Looking to the rural landscape of northwestern France, as well as to the work of Millet (see fig. 1)—whom the artist respected as one of the few serious painters of such scenes—Pissarro found himself gravitating to the peasants and farmhands of the estate. Works from this time witness maids, sowers, plowmen and other servants diligently at work under cheery skies or within domestic enclaves on the farm (see fig. 2), despite his hesitations taking on such a well-mastered subject. In a letter to Duret, Pissarro discusses his progress and misgivings, stating “I haven’t worked badly here. I have been tackling figures and animals. I have several genre pictures. I am rather hesitant about going in for a branch of art in which first-rate artists have so distinguished themselves. It is a very bold thing to do, and I am afraid of making a complete failure of it” (ibid., p. 95).
Painted in 1874, La Mère Jolly raccommodant beautifully refutes the artist’s ungrounded fears. A carefully constructed composition, the present works depicts a maid at work, sewing in a verdant alcove just outside the farmhouse. Echoing the delicate blooms of pink and blue which frame Mère Jolly are the rich cornflower hues of her frock and sewing, as well as the vivid ladylike blush of her cheek. Interestingly, Pissarro’s anarchist inclinations reveal themselves in the tranquil scene, as the artist seemingly exalts the social standing of his sitter by portraying a humble servant with all the dignity (if not grandeur) of a noblewoman among her trappings and finery (see fig. 3). By naming his subjects, as he does with Mère Jolly and many other maids from this period, Pissarro gives voice to the oft-overlooked people at the heart of enterprise and domestic prosperity and invites an equivalency to the members of his own family he was depicting concurrently (see fig. 4).
A triumph of composition, structure and volume, La Mère Jolly raccommodant and Pissarro’s other work from his time in Montfoucault mark a turning point for the artist, who previously had not studied the human figure in such depth or with such grace. According to leading scholar Richard R. Brettell, “the paintings of 1874 show ample evidence of a change in both style and iconography. Pissarro’s facture became more dense and brushstrokes broader… His attention turned from distantly viewed landscapes to the concentrated space of the barnyard populated with figures and defined by complex arrangements of form… The sheer physicality of form—its weight, mass and proximity—became Pissarro’s overriding concern in the Montfoucault period and that reality was expressed in a manner matched in the period only by Cézanne” (R.R. Brettell, Pissarro and Pontoise, London, 1990, pp. 162-64). Hailing from one of the most focused and grounded periods in the Pissarro’s oeuvre, this distinguished genre scene offers rarely afforded insight not only into pre-industrialized French life, but also into that of the master painter himself.
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