The canal and its inherent reflective and refractive qualities provided the perfect setting for Van Rysselberghe to experiment with the rendering of light through paint, one of his permanent principle artistic preoccupations. He once questioned of another Belgian artist: ‘Tell me, is Anna Boch also haunted by light? It prevents me from sleeping and when I see a dark painting, I get seasick’ (letter to Eugène Boch (1887), quoted in Théo van Rysselberghe (exhibition catalogue) Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2006, p. 36, translated from the French). This veritable obsession with light goes some way in explaining why the artist was so powerfully drawn to Neo-Impressionism.
It was in 1886, in Paris, at the eighth Impressionist exhibition, when Van Rysselberghe saw Georges Seurat’s monumental Sunday Afternoon on the Ile de la Grande Jatte and was first confronted with divisionism (or pointillism) – the foremost technique in the Neo-Impressionist movement. Grounded in science and the study of optics, it consisted of placing contrasting colours side by side, often by applying paint in little dots (pointillisme). Enraptured by the effect, Van Rysselberghe promptly abandoned his earlier style and introduced the technique to his Belgian counterparts – soon becoming the undisputed Belgian master of Neo-Impressionism. He invited Seurat to exhibit his great work at a salon in Brussels in 1887 arranged by Les XX– an exhibition society which Van Rysselberghe co-founded. Here, Seurat’s masterpiece was heavily criticised, ironically confirming its position at the centre of the avant-garde.
The period that followed saw the production of the most important and celebrated paintings of Van Rysselberghe’s entire œuvre and today the top records for his works are dominated by paintings dating to the 1890s; works from this period are also found in seminal public collections such as The National Gallery, London, Musée d’Orsay, Paris and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Canal en Flandre was produced at this precise time, painted in 1894 and depicting the iconic tree-lined Damme canal between Bruges in Flanders and Sluis in Holland, built by order of Napoléon Bonaparte; the trees famously lean to one side, buffeted by the strong North Sea winds. Van Rysselberghe executed a small number of works depicting this scene and wrote to his patron Oscar Maus happily reporting the completion of two of them – one presumed to be the present work (Ronald Feltkamp, op. cit., p. 303). In this year, Van Rysselberghe is known only to have painted five substantial oil paintings, suggestive of the taxing process involved in producing works in this manner.
The effect – however taxing the process - is scintillating. Canal en Flandre is rendered in vivid complementary violets and greens applied in dots and dashes of paint. The contrasting shades of green, blue and lavender imbue the composition with a sense of dazzling light and atmosphere. Art historian Cornelia Homburg remarks: ‘Théo van Rysselberghe employed a rather daring, restricted colour scheme in some of his compositions in order to evoke a mood’ (Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities (exhibition catalogue), The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., 2014-2015, p. 112). A similar palette is used by Van Rysselberghe in some of his other landscapes executed within the same period, such as Les Dunes à Cadzand painted one year earlier in 1893. However, the striking sense of modernity conveyed by the visually dazzling Canal en Flandre is not only based on the mastery of an innovative technique, but also on the artist’s dramatic use of perspective. The sharp diagonal draws the viewer in, and the endless rows of dappled poplar trees imbue the work with a rhythmical pace. Van Rysselberghe accentuates the decided lean of the trees, buffeted by the prevailing winds from the North Sea.
Canal en Flandre exemplifies the artist's command over his medium and his skill in depicting iconic Flemish landscapes in the utmost Modern and luminous manner. This fresh-to-market masterpiece boasts an impeccable provenance, having remained in the same family since it was acquired by renowned Belgian botanist Lucien Hauman. Hauman specialised in plants native to South America and Africa and various plant genera commemorate his name. The botanical garden at the University of Buenos Aires is named in his honour. The present work has since been in Hauman's family since circa 1900, now being offered for the first time at auction.
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