This painting, “Peasant Women Planting Poles into the Ground,” (1891) was made during those few years that Pissarro used the pointillist technique. Right now, it can be seen as part of an exhibition on Neo-Impressionists at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Its last appearance in the US was in 1995 in New York at an exhibition curated by Joachim Pissarro, the artist’s great-grandson.
Pissarro was intrigued with pointillism because it used scientific methods to create art. As you know, this technique is created by putting dabs or spots of pure color side-by-side to create light or shadow. When you look at the painting, your eyes automatically mix the dots. This is the opposite of mixing colors on the palette. You can see the same effect in digital photographs. If you zoom in close enough, you can actually see the little squares of different colors that make up the images in the photo.
The Impressionists had perfected the practice of painting en plein air, often completing a picture in a single day. However, pointillism with its myriad details required advance planning. To make this painting, Pissarro did several drawings to finalize the composition. In fact, he went back to a previous fan-shaped gouache from the previous year (1890) for the motif.
The fan shows women putting poles in the ground to support the young pea plants. The composition is spacious, showing surrounding fields on each side and there is room between each of the women. In contrast, the composition of this painting is much more dramatic. Pissarro cropped away all the surrounding fields and moved the women closer together. He also changed the positions of the women to emphasize the motion of their bodies. You can feel the rhythmic pounding of their actions.
His skill in the pointillism technique is evident as you examine the individual brushstrokes of each part of the painting. Look at the skirts of the women. The orange skirt on the left gets its shade from a combination of orange, dark blue, and yellow or white dots. The dark red dress on the right includes deep blue or purple dots along with red and yellow dots. The blue skirt gets its color from dots of purple and white. The use of different colors in tiny brushstrokes gives the colors an intensity and brightness that they do not have when mixed on the palette.
After a few years Pissarro grew tired of the pointillist technique. It took a lot longer to make a picture, and his output during those few years is much less than was normal for him. He abandoned the full technique and went back to his more spontaneous way of creating paintings, but he kept elements of pointillism in his paintings for the rest of his life.