Camille Pissarro
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Two Peasants, 1882
Black chalk on pink paper prepared with a thin layer of chinese white
42.8 x 63.8 cm
Pissarro Family Gift, 1952
WA BL 123

Camille Pissarro drew Two Peasants as a preparatory sketch for his 1882 tempera painting La Moisson (The Harvest) which was exhibited in the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition along with some thirty other works. Pissarro made at least five preparatory sketches for the painting, all of which are housed at the Ashmolean.  

The drawing is on a pinkish laid paper measuring 428 x 638 mm or, Imperial size, having a thick and organic texture with some wrinkles in the surface that seem to have been there since its manufacture, since they were drawn over like part of the paper.  The paper has been mounted on board and has obviously been framed at some point because there is a darker ring, in about 1” from the edges of the paper, indicating protection afforded at some point by an opaque cover.  Part of the composition lies within the protected part of the paper, meaning that while on display, the ends of the energetic drawing lines were not visible.  There has been repair to the corners of the drawing and the paper has suffered some foxing and abrasion at the top which doesn’t affect the viewing of the drawing as terribly as it could because of the heterogeneous texture of the paper’s composition. This drawing is from sketchbook X in Ashmolean collection, which was presented to the Ashmolean in 1950 by Pissarro’s son Lucien’s widow, Esther Benusan.

The paper itself bears four scripted marks: one blue “CP” in the lower left-hand corner which was obscured by the framing, a blue “43A” on the right-hand side of the drawing which had also bee covered by the frame under which the drawing sat, a false-seeming “CP” drawn in blue ballpoint pen which appears to have replaced the original “CP” covered by the frame, and a possible “studio stamp” appears in the upper right-hand corner.  The studio stamp was applied to drawings which were released from studios after the artist’s death, and the other Pissarro drawing in the Ashmolean collection which is coming to the University of Pennsylvania features the same stamp.

Two Peasants portrays two peasant women at work in a field. The woman on the left of the composition is turned away from the viewer, bent forward at the waist, lifting an armful of grain. The woman on the right is standing with her face toward the viewer, although the direction of her gaze and the momentum of her body are heading into the bottom right hand corner of the frame as she carries her armful of grain to its destination.

The two figures, by way of their proximity to one another, can’t help but serve as a recto and a verso view of the same person in action.  Since Pissarro is interested more in the activity of the workers than in their personalities, this seems to be a graphically useful, if inaccurate, reading of the relationship of the figures in space.  That this is inaccurate is proven in the dress of the women, with the bending figure in long sleeves, and the standing figure in short sleeves, and in the reference afforded by La Moisson

Pissarro uses a very clear, fast, and decisive chalk mark to describe the figures as archetypical peasants, with the intention to depict the valor of their labor and not their individual endeavor or feelings.  The harvester who faces us is sympathetic, focused, and trustworthy, and because of its general and impersonal description of line, the viewer gets the feeling that this is the state of all harvesters, and that the entire work is one of direction and value. 

Her eyes, the marker of individuality, are marked out very generally with small blackened circles, and resting atop them are straight lines denoting lids.  The eyes, despite the simplicity of their rendering, are clearly fixed on the chaff of wheat borne in the harvester’s arms, signaling her full commitment to her work.

Protecting her from the sun, she wears a kerchief woven with a square plaid pattern which looks initially like a type of straw-basket hat.   It is through taking reference of the headdress of the harvester on the left of the drawing that one can infer that both are wearing scarves.

Pissarro worked mainly from models in studio which he posed after people he’d viewed in life.  He drew multiple studies for each painting, a practice which both left us with over 2000 drawings to enjoy, and caused his art’s being considered anything but spontaneous.

Pissarro’s sustaining concerns for making art were to condense reality, create a social conscience about the rural and agricultural life, create an optical mixture of paint, and to support a feeling of sympathy with nature.  He created around himself a community of artists and was considered by many to be the “Father of Impressionism,” for the way that he supported and mentored other artists of the time.   Pissarro said in 1883 that Impressionism should be “nothing more than a theory of observation,” a way of thinking that brought about his radical stabs in to pointillism and took an unexpected new meaning in 1891, when he began to lose his eyesight.  He continued painting, indoors, until his death in 1903, working tirelessly at his craft much in the way he depicted his peasants’ labor, believing and steadfast.

Jessica Slaven

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