Pissarro’s landscape are usually inhabited and worked. Traditional landscapes often incorporate ancient ruins and timeless figures in harmony with nature, such as bathers or nymphs, alluding to bucolic times. By contrast, Pissarro, from the time he first arrived in Pontoise in 1866, instead painted a local factory that distilled alcohols from locally grown sugar beets, an emblem of the intrusion of modern industrial activity on the landscape. In 1872, he painted four versions of the newly expanded factory on the Oise, seen from across the river. Richard Brettell has pointed out that the artist altered the proportions of the factory and even rearranged the buildings and surrounding trees. According to Brettell, it is not clear what Pissarro’s attitude was toward the industrialization around Pontoise, yet it is interesting to note that these are his only surviving paintings from the 1860s and 1870s that have no “humanized foreground.”
Landscape painting, for Pissarro, does not exist primarily for aesthetic delectation. Rather, it provides a means to depict the reality of the change in nature resulting from industrialization. In place of the academic device of framing the view with a tree arching to the side à repoussoire, in the center of this composition three smokestacks divide the background rhythmically. There is a vertical alternation between substance and reflection, as we see in the broken image of the smokestack in the river below. The smoke wafting from the stacks to the right, expressed in thick, white impasto, contrasts with the solidity of the factory building and its ephemeral emission. As in Monet’s series of paintings of the Gare St.-Lazarre (1877-1878), a Paris train station, the vapors can seem denser than hard industrial matter. The trees to the right of the smokestack reiterate the vertical accent, broken also by smoke, but in a more irregular, organic form. In the smaller tree alongside, we are more aware of daubs of green paint than a distinct shape. Nestled in the landscape to the left, is a field with the hint of a farmhouse.
Using the rather broad brushstroke characteristic of the work of Monet and Renoir of this period, Pissarro contrasts the elements of nature, the bushes, and the river, with the flatter planes of the man-made—the buildings. The 1870s witnessed the growth of industry along the banks of the Seine and Oise. Thus, the very landscape made accessible by train to painters and leisure-seekers was also being encroached upon by industrial development. Pissarro, more than any other Impressionist, portrayed these changes in his paintings, but his colleagues took notice of them as well. For example, during the late 1860s and early 1870s, Guillaumin incorporated the effects of industrialization in his river landscapes; Monet painted the railway bridges at Argenteuil; Caillebotte, in The Pont de l’Europe, depicted the new iron bridge over the railway lines of the Gare St.-Lazare; and Seurat integrated the factories along the Seine in the landscape in Bathers, Asnières.
Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Painting and Sculpture, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2006, English / Hebrew