In 1892, the Belgian painter Théo van Rysselberghe (1862–1926) wrote to Paul Signac (1863–1935): ‘Like you, I am more convinced of the excellence of our technique than ever, and I find a real delight in it, because it is so logical and good’.
Van Rysselberghe was describing a new science called divisionism, a colour theory in which complimentary dots of pure colour are placed next to one another to enhance their intensity. Divisionism had been pioneered by the French artists Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Paul Signac in the mid-1880s, marking a decisive shift in the history of modern painting from Impressionism to Neo-Impressionism.
The technique became known as pointillism, and is best illustrated by Seurat’s 1884 masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Van Rysselberghe had been in Paris with the poet Émile Verhaeren (1855–1916) when the painting was exhibited in the Impressionist exhibition of 1886, and was mesmerised by its disciplined fragmentation and enigmatic subject matter.
According to Valérie Didier, specialist in Impressionism and Modern art at Christie’s in Paris, ‘this was a revolutionary new way of painting that van Rysselberghe wanted to be part of’.
The artist soon became friends with Seurat and Signac and returned to Belgium determined to further the cause. He introduced the technique to his fellow painters in Les XX, the Brussels-based avant-garde group founded by the charismatic art critic Octave Maus (1856–1919), who immediately proclaimed Seurat ‘the Messiah of a new art’.
A Thuin ou La Partie de tennis, which is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art sale on 4 June at Christie’s in Paris, was painted by van Rysselberghe in the summer of 1889, which coincided with the height of Neo-Impressionism’s popularity. Didier describes the work as ‘a poetry of colour’ and explains that ‘this is an artist at the peak of his career, who has the confidence to tackle pointillism and innovate it in his own way’.
The colours he employs are more daring and radical than those explored by Seurat and Signac, she explains: ‘The artist is using specks of lime green and flashes of pink in the tree trunks, while the grass is highlighted with yellow and lavender blue.’
The composition is also striking in its originality. There is a game of tennis on the right-hand side of the picture, while on the left a little girl looks on. ‘It is like the painting is divided into two parts,’ acknowledges Didier. ‘One side is active and dynamic, the other is still and quiet. The house cuts off the horizon line, so the viewer is plunged right into the action. But there’s ambiguity too, as we are also watching the game alongside the little girl.’
‘This is an artist at the peak of his career, who has the confidence to take pointillism and innovate it in his own way’ — Valérie Didier
The picture was executed in 1889 at Le Berceau, a house rented by the publishing matriarch Sylvie Monnom (1836-1921), who became van Rysselberghe’s mother-in-law in September that year, when he married her daughter Maria. The subject matter is very modern, says Didier. ‘The women are playing tennis, which was very innovative at the time — they are clearly a progressive family.’
Madame Monnom published Maus’ weekly journal L’Art Moderne, and was a key patron of Les XX, supporting many of their exhibitions until they disbanded after Seurat died unexpectedly of diptheria in 1891.
Signac and van Rysselberghe continued to promote the movement, with van Rysselberghe moving to Paris and subsequently to the Mediterranean to be near Signac. Without their rebellious leader, however, they struggled to maintain momentum.
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Didier believes there’s a certain poignancy about A Thuin ou La Partie de Tennis, which was painted just two years before the tragic death that derailed Neo-Impressionism’s trajectory. ‘It is a painting of a summer’s day by a young man who is soon to marry and excited about the future of art.’
Before long, it was given to van Rysselberghe’s friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), and has remained in the artist’s family ever since.
Didier believes Toulouse-Lautrec would have been attracted to the innovative nature of the composition. ‘At first glance the painting seems simple,’ she says, ‘but then you look again at the strange perspective, the way the trees cut the painting in two, and the brilliant colours, and you realise that here, in front of you, are the beginnings of abstraction.’