Camille Pissarro: The Impressionist Gardener

When you look at art closely, really peer in and see it, you can start to connect with art and artists in a way that’s more about emotion, less about rules. By ‘looking closely’ I mean close enough that you can see a painter’s brushstrokes and the built up layers of oil paints, watercolours, pen lines … in essence, the fingerprints of their sweat, intent and vision.

Camille Pissarro was a Danish–French painter from the 1800s known for his long grey beard, his kind, masterly character and his contributions to Impressionism alongside the likes of Monet. He painted gardens and outdoors scenes with a loose brush stroke that still picks up light, illuminates the commonplace and draws you in.

Pissarro painted The Artist’s Garden at Eragny in 1898. He was sixty–eight years old then and living in the village of Eragny on the River Epte, north–west of Paris with his wife Julie Vellay. With this oil painting Pissarro describes his own garden as a place of purpose and beauty. You can imagine him set up with his artist’s easel, paints, cloths, brushes and canvas in the middle of the vegetable patch, the legs of his chair perhaps sinking an inch or two into the freshly turned soil.

“Paint the essential character of things,” was Pissarro’s personal manifesto and to do this he headed outdoors, sometimes in the company of other artists including Paul Cézanne. In the open air Pissarro painted what he saw with no styling up or editing out. Instead, he turned to the beauty inherent in everyday life.

The oil paint of The Artist’s Garden at Eragny is thick and colourful, the garden vital. The smell of the earth is palpable, the greens in the vegetable garden glow and the house sits warmly as part of the landscape. There is work going on in the garden and that’s the heart of the scene. The woman in Pissarro’s garden is bent over, eyes on the earth, sowing or weeding or harvesting – however you like to interpret it. There’s effort and reward in her activity.

We know the feeling: a slightly tight lower back, dirt under the fingernails, oncoming dehydration … and the living, breathing reward of a garden that gives a hundred times more.

From letters we know Pissarro was a gardener. He talks of planting seeds, of seasons so cold his asparagus, beans and peas refused to come out and rain that killed his big red poppies. But the garden we see in his painting is at full health under a rolling sky. “Paint generously and unhesitatingly,” said Pissarro “for it is best not to lose the first impression.” The first impression for Pissarro was everything; it was the sensation worth sharing. The Artist’s Garden at Eragny shows a painter at home in his garden, admiring his roses, his sunflowers, the toil involved and the pure pleasure of everyday life.

Camille Pissarro (1898) 'The Artist's Garden at Eragny', courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.