It’s not very often that you come across an artist from the island of Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and I think it’s fair to say that the French-Mauritian painter Henri Le Sidaner (1862–1939) is the most famous painter from there. His family were French, and lived in Port Louis until he was about eight, when they returned to France, settling in the Channel port of Dunkirk.
Le Sidaner went to train at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was a pupil of Alexandre Cabanel. However, the student found himself wrestling with irreconcilable differences with his teacher, and left.
In 1885, Le Sidaner went to live in the art colony at Étaples, to the south-west of his home town, and still on the coast. Although now largely forgotten, at the time it was at its peak, with artists like Daubigny and Eugène Boudin painting in the area. His realist painting of St. Michael’s Church in Étaples from about 1885 shows his conservative style at the time.
While he was in Étaples, Le Sidaner developed a particular interest in atmospheric light effects, which was to dominate his paintings for most of his life. His childhood friend Eugène Chigot (1860-1923) joined him there, and shared this interest.
Le Sidaner also painted themes which are unusual, and increasingly disquieting. He painted the Walk of the Orphans, Berck in 1888, just along the coast at the resort of Berck. The girls and young women dressed in grey are orphans being cared for by the nuns and one ‘civilian’ wearing blue, at a local charitable institution. This was a similar theme to Joaquín Sorolla’s later Sad Inheritance (1899), although in that case the children had obvious disabilities.
Here there is the feeling of quiet serenity as these girls and women wander among the sand dunes.
Le Sidaner’s style has also evolved to the more Post-Impressionist, his figures being formed from a fusion of small marks, with an overall granularity.
In 1894, Le Sidaner left the Étaples art colony, and started travelling more widely. His Sunday from 1898 has moved on too, still populated by young women, but now standing in the twilight sunshine above a town set astride a river. This is more overtly Symbolist, with an increasingly Divisionist facture.
The Quay, from the same year, appears to have been painted on one of the urban canals in Belgium or the Netherlands, which were to dominate his paintings over the next few years. From the lights in the windows, this is set at twilight too, and is eerily quiet and deserted. His palette is both limited and muted to match the lighting. His style has changed to that of a soft realism.
The following year, Le Sidaner was in Belgium during the winter, where he painted this Canal in Bruges, Winter (1899). His palette is even more restricted, almost to the point of becoming monochrome, but a mixture of brushmarks are now apparent on the water and edges of the canal. The few figures in the distance are inconspicuous and do little to temper its eeriness.
Another year later, and his Barge on the Canal (Morning) (1900) is essentially monochrome, its elements being distinguished primarily by their different lightness. The water surface is barely visible, the whole painting being dominated by the dawn lighting.
In the early years of the twentieth century, colour reappeared in his paintings such as this Canal in Delft from 1905, which has a rich range of greens, yellows and reds marking the autumn. He has also developed his distinctive facture of many small marks fused together, and swirling through the golden leaves. This is still twilight, though, with lights apparent in some windows, and eerily deserted.
Although Le Sidaner seems to have painted mostly twilight rather than true nocturnes, his Gaslight, Blue Night (original French title Le Bec de Gaz – Nuit bleue) from 1906 is an exception which appears to have been painted in Venice.
Le Sidaner appears to have been successful with these works, exhibiting at the Salon in Paris, and with dealers Georges Petit and Goupil. He settled in the old village of Gerberoy, inland in rural north-east France, which appears repeatedly in his later paintings, as I’ll show in the next and concluding article.