Ranson studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, finding among his earnest contemporaries a group of artists who formed the brotherhood that became the Nabis including Ker-Xavier Roussel, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier. Sérusier travelled to Pont-Aven in the summer of 1888 and returned to Paris with his seminal work Le Talisman, executed under the close supervision of Paul Gauguin and today in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay. This near abstract exercise in Cloisonnism initiated the formation of the group that became known as ‘Les Nabis’ or ‘the Prophets’ in both Hebrew and Arabic.
Influenced by the incalculable effect of what art critic Philippe Burty termed Japonisme, the Nabis developed a style inspired by the thick outlines, brilliant colour and highly stylised patterns that characterised Japanese woodcuts. Dubbed ‘more Nabis that the Japanese Nabis’ by Pierre Bonnard, Ranson was a leader of the group and would eventually set up a school with his wife to further their ideals and techniques. While they shared an unusual sense of humour and were known for often playing pranks, these young artists were united in their shared admiration for the work of Paul Gauguin and an aspiration to develop a universally expressive pictorial language. Interested in esotericism and the diversity of religion, they would regularly meet for ‘ceremonies’ at Ranson’s house, nicknamed ‘The Temple’. The rituals they performed bordered on the occult, and Ranson was known in particular to explore the satanic and mystical through his art.
Nu se coiffant au bord de l'étang’s flattened tonal planes and swirling water, rendered in the characteristic cloisonné technique, echo the pattern of the wood blocks used to create the Japanese ukiyo-e prints that inspired the Nabis movement. This work shows the overwhelming impact of Japanese art on the visual appearance of fine and decorative art in Europe at the time. Ranson not only uses Japanese compositional techniques and subjects but, as with many of the other Nabis, he adopts characteristic stylisations of form and colour. The accentuated shapes and sinuous lines, the lavish use of patterns and arabesques and the flatness of the pictorial surface are all elements derived from his knowledge of Japanese prints.
The arabesques of the water and the flower filled foreground recall the predominant pattering of the decorative panels produced at the height of the Art Nouveau movement, alluding to the Nabis’ shared interest in breaking down the divide between the visual arts, crafts, and design. The present work evokes an atmosphere of meditative mysticism which was a fundamental objective for Ranson while combining his two paramount motifs: the woman and the forest.
The forest, the subject of Nu se coiffant au bord de l'étang, was a prime source of inspiration throughout his lifetime, with entwined branch-like forms and organic forms figures prominently in his most successful compositions. Simultaneously peaceful and disquieting, the forest was full of the imaginary mysticism central to the Nabis visual lexicon. During his childhood, Ranson’s maternal grandfather encouraged him to sketch the tree-filled forests of his native Limoges in western France. Many years later following the birth of his son, Ranson spent many hours at the Ermitage, in the forest of Écouves, with fellow artist Georges Lacombe, studying the trees that Lacombe would later turn into his fantastical sculptures. The forest, and likely Lacombe’s work, would inspire Ranson’s majestical forest scenes full of magical nudes and nymphs by the edges of sylvan pools, as exemplified in the present work.
Drawing upon his personal experience, Ranson’s compositions explore the pervasive spirits of women and the overwhelming awareness felt in their absence. Varying widely, Ranson’s women range from industrious peasants and tender mothers to beguiling seductresses and enigmatic enchantresses. Having lost his mother during childbirth, Ranson never ceased grieving her death. Perhaps as a result, he and his wife France had an incredibly close relationship. France was Ranson’s preferred model, and she has been identified as the central figure of the present work by the artist’s granddaughter.
Having tragically died young at the age of 45, the artist created a relatively limited output, much of which is held by public institutions including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
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