This wonderful view of the village of Éragny is in the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama. Recently, I had an opportunity to see the painting in person and study it closely. You would be deceived if you think this is simply a lovely landscape. Like so many of Pissarro’s paintings, there is a lot more to it than that.
Camille Pissarro and his family had just moved to Éragny in April of 1884. Delighted with new topographical subjects, he painted through the snowy winter. When he made this panoramic landscape in the early spring of 1885, he seemed to be taking the measurements of this new location. The current photo of Éragny (below) shows that it has changed little since he lived there.
To get the view in the painting, Pissarro crossed the road (now Rue Camille Pissarro) in front of his house and walked beyond the houses on the other side to look back at the village. All the local landmarks are visible. In the center of the painting, the steeple of the church at Éragny pierces the sky. The current photograph below shows that the steeple is quite high, especially for a church that small (the two sections in front of the steeple are recent additions). It appears that Pissarro gave the steeple in his painting some added height, perhaps to take it above the row of trees in the background and make it easier for us to see. To the left are the towers of the large manor house which dates from the sixteenth century and was built for the lord of Éragny (see the current photograph below).
This painting is one of those by Pissarro that can be viewed at many levels. The very casual observer might barely slow down, labeling it as a pleasant picture of a peaceful village. Others might do as we just did, examine the picture for landmarks and try to feel a sense of the village and the bare fields pictured there.
But there is so much more to see. Pissarro saw the “skeleton” of the view and responded with what look like broad swaths of color in the foreground. Near the bottom, a darker area, then a lighter green strip, and a reddish section, which could have been newly-plowed ground preparing for spring planting. It leads our eyes on the right to the small wooden fence which stretches across the width of the canvas. The regularity of the horizontal lines is then interrupted by the jumble of houses lining both sides of the main street. Except for Bazincourt in the distant middle ground, there are fields leading to the horizon lined with tree tops.
What Pissarro does within these designated spaces is the most interesting of all and can easily be seen in the dark area at the bottom. He achieves the color and texture by placing small patches of color side by side, varying the mix to make it darker or lighter.
This looks like pointillism, and in fact Pissarro had come to his own interpretation of pointillism before ever meeting Georges Seurat. For years, he had been interested in the division of color and had been reading the scientific writings of Michel Eugène Chevruel and Ogden Rood, an American scientist. When he met Seurat a few months after making this painting, he was excited to find someone else who shared his interest in color.
This is just another example of how Pissarro was always ahead of his time, pushing forward, investigating, experimenting, innovating. In fact, if you mentally eliminate the village from this painting, it would almost look abstract.