Theo Van Rysselberghe
The Mediterranean at Le Lavandou
Oil on canvas
81.5 x 65.5 cm
Gift of the Marion Smooke, Los Angeles, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, In memory of Nathan Smooke
Accession number: B92.1430
Theo van Rysselberghe, the most famous fin-de-siècle interlocutor between French and Belgian Neo-Impressionism, was born in Ghent on November 23, 1862. Theo’s parents lived in bourgeois comfort and did not oppose their son’s artistic bent. An affinity with cultural pursuits ran in the family and was embraced also by Theo’s older brothers, Charles-Jules and Octave-Joseph, who became architects, the latter building an international reputation as a pioneer of Art Nouveau design. In his teens, Theo enrolled at the Académie van Beeldende Kunsten in Ghent and around 1880, moved to Brussels, where he became a pupil of Jean-François Portals, director of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. In 1881, Theo exhibited two portraits and a landscape at the Brussels Salon. His early academic style was appreciated and in the following year he received a study grant that took him to Spain and Morocco.
Van Rysselberghe’s youthful rebellion against academic training dates from 1883. On October 28 of that year, alongside painters such as James Ensor and Fernand Khnopff, he became a co-founder of Les Vingt, a Belgian avant-garde exhibition society committed to the exploration of new stylistic frontiers. In the mid-1880s, van Rysselberghe worked again in Spain and especially Morocco. In 1886, he traveled to Paris with his compatriot, the poet and symbolist ideologue Emile Verhaeren. In Verhaeren’s company he visited the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition and there saw Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte (1884─1886). That magnificent painting opened a new aesthetic horizon to van Rysselberghe and before long, thanks to Verhaeren’s introductions, he became a committed member of the Neo-Impressionist circle that revolved around Seurat and his disciple, Paul Signac. By 1888, van Rysselberghe had adopted the Pointillist technique, though he never embraced Neo-Impressionism’s formulaic appendices, the color theories of Charles Blanc, O. N. Rood, and others. Signac became one of his closest friends and together, through the 1890s, the two organized Neo-Impressionist shows in France and Belgium. Together with Henri-Edmond Cross, the duo also explored France’s southern coast with its brilliant light and colors, and there created some of their best work.
The Mediterranean at le Lavandou, painted in 1904 at a scenic locale eighty kilometers east of Marseille, is a succulent example of van Rysselberghe’s late Neo-Impressionist style. It brings to the Museum’s collection a panoramic impression of the scenery and semi-tropical atmosphere — an admixture of southern sunlight and northern shadows — that lured so many modernist painters, from nineteenth-century realists to twentieth-century abstractionists, to the Côte d’Azur. The painting depicts one of van Rysselberghe’s favorite landscape motifs, the mountainous Provençal coast seen through the rhythmic dance of pine trunks and branches. The classical linearity of the former combined with the arabesques of the latter appealed to the Belgian painter whose early career bespeaks a desire to connect academic formulas with avant-garde experimentation. The Mediterranean at le Lavandou is a particularly fascinating work because it foreshadows van Rysselberghe’s later misgivings about Neo-Impressionism. Here the Pointillist brushstroke extolled by Signac already yields to drawing and purely atmospheric effects, becoming in the picture’s middle- and background only a footnote to the composition. By 1908, van Rysselberghe had abandoned Neo-Impressionism. His ties to southern France, however, proved more lasting. In 1910, van Rysselberghe settled in Saint-Claire near le Lavandou and until his death in 1926 drew inspiration from its landscapes.