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We thank Olivier Bertrand for providing additional information on this painting which will be included in his Théo Van Rysselberghe Catalogue raisonné.
Along with the poet Emile Verhaeren and the famed critic Octave Maus, van Rysselberghe was a founder of the Brussels-based progressive Neo-Impressionist group known as Les XX or Les Vingt. Named for its twenty founding members in 1883, van Rysselberghe played an important role in organising the group’s annual exhibitions and was considered by many to be its leading visual artist. Drawing upon his reputation and extensive connections, van Rysselberghe extended an invitation to Seurat to participate in a salon in Brussels in 1887. While the friendship between van Rysselberghe and Seurat eventually deteriorated due to his departure from the strict division of colour practiced by Seurat, van Rysselberghe’s relationship with Henri-Edmond Cross flourished. From 1904 onwards, van Rysselberghe often stayed at the Cross’ home in Saint Clair where the two artists explored and painted the Côte d’Azur together. These sojourns were incredibly impactful, as seen in the present work which studies the effects of light upon a pair of bathers reposing under pine trees. À l'ombre des pins depicts nature at its finest with peaceful luminosity, suffusing the bathers in a moment of warm tranquility. The dappled shade pulsating under scented pines conveys the impression of rays of light refracting and reflecting sunlight on the shimmering sea.
In À l'ombre des pins, van Rysselberghe manipulates his brush with a sense of freedom by applying colour less methodically compared to his earlier works. As a result, he emboldens the composition with an innate spirit and energy which conveys the blissful effects of light on the Mediterranean seaside. As is the case in his most successful works, the present work is unified through languid yet precisely applied brushstrokes with a carefully controlled Neo-Impressionist palette. Following the example of Cézanne, van Rysselberghe establishes a complex arrangement of spatial planes and illusion of depth while simultaneously asserting the two-dimensional surface qualities of the painting through the flat, constructive units of brushstrokes. Reminiscent of Van Gogh’s most successful compositions, À l'ombre des pins recalls Oliviers avec ciel jaune et soleil, executed in San-Rémy just six years earlier in 1889.
As explained by the art historian Paul Fierens, 'About 1900, Van Rysselberghe's art relaxed. The colourist had gradually left behind the orthodoxy of Neo-Impressionism. He was still 'separating', but in a less methodical manner. His brush-stroke was becoming larger. He was manipulating the brush and matching pure colour tones to each other with a new freedom. He was moving away from the technique of light-painting while preserving its spirit; he seemed no longer to consult anything but his instinct and his senses in the choice of tone and strength of colour, and in the disposition of strokes' (Paul Fierens, Théo van Rysselberghe, Brussels, 1937, p. 27).
The zenith of the artist’s mature output, À l'ombre des pins is a harmonious combination of the landscape, which dominated Van Rysselberghe earlier work, with the female nude, a motif he passionately began to undertake around the turn of the century. The van Rysselberghe scholar Patricia vander Elst-Alandre examined this shift: ‘Before 1905, Van Rysselberghe had painted few nudes. That year, he began seriously to come to terms with this new genre, which became one of his favourites. He painted nudes under pine trees, after bathing, lying down and relaxed, at their toilet in front of the mirror, doing their hair, washing in the bath [...]His nudes painted in interiors, just like his portraits, illustrate the same desire to focus the spectator’s attention on the subject…. Certain models will be his ‘favourites’ – Maude, ‘the redhead’, Paquita, Marcella the Venetian [...]” (Théo van Rysselberghe (exhibition catalogue), Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels & Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, 2006, p. 69).
The artist was especially interested by the theme of bathers, having seen the work of Boticelli on a trip to Florence in 1890. Having adopted the same aim as Botticelli to represent cultural flourishment, the pink and mauve hues of the rocky outcrop capture the bucolic harmony of an Arcadian paradise. A means to escape the confines of religious orthodoxy, the turn of the century quest to build a ‘New Arcadia’ brought about the vision of social equality. This is in essence the underlying ethos of À l'ombre des pins, along with many of the most important Neo-Impressionist works including Signac’s masterpiece Au temps de l’harmonie. Facilitated by the synergy between visual artists, musicians and writers of Les XX as well as the slower pace of life in the South of France, À l'ombre des pins is a tour-de-force of the artist’s mature output exemplary of van Rysselberghe’s utopian viewpoint.
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