Camille Pissarro was the elder statesman of the combustible Impressionists. When he moved to Pontoise, the rest followed – and brought their rows. Joachim Pissarro describes Pissarro's work from this period
Camille Pissarro painted no fewer than 300 oils, not to mention countless drawings, engravings, pastels and gouaches of Pontoise and the surrounding countryside. Not even Courbet at Ornans, Chintreuil at Igny, Corot at Ville-d'Avray, Millet at Barbizon or Monet at Argenteuil worked with such intensity, producing such a diversity of motifs in a single place.
Following several short sojourns in 1866-68, Pissarro settled in Pontoise, living there from 1872 to late 1882. In 1882 – the year Pissarro painted Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise, la mère Bellette – he wrote to his friend Duret: "I'm not rolling in money, as the romantics put it, I'm enjoying the fruits of moderate but steady sales. I ask only one thing, that it continue. The only thing I dread is a return to the past."
Pontoise lies some 30 kilometres northwest of Paris in the region known as the French Vexin. It is built in a semicircle on the edge of the plateau overlooking the right bank of the river Oise – a tributary of the Seine – and is enclosed by two valleys: the valley of L'Hermitage to the northeast, where Pissarro lived, and, to the southwest, the valley of the Viosne, a small watercourse that flows down from the hamlet of Osny and the plateau of the Vexin into the Oise. The town was linked to Paris and Rouen by railway as early as 1863. L'Hermitage was densely populated in Camille Pissarro's day; its inhabitants were small farmers, market gardeners and wine growers, who cultivated every bit of land. Many of these garden plots still exist as kitchen gardens, and, thanks to them, quite a few of the sites Pissarro painted can still be identified.
Pissarro rented a succession of houses in the outlying area of L'Hermitage. The year Pissarro painted Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise, la mère Bellette he was living at 85 quai du Pothuis, which was neighbouring the Jardin de Maubuisson. As the house on the quai du Pothuis was very damp, Pissarro wanted to find somewhere better for his children's health. But he soon found that rents in the more salubrious neighbourhoods were relatively high. In September 1882, he wrote in a letter to Monet: "I'm in a terrible quandary; much to my regret, I have to leave Pontoise, since I can't find a well-appointed house within a modest price range." He and his family moved to Osny, a small village northwest of Pontoise.
In 1880, Pissarro began what would become a large series of figure paintings focused on rural women shown at work or at rest in a rural environment. Pissarro's scenes of rural leisure contrasted with Millet's depiction of peasants, who were shown for the most part engaged in backbreaking labour, while Pissarro depicted a more relaxed sense of rural labour balanced by plentiful leisure time. Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise, la mère Bellette appears to depict the mother of M. Victor Hyacinthe Bellette in her kitchen garden (The name Jardin de Maubuisson was given to a cluster of kitchen gardens at L'Hermitage in Pontoise) viewed looking towards the côte Saint-Denis. The neat and short brushwork and brighter colour palette used for the paintings executed during the late 1870s and early 1880s, as in this painting, anticipated the brighter and more regular brushstrokes advocated by the Neo-impressionists. Pissarro made several oil paintings of these kitchen gardens – his first known oil of them is a painting titled Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise. In 1881 Cézanne did a rendering of almost the exact same view of the gardens. Pissarro's presence inspired a number of other painters to reside in the area and seek his advice, among them Gauguin and especially Cézanne. In May 1881 Cézanne, Pissarro's close friend, decided to stay in Pontoise, where he remained until the end of October. That same summer, Gauguin complaining about never seeing Pissarro, and feeling that his privileged relationship with his professor was perhaps at stake due to Cézanne's stay in Pontoise, wrote to Pissarro and invited himself.
Pissarro played a key role organising the seventh Impressionist group show of 1882 and allowed Gauguin to take an active part in the organisation of the show. However, as a result of arguments with Degas, Gauguin wrote to his cher professeur: "Two more years and you will be left alone in the midst of these schemers of the worst kind. All your efforts will be destroyed, and Durand-Ruel, too, on top of this. In spite of all my good will, I cannot continue to serve as buffoon... Please accept my resignation." Pissarro eventually agreed to drop Degas – who was the centre of all discord – whereupon Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Caillebotte and Gauguin rejoined the association.
The seventh exhibition of independent artists was held in March of 1882. Despite the great difficulties involved in mounting the show amidst constant tensions, the exhibition presented a homogenous group of painters reminiscent of the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. This time the critics were less aggressive and a few more collectors appeared. Although Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise, la mère Bellette was not part of this exhibition, another work depicting the Jardin de Maubuisson was.
Pissarro also participated in the group's eighth and last show in 1886. However, unlike in the group's seven previous exhibitions where Pissarro participated as an Impressionist, in the eighth show he participated as a Neo-Impressionist. By a rather acid irony of fate, it may well be that it was Pissarro, more than any other member of the group, who was responsible for the Impressionist movement ending.
Joachim Pissarro is the co-author of Pissarro: A Criticial Catalogue of Paintings (Skira)