Milan, Palazzo Reale, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac et i neoimpressionisti, 2008-09, no. 68, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Vienna, Albertina, Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh. Ways of Pointillism, 2016-17, no. 66, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Van Rysselberghe was a founding member of the Brussels-based Neo-Impressionist group known as Les XX (sometimes written Les Vingt). The group was founded by van Rysselberghe along with Emile Verhaeren and Octave Maus in 1883, and was named after its twenty members. Van Rysselberghe played an important role in organizing the group’s annual exhibitions and was considered by many to be its leading artist. His extensive connections with other painters and writers enabled him to exhibit widely and travel extensively himself.
Van Rysselberghe completed a number of oils of maritime subjects in the years around 1890, many drawing inspiration from the river Scheldt near his native Antwerp and others from excursions further afield. These paintings included a portrait of his friend and fellow painter Paul Signac at the helm of his sailing boat. The two men shared many common interests, not least sailing and painting, and their relationship provided the most substantial connection between the Sociéte des Artistes Indépendants based in Paris and the Belgian group Les XX – to which Signac was elected in 1891.
Allied by their friendship and artistic ambitions, they each nonetheless cultivated their own Neo-Impressionist style, with van Rysselberghe particularly interested in imbuing his compositions with a rich sense of atmosphere. In March of 1892, van Rysselberghe boarded Signac's boat the Olympia. Writing about this particular excursion, van Rysselberghe declared "I leave tomorrow for the south coast - with Pierre Olin - He will leave me in Bordeaux and Signac will join me. And then: the Canal du Midi: Montauban, Carcassonne, Toulouse etc, then Sète, Marseille, Toulon and off to sea! Ah, it's going to be really topping! (quoted in Théo van Rysselberghe (exhibition catalogue), Op. cit, 2006, p. 135).
Port de Cette, Les Tartanes was one of the products of this adventurous voyage. Writing about the skill and impact of this work, Marina Ferretti Bocquillon opines "This seascape [the present work], begun by van Rysselberghe with Signac at his side, splendidly demonstrates his artistic audacity. During the early years of Neo-Impressionism the Belgian would produce a series of canvases, veritable blueprints for landscapes, characterized by an almost abstract sense of composition, rhythm and colour, which in this writer's view are among his best works. Far from being a mere diversion from his portrait work, his seascapes show a freedom from nature absent from works where he is intent on conveying aspects of a personality. The rigour of Neo-Impressionist principles obliging the artist to discipline an innate facility and brio, he here gave the best of himself, expressing an uncommonly refined and subtle modernism" (ibid., p. 135).
Port de Cette, Les Tartanes depicts numerous boats in the harbor of Cette (since 1928, known as Sète), situated along the Mediterranean coastline of France at the opening of the Canal du Midi. Known as the 'Venice of Languedoc,' Sète's position as one of the hubs of the Bassin de Thau, with its associated shellfish cultivation, in addition to is proximity to the inland canals and the sea, have long made it a center of trade as well as a popular destination for visitors. The tartanes referenced in the title of the present work were small ships used for trade and fishing along the Mediterranean coast. Of relatively simple design and featuring just one mast, tartanes were ubiquitous for centuries, though by the time van Rysselberghe painted the Port de Cette, Les Tartanes they were soon to be supplanted by other vessels.
In 1893 the present work was featured in the final exhibition of Les XX held in Brussels at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. This was the first show to introduce divisionism or pointillism to a northern European audience. Many of van Rysselberghe’s best works were then shown at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris later in the year, marking the first of many international exhibitions to include Port de Cette, Les Tartanes. In 1899 van Rysselberghe was invited to participate in the third exhibition held in the Secession building in Vienna. Van Rysselberghe was also accorded the honor of having an article written about his work by Verhaeren which was published in the chronicle of the Vienna Secession Ver Sacrum. To have been so chosen by Vienna’s leading artists was indicative of van Rysselberghe’s rapidly growing international reputation, as well as their sensitivity towards his particular approach to painting and depiction of atmosphere. The Austrian Secessionists, in particular Gustav Klimt and Carl Moll, were well aware of the pointillist techniques employed by van Rysselberghe and other Neo-Impressionists, and like van Rysselberghe, they were intrigued by the way in which applying paint in a pointillist manner could imbue their subjects with greater animation and atmosphere.
Port de Cette, Les Tartanes has subsequently been included in several major individual exhibitions and Neo-Impressionist group-exhibitions and was at one time part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The present work has extraordinarily important early provenance and was acquired by John Hay Whitney by 1961. John Hay Whitney was a renowned American ambassador, publisher, philanthropist and art collector who was once the President of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Whitney donated the present work to the Museum in 1983, who later sold it to the present owner in 2005 to benefit their acquisitions fund.
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