This stunning painting, a gift to the museum from John C. Haas and Chara C. Haas, is part of a new exhibition called First Look: Collecting for Philadelphia, a selection of 125 pieces from more than 8500 works of art donated to PMA over the last five years.
At first glance, it seems to be a simple painting. There is the obvious focal point, an apple tree in full leaf with perhaps a few blossoms left, suggesting early summer. The bright blue sky is cloudless, rather unusual since most of the Eragny paintings made that summer have puffy white clouds. The brilliant sunlight fades the green of the grass in the meadow. It must have been a calm day—the tree shows no sign of wind or breezes. Pissarro set his easel in the meadow facing the tall white fence that separates the house, and front garden from the orchard. This painting was made the year after the Pissarro family purchased the house at Eragny.
But very little with Pissarro is ever simple, and neither is this picture. The brilliant sunlight creates purple shadows making patterns on the ground. We do not know what caused the shadows—a typical Pissarro mystery. The painting consists of horizontal bands with a perpendicular tree trunk, but wait! The right edges of those shadows create a strong diagonal line, and there’s more. Follow the diagonal of the roof line down through the thickest part of the tree to the small object in the right foreground. Another diagonal hidden in the elements of the painting! It appears that Pissarro put that object there just to complete the diagonal and give strength to the composition. But what is that object?
A short post, perhaps. The wall behind it is about six feet tall, so it couldn’t be more than two or three feet high. A very close look (see the detail) reveals characteristics of a figure. (For a reality check, I asked a friend what she saw, and she immediately answered, “a woman.”) In fact, the figure, painted with very few brush strokes appears to be a woman in a blue dress with a red and white kerchief on her hair, holding a basket. If so, she is a very small scale compared to other elements in the painting. Of course, she could be a small garden statue, though I would not expect one to look like a maid. We know why Pissarro put the object in that place (to complete the diagonal line), but we do not know what! It is just another of the many puzzles that can be found in Pissarro’s paintings.
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You can see it for yourself on the PMA website: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/319041.html?mulR=5031|1. In the lower right hand corner of the painting, click on the magnifying glass and you can study the details of the painting. Notice the tiny brushstrokes and the mixture of colors. When you zoom in on the object, press CTL and + at the same time to magnify it even more. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think it is!
Photos were taken by the author (with the museum guard’s permission and no flash) on my Iphone.