At first glance, this painting seems to be more characteristic of Vermeer than Pissarro. The only source of light is the small unadorned window set deep into the wall. The illumination is bright as a spotlight, casting dark shadows on the floor. However, most of the women in Vermeer’s paintings were nicely dressed and lived in well-appointed surroundings. In contrast, Pissarro paints an old peasant woman, an apron over her full skirt and a scarf on her head. Vermeer’s subjects are busy doing something–reading a letter, holding a balance. Pissarro’s subject sits quietly in the straight wooden chair, hands folded in her lap. How did this strange Pissarro painting come to be?
When Camille Pissarro went to visit his son Georges in 1902 at Moret-sur-Loing, just south of Paris, he hoped to paint outdoors. However, that May was unusually rainy and he decided to work indoors. As he wrote his wife Julie, “It’s been windy, cold, and rainy ever since I arrived… but in spite of this setback, I have some reason to be pleased with my work. I found some peasants—two women and an old man who were willing to pose for me at their place.”
The people had been wine growers until a disease wiped out all the vineyards around Moret and left them in poverty. Pissarro painted the old man sitting at the same table, an opened bottle of wine in front of him. Thankfully for Pissarro, the rain went away and he painted some of his most beautiful landscapes of the bridge and printing plant on the Loing River. These sites were also painted by another Impressionist, Alfred Sisley, who lived in Moret until his death in 1899, two years before Pissarro’s first visit to Moret in 1901.
Information and the quote from Pissarro’s letter are from Pissarro: Critical Catalogue of Paintings (2005) by Joachim Pissarro and Claire Durand-Ruel Snollaerts.
Many thanks to the Satalof family for spotting this Pissarro at Monserrat last summer and bringing it to my attention.