This weekend I’m celebrating the life and art of one France’s least-known and most prolific Neo-Impressionists, Maximilien-Jules-Constant Luce (1858-1941). His paintings are in galleries and museums around the world: the Musée d’Orsay holds quite a few of his very best, but seldom do they appear in special exhibitions, or in prominent places. In his long lifetime, he painted more than 2,000 works in oils, rather more than Cézanne, and was an accomplished Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist, and Post-Impressionist. But memory of him has faded badly.
He was born to a working class family in Paris, and started his apprenticeship to a wood engraver in 1872, just after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1). This fired his enthusiasm for art, and he attended evening school, first in drawing, then starting to paint in oils. In 1876 he moved to work for Eugène Froment, who made woodcut prints for a wider range of clients. He pursued his training in painting at the Académy Suisse and in Carolus-Duran’s studio. Among the latter’s most famous pupils was John Singer Sargent, who trained just a few years earlier.
In 1879 he joined the army, served in Brittany, and left in 1883, when he started painting full-time. The following year he was introduced to Divisionist technique and Pointillism, and his previously Impressionist style changed accordingly. He first exhibited with the Neo-Impressionists of the Société des Artistes Indépendents, in its spring Salon of 1886, and continued to exhibit in that Salon each year (except 1915-19) until his death. His first solo show took place in Paris in 1888, but consisted of only ten paintings.
As a Neo-Impressionist, he was an active anarchist, as were Pissarro and several others. However, colleagues in the movement and the influential critic Félix Fénéon viewed his work as being more ‘muscular’ and less ‘cerebral’, in contrast to Seurat’s ‘scientific’ approach.
A Kitchen is one of his early Divisionist paintings, dating from 1888-89. It’s an unusual motif, showing domestic servants at work in the kitchen of a large bourgeois house. Like many of Luce’s paintings, it’s also an insightful social record.
Morning, Interior (1890) is one of his best-known Divisionist paintings from this period. Although it adheres to the technique of applying small marks of contrasting colours to build the image, Luce’s marks are less mechanical than those seen in Seurat’s paintings. In places they become more gestural and varied, particularly in highlights.
In 1892, he went to London with Pissarro, then later that year travelled to the south of France with Signac.
This portrait of his (then unmarried) partner and model Ambroisine ‘Simone’ Bouin, Madame Luce on the Balcony (1893), shows an even wider range of marks, and in parts of the foliage in the background they have started to become organised in the way that was most distinctive of the late paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Sadly, the couple didn’t marry until a few months before her death in 1940.
Rocks at Agay from 1894 shows one of the more rugged sections of the Côte d’Azur, between Saint-Tropez and Cannes in the south of France. This area was being actively developed for tourism at the time, although the sailing boats with brown sails are more likely to have been local fishing vessels.
Luce painted this outstanding nocturne of Camaret, Moonlight and Fishing Boats at the opposite end of France, in 1894. Camaret-sur-mer is a small fishing port in the far west of Brittany. The tower silhouetted in the distance is the Tour Vauban, a fortification dating back to the end of the seventeenth century, and now a World Heritage Site.
That same year, he painted one of the finest nocturnes of the Port of London, Night, still in Divisionist style. He avoids popular landmarks, preferring the more industrial waterside long since demolished.
Luce travelled to the industrial heartland of Belgium to paint this next nocturne, showing The River Sambre in Charleroi (1896). This could been a pendant to his painting of London above.
He painted in most genres. Although his many landscapes are often beautiful, it was in other genres that he was perhaps most individual and distinctive. In his Good Samaritan from 1896, he combines a brilliantly colourful dusk landscape with a classical narrative painting, showing the parable of the Good Samaritan from the New Testament. This uses an unusual combination of the contemporary with a very traditional donkey. His marks are steadily moving away from pure Divisionism.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Luce’s style had moved on from Neo-Impressionism as that movement slowly collapsed, to a more Post-Impressionist approach. His Charleroi Foundry, Casting (1896) shows this well, and is a good example of his many industrial genre works. More than any artist since the days of Philip de Loutherbourg, Joseph Wright of Derby, and others who painted the Industrial Revolution, Luce featured heavy industry and its workers.
The Slag-Heaps of Sacré Madame from 1897 is another, perhaps unique, view of the city of Charleroi. Slag heaps or spoil tips were an inevitable sight in coal-mining country. They’re formed from the spoil or waste removed from underground, and don’t contain slag, the by-products of metal smelting. Mining spoil is quite frequently toxic, and can result in disastrous landslides.
Luce also became skilled in colour lithography. His finest print is this of Saint-Tropez from 1897. Here he substitutes dashes of colour for the small dots of Pointillist painting, with the aim of getting adjacent colours to interact and generate a glow of colour. This is taken from Divisionist theory as first developed by Seurat, then later by Signac.
Where the famous Impressionists had shown us small glimpses of smoke billowing from the chimneys of factories sprawling out into the countryside around Paris, Luce painted Industrial City (1899) and other works, particularly around the heavy industrial zone of Charleroi, in the ‘Black Country’ of Belgium.