Ensor’s influence on the artist can be seen in the refinement with which he handles light. In his canvases of 1910 onwards, Wouters succeeded in evoking light and light filled environments without using a pale paint layer, as he had done in previous years. These works, including Femme en forêt, chapeau bleu à la main, bras levé strongly hark back to Ensor’s work of the 1880s. Like Ensor, Wouters realised that light reveals the identity of the component parts of the composition but in doing so also erodes their contours which lends an almost abstract quality to these later canvases. Wouters is not evoking a move to abstract portraiture like his Parisian Cubist contemporaries, but is rather underpinning the way light disturbs the solidity of form and can distort the viewer’s understanding of reality. In Femme en forêt, chapeau bleu à la main, bras levé the sitter floats within a suggested wooded landscape built up with only a few suggestive strokes of reddish brown and green.
Although Ensor’s early work was a huge source of inspiration for Wouters, it was Cézanne’s study into the modulation of colour and his work on the constructions within each composition that had the largest impact on Wouters’ work. Wouters had been introduced to the work of Cézanne by his friend Simon Lévy. In a letter of 1911 Wouters demonstrates his frustration at only having seen the black and white plates of Cézanne’s work, conscious that they could fill in the gaps for his own artistic journey: ‘I will do everything I possibly can to get to Paris this winter and see Cézanne. It is stupid that I have not seen his work yet’. (Letter from Rik Wouters to Simon Lévy, 27th November 1911, Brussels, Archives et Musée de la Littérature, no. 2138/12, published in Bertrand & Hautekeete, op. cit., p. 45). Following a particularly successful show at the Galerie Georges Giroux in 1912, Wouters was able to make the short journey to Paris and immerse himself in the avant garde art of the city. His continuing struggle to pair the fleeting nature of light with permanent form led him immediately to the work of Gaugin, Van Gogh and most significantly Cézanne.
Cézanne’s use of planes and volumes within each composition intrigued Wouters. By departing from the physical proximity of his model Cézanne was able to reduce the representation of his sitter to a tense surface two-dimensionality. In Madame Cézanne, 1891, the artist has distorted reality to such an extent that colour and form take over completely, and the figure’s expression is synthesised into its most pure and true form. In Femme en forêt, chapeau bleu à la main, bras levé, Wouters has appropriated Cézanne’s technique forming the background from an accumulation of volumetric forms in the tradition of the master of Aix’s watercolour technique. However, Wouters retains the life and joy of his muse in fusing the canvas with an atmosphere that conjures a sense of dishevelled and romantic celebration.
Throughout the course of his short career Wouters would paint fifty still lifes, sixteen self-portraits and thirty-three landscapes. However, well over half of his total artistic output depicts his wife and muse Hélène ‘Nel’ Duerinckx. Having met at the Brussels Academy at the turn of the century, Rik and Nel quickly became inseparable, marrying in 1905 and remaining together until Wouters’ premature death in 1916. Keen to develop his personal artistic idiom, Wouters would turn to still life and sculpting to advance his quest for the perfect synthesis between colour and form. However, one can see that his experiments in classical still lifes and landscapes were stepping stones that ultimately led him back to painting his muse with the newly learnt techniques that he had developed.
Wouters’ work has been celebrated within the country of his birth for well over a century but it is only in more recent years that the international art world has come to understand his unique artistic perspective. The most recent retrospective exhibition at the Royal Museum of Fine Art, Brussels in 2017 has cast new light on this remarkable career and Femme en forêt, chapeau bleu à la main, bras levé stands as testament to his extraordinary talent and unique œuvre.
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