composition, with its characteristic white gable, is the Maison Rondest, now 51, rue Victor Hugo, which belonged to Armand Rondest. Rondest was a successful local businessman who owned a number of properties in the village and was, among other things, Pissarro's greengrocer. Something of their relationship can be gauged by the fact that Pissarro gave him Le Tribunal de Pontoise, place Saint-Louis as settlement for some of his household debts (1893; J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., no. 292).
The arrangement of the white house seen through foliage, with a distant view of rising ground seems to have appealed particularly to Pissarro. He painted the Maison Rondest in a similar compositional setting in a picture of the preceding year (La rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, la maison Rondest, Pontoise, 1874, J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., no. 362) and in a number of later compositions culminating in an etching of 1882 (detail 35). Le grand noyer à l'Hermitage can be seen as a summer version, perhaps an effet du soleil, in counterpoint to the classically Impressionist effet de neige view of the same scene in winter, La maison Rondest sous la neige, Pontoise (sold, Sotheby's, London, 6 February 2013, lot 140; J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., no. 394).