Impressionist & Modern Art

Daring Technique & Masterful Colouration: Four Works from a Distinguished Private Collection

By Sotheby’s

NEW YORK – Four exceptional works from a distinguished private collection will be offered in the upcoming Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale and Day sale on 16 and 17 of May, encompassing the canvases of Alfred Sisley, Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Le Sidaner. From the late 19th century, the Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist and Nabi painters challenged the tenets of aesthetic tradition, and this exemplary collection of landscapes and still lifes identifies the innovative and technical developments made manifest in the visual discourses of such masters. 


Two outstanding Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist landscapes by Sisley and Signac respectively form the core of this collection, the former, offered as lot 10 in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale, entitled Le Loing au Dessous du Pont de Moret, and the latter as lot 9, entitled Le Pin de Bertaud. Embracing the ephemeral beauty of nature, the Impressionists turned to the genre of landscape to hone their visionary techniques in brushstroke and colour, a genre that lent itself to aesthetic experimentation. Executed in 1892 and representing the earliest work in the present distinguished private collection, Sisley’s canvas depicts a striking view of the river Loing in northern France, an area that provided profound inspiration to the artist. He wrote of the small town of Moret-sur-Loing, “It is at Moret—in this thickly wooded countryside with its tall poplars, the waters of the river Loing here, so beautiful, so translucent, so changeable; at Moret my art has undoubtedly developed most…I will never really leave this little place that is so picturesque” (quoted in R. Shone, Sisley, New York, 1992, p. 123). The river’s changeable qualities described in the artist’s letter to critic Adolphe Tavernier are rendered in exquisite detail in Sisley’s canvas, as he depicts the mercurial characteristics of light upon the reflective surface of the river. Here lies the genius of the Impressionists, who sought to accentuate the passage of time in nature through the employment of an extensive colour palette, and the use of quick, gestural brushstrokes. The small town of Moret in particular sharpened Sisley’s acute sensitivities to the subtleties of nature, and many of his best canvases were painted here, among them Le Pont de Moret, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and Allée des peupliers de Moret, Musée des Beaux Arts, Nice. Born in Paris in 1839, Sisley devoted much of his life to painting landscape en plein air, and his expressive rendering of atmosphere and light place the artist’s repertoire as one of the most significant within the theatre of French Impressionism. 


While Sisley examined the play of light across the landscape of Moret, Signac looked to the coastal town of Saint-Tropez, where the visual splendour of terracotta-roofed houses and the saturated sunlight of the seaside left a lasting impression upon him. Signac’s Le Pin de Bertaud illuminates the spectacular view of this seaside town through an archway of towering trees, as the famous evergreen tree “Pin de Bertaud” located in the hills above Saint-Tropez occupies the center of the canvas. Viewed side by side, Sisley’s Le Loing au Dessous du Pont de Moret and Signac’s Le Pin de Bertaud demonstrate the tangible transition of styles from Impressionism to Neo-Impressionism, as colours became brighter and more saturated and the brushstrokes increasingly controlled and articulated. This new technique of pigment application is apparent on the surface of Le Pin de Bertaud, as the eye can discern a systematic network of coloured dots forming the style known as pointillism. Signac spearheaded this groundbreaking visual approach, and today the artist is considered a leader of the Neo-Impressionist movement, which gained momentum in the late 1880s and 1890s. Robert Herbert provides a particularly succinct explanation of this radically new approach adopted by artists like Signac: “Suddenly, the new Impressionists proclaimed that intense shimmering light needed not spring from this hedonism of the retina. On the contrary, they insisted, the vibration of coloured light must come from the patient and systematic application of nature’s immutable laws… these artists exhibited works in bright colours laid down in tiny and systematic dabs of paint. Their paintings breathed a spirit of clear, order, firm decision, scientific logic, and a startling definiteness of structure that constituted an open challenge to the instinctive art of the Impressionists of the previous decade. The most conspicuous act of defiance was their mechanical brushwork, which deliberately suppressed the personality of the artist and so flouted the individualism dear to the Impressionists” (R. Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, Princeton, 1968, p. 15). 


Pierre Bonnard’s Les Fraises, lot 12 in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, and Henri Le Sidaner’s La Table Villageoise, Gerberoy, lot 124 in the Day Sale, further contribute to the present distinguished collection of works in their depiction of yet another significant genre of the time, the still life. Both Bonnard and Le Sidaner notably render their still lifes outdoors: on each canvas a table is laid with plates, glasses, teapots and fruit. As if depicting the perfect summer day, Bonnard and Le Sidaner display an idyllic lunch awaiting its guests. In Le Sidaner’s Neo-Impressionist composition executed in 1928, the viewer discerns the sunlight dancing through the green vines that climb the garden’s arching lattice, reflected in flashes of bright yellow on an otherwise shaded table. In Bonnard’s exceptional work of 1910, this light is masterfully rendered through the varying colours of the surrounding vegetation, as he employs varying pigments of green, yellow, pink and white. The glistening bowl of strawberries and vibrant, sun dappled background of the landscape exemplify the artist’s application of the intimisme of his earlier Nabis pictures with the vibrant colouration that defined the most successful compositions from his mature production. Like his fellow Nabi painters, Bonnard emphasises the flatness of the canvas and utilises negative space as a visual tool, all of which he executed with the Impressionist colour palette. James Elliot observed: “Bonnard was essentially a colourist. He devoted his main creative energies to wedding his sensations of colour from nature to those from paint itself—sensation which he said thrilled and even bewildered him. Perceiving colour with a highly developed sensitivity, he discovered new and unfamiliar effects from which he selected carefully, yet broadly and audaciously… Familiar sights—the pervading greenness of a landscape, the intensification of colour in objects on a lightly overcast day—are given vivid life” (J. Elliot in Bonnard and His Environment (exhibition Catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1964, p. 25).  


Seen alongside one another, the compositions of Alfred Sisley, Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Le Sidaner engage with the dynamic transition of visual dialogues at the turn of the 20th century, and each piece offers an exquisite and unique contribution to this distinguished collection. Through lush, colourful landscapes and carefully constructed still lifes set outdoors, Sisley, Signac, Bonnard and Le Sidaner all meditate upon the subjects of light and colour, and the present compositions ultimately offer extraordinary examples of daring technique and masterful colouration – qualities profoundly inherently to the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. 

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