Last year I looked at length at the career and paintings of Paul Signac, and promised to improve my coverage of other notable Neo-Impressionists. Since then, I have added articles on Henri-Edmond Cross and Maximilien Luce.
This weekend it’s the turn of Théophile or Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), some of whose paintings rank among the finest of the period. Today we’ll follow his progress from Realism at the start of his career, through a period of Impressionism, into his mature Divisionist style, for which he is best-known. Tomorrow we’ll see his chroma intensify towards Fauvism into the first quarter of the twentieth century.
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.
His early paintings were realist, in rather sombre colours, but were well-received, with two portraits accepted for the Ghent Salon in 1880 when he was only seventeen. The following year he exhibited at the Brussels Salon, and moved to Brussels.
His Meuse River around Namur from 1880 shows rugged scenery near this provincial capital in Belgium. His style is here largely Barbizon School.
The Cliffs of Douvres from the following year is almost certainly a more Impressionist treatment of the chalk cliffs at Dover in England.
During the winter of 1882-3 van Rysselberghe stayed in Spain, from where he visited Tangier in Morocco. He produced many vivid realist paintings during this period, which he exhibited during 1883 following 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 the pair painted together.
In 1886, he took part in Les XX exhibition of French Impressionists, and became influenced by Monet and Renoir. He started to experiment with Impressionist technique more overtly. He also discovered Georges 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 Paul Signac as a result. Although still painting in Impressionist style, he started to break down his colours and his marks grew smaller in preparation 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.
This dazzling view of Morocco (The Great Souq), painted there at the end of the year, marks his transition to Divisionist style, and promises the high chroma of the next century.
He returned to Belgium in 1888, where he continued to paint using Divisionist technique. In 1889 he married, honeymooning in Roscoff, then moving back into Brussels to live.
He must have painted Near the Rocks of Per Kiridec, Roscoff (1889) when on honeymoon near this port on the north coast of Brittany.
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 Seurat’s sudden death 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 The Schelde Upstream from Antwerp: After the Fog (1892) he has adhered to anatomical construction and the rigorous discipline of Divisionism, applying fine marks of contrasting colour throughout the trees. Unlike some other Divisionists, he used dark colours and dense marks to produce this contrasting shade effect, with some patches of light on the trunks.
This study for his masterpiece Canal in Flanders (1894) uses coarse marks for speed, and establishes the underlying colour contrasts to be developed in the finished work below.
The finished version of Canal in Flanders (1894) is an amazing combination of radical perspective projection, finely observed and composed trees (carefully adjusted from his sketch), and meticulous reflections, all constructed using tiny marks of contrasting colours. It should surely be rated as a classic depiction of trees, and one of the great Divisionist masterpieces.
In 1895 he visited the Pissarros at Eragny, then worked in Signac’s studio in Paris. His interest in print-making 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 in Saint-Tropez for two months.
In Pointe Saint-Pierre, Saint-Tropez (1896) he uses similar technique to model his first pines in the hot light of the Mediterranean coast. Their anatomy is explicit, each tree assembled from its hundreds of small marks laid along branches, then giving rise to foliage.
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. The Glowing Hour (Provence) from 1897 is another of his major works, establishing what was to become the recurrent theme of bathers.
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 the early years of the twentieth century, he started to paint recurrent motifs of a loose group of pines behind the beach. In The Mediterranean at Le Lavandou from 1904 there are no bathers or other figures, just the curved and twisting trunks and branches, with their brilliant foliage and dark blue shadows.
This study for In the Shade of the Pines (1905) shows the more vibrant colours which he was to use in later finished works, as he continued his progression away from formal Divisionism.
The finished version of In the Shade of the Pines (1905) introduces a couple of bathers, and his earlier fine marks have been lost. Instead he builds the trunks, branches, foliage, and other vegetation with orientated brushstrokes, in a manner not unlike that of Vincent van Gogh before his marks organised into whorls and swirls. These enhance the contrast in textures between trees, rocks, sea, and skin.
Other paintings of this period show stronger evidence of his previous Divisionism: in Pines and Eucalyptus at Cavalière (1905) he aligns his marks with the structure of foliage and trunks, but lays out tiles of colour on the beach and sea.
Bathers under the Pines at Cavalière (1905) shows another pines-beach-bathers motif, with a different intermediate style between Neo- and Post-Impressionism, and the heightened colours of his later works.
In 1908 he travelled to Jersey, then went on a longer trip to Italy, ending up in Florence in April 1909. He tended to his ailing friend Henri-Edmond Cross, who finally died in 1910.
The Rocks from 1908 almost reverts to Impressionism.
Holberton P ed (2006) Théo van Rysselberghe, Mercatorfonds, Centre for Fine Arts and Belgian Art Research Institute. ISBN 978 9 057 79080 5.