Des quatre toiles, La Néva, brume légère est sans conteste la plus synthétique. Sa construction en cinq bandeaux parallèles d’inégale hauteur n’est pas sans rappeler les couchers de soleil exécutés en 1911, à la différence toutefois de la large part dévolue ici au ciel et du constraste entre la netteté du premier plan et le flou dans lequel baigne le lointain. L’opposition tranchante du blanc et du noir dans le rendu de la rue et du mur qui la sépare du fleuve gelé, jusqu’aux silhouettes du réverbère et du passant frigorifié sur le point de sortir du champ, font irrésistiblement songer aux gravures sur bois réalisées par Vallotton dans les années 1890. Au loin, mais plus proches que dans la réalité par contraction de la perspective, la flèche et les coupoles de la cathédrale Pierre et Paul surgissent dans la brume comme autant de fantômes. Vallotton, qui prétendait les subtilités de la nuance hors de ses moyens, a su trouver dans cet arrière-plan d’infinies modulations de rose et de mauve pour traduire l’atmosphère glaciale qui peut figer Saint-Pétersbourg dans le silence au mois de mars.
We would like to thank Marina Ducrey for this text contribution.
On March 1, 1913, Vallotton boarded the Nord-Express train to St Petersburg on the invitation of Georges Hasen, the representative in Russia of chocolate-maker Cailler, whose portrait he had agreed to paint. He had met this art collector and occasional merchant through his brother, when he was at the helm of the Cailler chocolate factory in Broc, in Gruyère.
Frightful weather, a heavy cold and the work required for the portrait kept him indoors for several days. However, this didn’t seem to disappoint him, since the city had seemed at first to hold “nothing of great interest, save for the Neva River and the Hermitage” (letter to his brother, 1913). He vowed to return to those two places. Once his health improved,, it was in the immediate vicinity of the palace that he chose the viewpoints from which he would draw the sketches which he would later take home in his luggage. These would eventually lead to four paintings, realised in his atelier in Paris upon his return. The works constitute a stand-alone group, distinct from the rest of his oeuvre both by their range of colours and their composition.
La Néva, brume légère (light fog) is without a doubt the most comprehensive of the four paintings. Its composition, made up of five parallel strips of varying widths, is reminiscent of the sunsets he completed in 1911. The only difference is the large space given over to the depiction of the sky, and the contrast between the sharp detail of the foreground and the haze which bathes the buildings in the distance. The juxtaposition of the clean white and solid black in the rendering of the snowy street and the wall which separates it from the icy river, as well as the freezing figure who is about to leave the frame, immediately bring to mind the woodcuts realised by Vallotton in the 1890s. In the distance - though appearing closer than they would have been in real life thanks to the painter’s contraction of perspective, the steeple and the domes of the Peter and Paul Fortress emerge from the haze, ghost-like. Vallotton, who claimed that the subtlety of nuance was beyond him, managed in depicting this backdrop in countless variations of pink and mauve, to perfectly conjure the icy atmosphere which has the ability to freeze St Petersburg in an icy silence during the month of March.
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