A Closer look at the Ashmolean's Pissarro collection

La Traite des Vaches, Eragny was executed in 1884, the year that Pissarro moved to Eragny, and belongs to a series of watercolours that explore the village's rural rhythms. Its focal point is the milkmaid, who sits absorbed in her task, accentuated by the strong diagonal that runs from the empty milk canisters to the carrier boy's head. A study for our work (see image below), now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, reveals Pissarro's thoughtful approach to composition. With the foreground empty, it stands as an unresolved step towards our focused and balanced work.


The study also elucidates Pissarro's treatment of watercolour, which he turned to increasingly from the mid-1880s for its ability to capture "fleeting effects… the intangible, power, and delicacy" ('Letter to Lucien', 13 May 1891). The two works are united by a warm, pale wash that shimmers throughout, evoking the clear rays of the early morning sun. Our work's rich colours were then made deeper by crayon, evident in the cow's chestnut tones, the milkmaid's indigo dress and the touches of blue and green that animate hilltops and fields. Realised at a time of rapid industrialisation, it captures a rich and tranquil picture of rural life.


The Ashmolean Museum retains an extensive archive relating to the Pissarro family: the initial gift made by the family in 1950 and augmented by a further gift of 600 items in 2003 from David Bensusan-Butt, Lucien Pissarro's nephew. This last includes the manuscript of an illustrated book by the young Lucien Pissarro that I found in a little shop in Les Andelys in 1990 and sold to Mr Bensusan-Butt on my return. Entitled La Marseillaise des Epiciers, it imagines an uprising of specialist local shop-keepers against the evil of Félix Potin and his prototype supermarkets, with their impersonal service and cutprice 'own brand' goods. In 1889! Some social issues never seem to date.


Jonathan Dodd

September 30, 2016