“I’m at Kew, taking advantage of this exceptional summer to throw myself headlong into my plein air studies in this stunning park,” Pissarro wrote to Octave Mirbeau in July 1892, brimming with enthusiasm for his new motifs. “Dear friend, what trees! What lawns! What lovely imperceptible undulations of the countryside! It’s a dream” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, p. 616).
Pissarro had arrived in London in late May, for the third of four voyages that he would take to the English capital over the course of his career. The impetus for this trip was concern for Lucien, his eldest son and most frequent correspondent, who had settled in London two years earlier. Lucien had fallen in love with a young woman named Esther Bensusan and sought her family’s blessing for their marriage. Both young people were from traditional Jewish households. Her father Jacob, however, was adamantly opposed to the union, reproaching Lucien for his career choice—he too was an artist—and his lack of religious piety. Having encountered staunch resistance from his own parents when he decided to marry Julie Vellay, Pissarro was eager to spare his son such a conflict.
Unlike many of his Impressionist colleagues, who shunned traditional marital life, Pissarro was a quintessential family man and doted on his children—eight in all, six of whom survived to adulthood. He taught them to draw and paint (with the exception of his daughter Jeanne, whom Julie insisted should have a more traditional upbringing) and assiduously nurtured their intellectual development. “He became the kind of father he never had,” Richard Brettell has written, “less a restraining force on the lives of his children than an anxiously patient guide to life” (Pissarro’s People, exh. cat., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, 2011, p. 117). When Lucien encountered difficulties in his personal life, Pissarro did not hesitate to enter the fray. “There’s no other solution but to ask her father for her hand,” he advised his son. “I’m willing to do what’s necessary to try to secure it for you” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durnad-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, p. 236).
On his arrival in London, Pissarro settled into the flat at 7 Colville Square in Bayswater that Lucien shared with his brother Georges. By 10 June, he had begun to paint at Kew Gardens, some five miles southwest of Bayswater in suburban Richmond; late in the month, he moved to rented quarters above a bakery at the corner of Gloucester Road and Kew Green to be closer to his motifs. “I’m trying to do my best here despite the weather’s constant variations,” he reported to Mirbeau. “The Kew Gardens are wonderful and the surrounding country is superb. But time is so short and the work to be done so long that I despair!” (quoted in ibid., p. 616).
During the ensuing two months, Pissarro painted eight large views of the lush Gardens from different angles, as well as three canvases depicting the splendid vista from his balcony over the adjacent Green. In the present painting, a group of elegantly dressed men, women, and children—out for a leisurely excursion on a splendid summer day—stroll along a grassy path that leads up a low rise in the middle distance, presumably toward the pond of the title. Reflecting Pissarro’s experimentation with Divisionist techniques during the late 1880s, the dominant blue-green hues of the canvas are heightened with accents of complementary orange, and pigment is applied in myriad tiny touches to create a disciplined, close-knit tapestry of color. The composition, however, exudes all the freedom and spontaneity of plein-air painting, with trees of varying shapes and sizes creating an irregular, gently rolling band of foliage that echoes the subtle undulations in the land and the loose pattern of wispy clouds.
“These are delightful, relaxed works,” Alan Bowness has written, “in which Camille seems to have happily returned to the manner of painting natural to him, abandoning the dogmatic theoretical approach of the neo-impressionists” (The Impressionists in London, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1973, p. 16).
Although his artistic endeavors in London were a great success, Pissarro’s best efforts to win over Jacob Bensusan were in vain. On 10 August, Lucien and Esther married without her family present for the ceremony. Pissarro returned home to Eragny a few days later and immediately invited Mirbeau and Monet to come see his views of Kew Gardens. The dealer Alphonse Portier expressed interest in purchasing the canvases in the fall but the artist demurred, hoping to sell them instead to Durand-Ruel, whose clientele was better heeled. His strategy paid off. Durand-Ruel was delighted with the new paintings, acquiring six of them in December 1892 and three more, including Jardin de Kew, Londres, près d’un étang, the following year.
In March 1893, Durand-Ruel featured the present painting in a solo exhibition of Pissarro’s work at his gallery in the rue Laffitte. The show received a glowing review from Gustave Geffroy in the periodical La Justice: “Camille Pissarro’s art is infinitely fine. There is a poet inseparable from the skilled painter, and the result is not a cold demonstration, but a luminous resumé of the appearances of things and of short-lived phenomena, magnificently set down once and for all” (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durnad-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., 2005, pp. 240-241). When Pissarro ran into his old friend Georges de Bellio soon after the show, the distinguished collector had nothing but praise for the artist’s achievement. “What’s staggering,” he wrote to Lucien, “is de Bellio saying to me that I’ve gone further than Monet, that my art is more serious and that I’ve surpassed Monet’s Poplars. Heavens! I hardly dare believe him!” (quoted in ibid., p. 241).
The next year, Pissarro—who had recently become a grandfather, when Esther gave birth to a daughter named Orovida Camille—was invited to take part in the first exhibition of La Libre Esthétique in Brussels, the successor to Les XX, which for ten years had been the principal vehicle for the dissemination of new artistic ideas in Belgium. The present view of Kew Gardens was one of two canvases that the artist opted to send to this important avant-garde showcase.