Théophile (Théo) van Rysselberghe (1862-1926)
Born in Ghent, Belgium, he showed early aptitude for painting, and initially studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, before moving to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1879.
Realism to 1886
His early paintings were realist, in rather sombre colours, but were well-received, with two portraits accepted for the Ghent Salon in 1880. The following year he exhibited at the Brussels Salon, and moved to Brussels.
During the winter of 1882-3 he stayed in Spain, from where he visited Tangier in Morocco. He produced many vivid realist paintings during this period, which he exhibited during 1883, on his return to Belgium. He was then a co-founder of Les XX, together with Guillaume Vogels, James Ensor, and others. Late in 1883 he returned to Morocco, where he stayed and painted for almost a year. He also met John Singer Sargent, and painted in company with him.
In 1886, he took part in the Les XX exhibition of French Impressionists, and became influenced by Monet and Renoir. He started to experiment with Impressionist technique more overtly. He discovered Seurat and the start of the Divisionist movement when in Paris, and moved to Étangs d’Ixelles, Belgium.
In 1887, the theme of Les XX was Neo-Impressionism, and he became friends with Signac as a result. Although still painting in Impressionist style, he started to break down his colours and his marks grew smaller in readiness for a more Divisionist approach. He visited France, where he met Toulouse-Lautrec and others. At the end of 1887 he departed for his third trip to Morocco, and there his style became fully Divisionist.
He returned to Belgium in 1888, where he continued to paint using the Divisionist technique. In 1889 he married, honeymooning in Roscoff, then moving back into Brussels to live.
In 1890 he submitted his first painting to the Neo-Impressionist Salon des Indépendants, and travelled to Florence to copy frescoes by Giotto. He was shocked by the sudden death of Seurat in 1891, and took part in the homage to him by Les XX the following year. After that he sailed with Signac to the Mediterranean via the Canal du Midi.
In 1895 he visited the Pissarros at Eragny, then worked in Signac’s studio in Paris. His interest in print-making was developed as a result of a contract to produce posters for rail sleeper services, which took him on a series of trips through Europe. He also travelled with Signac in 1896, ending up at Saint-Tropez for two months.
In the summer of 1898, he wanted to start moving away from strict Neo-Impressionism so that he could get closer to nature, and his friendship with Signac cooled. Continuing to travel through France and Belgium, in 1900 he crossed the Channel to London, and visited the English Coast too.
In late 1901 his friendship with Signac was restored, and Signac stayed with him for three weeks. In 1903 he had an ‘inaugural’ exhibition at Druet’s, with Signac, Cross, Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and others. The following year he stayed with Cross in the South of France, and at the end of the year was the only Belgian representative at the exhibition of La Libre Esthétique devoted to the Impressionists.
In 1908 he travelled to Jersey, then went on a longer trip to Italy, ending up in Florence in April 1909. He tended to the ailing Cross, who finally died in 1910.
Towards the end of his life, van Rysselberghe turned more to sculpture, and his paintings more commonly featured nudes, often in outdoor scenes set on the coast of the South of France. He finally abandoned any trace of Divisionism, instead concentrating on light and colour, in the style sometimes termed ‘luminism’.
Some of these works appear influenced by Vincent van Gogh, others use the startingly intense colours associated with the Fauves. In 1911 he moved to Saint-Clair, on the Côte d’Azur, at the eastern end of the coast of the South of France.
In 1919 his work was recognised by the Belgian state, in his appointment as Commander of the Order of Léopold. He had a major solo exhibition at Galerie Giroux in 1922, and was subsequently nominated to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, and the Royal Academy of Belgium.
He died at the end of 1926.
Since then his work has featured at only two major exhibitions: his first official retrospective and centenary in Ghent, in 1962, and a second in Brussels and the Hague in 2006. Yet he was one of those central to Neo-Impressionism, and one of its most prolific and enduring devotees. At the start of the new century he played a formative role in the development of modernism in the Midi.
From his first influence by Impressionism, van Rysselberghe explored a world of vivid light and colour, painting some of the most distinctive works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet history currently sees him as a minor player, somewhere beyond the likes of Caillebotte or Bonnard.
With so many of his best paintings now in private collections, it is hard to see that changing, and his work receiving the recognition that it so richly deserves.
Supplements and corrections to the Catalogue Raisoné.
Holberton P ed (2006) Théo van Rysselberghe, Mercatorfonds, Centre for Fine Arts and Belgian Art Research Institute. ISBN 978 9 057 79080 5. (A superb collection of well-illustrated essays about different phases and aspects of his life and work, this is an almost comprehensive account with excellent reproductions of many of his works. Sadly it now seems out of print.)