Camille PISSARRO | Hoarfrost, peasant girl making a fire [ Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu]

Camille PISSARRO
West Indies 1830 – France 1903

Hoarfrost, peasant girl making a fire
[ Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu]
1888
oil on canvas
canvas 92.8 (h) x 92.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Transferred from the Direction générale des douanes et droits indirects 2000
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

This work was painted in Eragny, northwest of Paris, where Pissarro lived from 1884 until his death in 1903. Opposed to the existing social order, Pissarro aspired to a future where power and wealth would be equally shared, and abandoned the city to get closer to an agrarian existence. There are several versions of this particular motif—about six oils, a gouache, a drawing and a watercolour1—in the series of rural landscapes that he made after relocating.

As peasants began to feature more prominently in Pissarro’s work, he was criticised for copying the ideas of Jean-François Millet. Pissarro strongly refuted this—especially after discovering that Millet was not the radical he had originally thought, having actually opposed the 1871 French Commune. Pissarro’s supporters saw his art as authentic representations of peasant life. Degas, for one, aptly described the difference between their approaches: ‘Millet? His Sower is sowing for mankind. Pissarro’s peasants are working to make a living.’2

Some admirers tried too hard to authenticate the artist, one describing Pissarro as:

liv[ing] deep in lower Normandy, on a farm which he cultivates himself and which feeds him from the very soil he works. When the harvest has been good and he is free from his labours in the fields, Pissarro takes up his brushes … and fixes on canvas the rough existence of the creatures and the country life that he leads himself.3

True to his socialist ideals, Pissarro vehemently denied these claims, although he firmly believed that his Jewish bourgeois upbringing did not disqualify him from painting peasant themes.

Pissarro believed that painting rural scenes kept him in touch with nature, and reliant on ‘sensation’.4 On the back of the first work in the series which includes Hoarfrost, peasant girl making a fire he described the effect he wished to produce on the canvas—that the smoky haze rising around the fire be achieved as ‘trembling colour’.5

Simeran Maxwell

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1993, p. 171; and Richard Brettell and Christopher Lloyd, A catalogue of drawings by Camille Pissarro in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1980, p. 171.
  2. Quoted in Belinda Thomson, The Post-Impressionists, Oxford: Phaidon 1983, p. 156.
  3. Quoted in Richard Thomson, Camille Pissarro: Impressionism, landscape and the rural labour, London: The South Bank Centre 1990, p. 51.
  4. See Thomson, pp. 46–58.
  5. Quoted in Richard R. Brettell, ‘Pissarro in Louveciennes: an inscription and three paintings’, Apollo, vol. 136, no. 369, November 1992, p. 316.