After focusing on landscapes in the 1860s and early 70s, Pissarro turned again (Brettell and Lloyd 1980, p 5.)to figure painting, a subject he had often depicted in St. Thomas and Venezuela. To best understand Pissarro’s figure painting, it is helpful to consider his drawings. Instead of long flowing lines, he constructed forms with many separate lines. “The idea of the whole figure seen as an enclosed form did not interest the young Pissarro.”1
In his paintings, this translates to forms that are more angular than fluid. This is evident in Two Young Peasant Girls Chatting under Trees, Pontoise, [PDRS 654] painted in 1881. The figures of the girls are set at angles, the sitting girl at almost a right angle while the standing girl’s right foot juts out putting her skirt at a slight angle with her bodice. This angle matches that of the leaning tree in the background.
The form of the standing girl is almost a series of color blocks. Her bodice is nearly square with little sign of actual bodily contours. A few light lines hint of a checker-board pattern in her blouse. Her light-blue skirt is a vertical parallelogram with shaded areas. The red-checkered kerchief covers her face. The form of the other girl is almost indistinct, and her features are mere notations. Both figures are built up with tiny touches of paint, often applied in directional strokes to suggest the form underneath. The foliage behind them is constructed using the same tiny directional strokes that almost stitch the girls into the background. In fact, the brushstrokes are so similar that the girl leaning on the tree would almost disappear into the tree trunk except for the dramatic difference in colors.
This figure painting is so different from what artists had done in the past. The people, who are unknown and have no special importance, are in a place of no significance. There is nothing in the background to tell us anything about them or why they are there—nothing to suggest a storyline. Théodore Duret wrote later, “[Pissarro] portrayed men and women as he saw them, with a simplicity of method and a direct truth of observation greater than had been known before.”2
The composition of the painting, based on the angles of the trees, pulls the standing girl into a highly geometric matrix. Indeed, the shape of the tree at the far right mirrors the stance of the girl. As Brettell and Lloyd say about one of Pissarro’s figure drawings, “She exists within, and merges with, the structured confines of her setting.”3
The area behind the trees is filled with colored planes, and only one tiny house in the distance suggests any depth. The highly-worked surface calls attention to the vigorous brushstrokes and diverts attention from the girls to the making of the painting.
Pissarro had painted this location once before in 1875 in The Climb, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, Pontoise. The addition of figures makes the depiction of the steep cliff even more complicated. (See the previous blog on The Climb.)
1Brettell, R. R. and C. Lloyd (1980). A Catalogue of the Drawings by Camille Pissarro in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Oxford, The Clarendon Press.
2Duret, T. D. (1910). Manet and the French Impressionists. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Company.
3Brettell, R. R. and C. Lloyd (1980). A Catalogue of the Drawings by Camille Pissarro in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Oxford, The Clarendon Press.