The Belgian painter-traveller Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès is one of the most celebrated 20th century artists who lived and painted in Bali, the mystical island in the Indonesian archipelago that is dominantly Hindu in a larger Islamic region. The outstanding natural beauty and cultural richness of the island has attracted artists throughout the 20th century to paint its landscapes and its peoples, and many artists have associated some of the most productive and enriching periods of their lives to the time they spent in Bali. Above all, Le Mayeur proved to be one of the island’s most famous foreign artists, having built his life and artistic career around the articulation of beauty in a tropical paradise.
The pictorial themes Le Mayeur worked on in Bali were mostly found in and around his the villa he built for himself and his wife, Ni Pollok at the beachfront of Sanur: women at leisure on a daybed in the interior of the house; women weavers at the loom; women on the veranda or women dancing on a terrace; women in front of the house or in the garden picking flowers or making offerings. Amongst these themes, the last of them is one of the most iconic and enduring in his oeuvre.
The present painting, Dancers in the Garden, is a fine example of how he composes some of the most balanced and pleasing compositions of figures within a garden setting. His ladies are individual locuses of beauty; each presents a pose that transcends time and space, becoming classic representations of Oriental grace and universal elegance. Like the works of leading European impressionists such as Pierre Aguste Renoir or Claude Monet, Le Mayeur invested much time perfecting the garden composition, strategically inserting figuretypes into a highly orchestrated field of colours, textures and strokes. A quick comparison with the garden pictures of Renoir and Monet reveals the tendency to use flowers hedges as a pictorial device in the foreground of the painting to lead the eye into the picture plane.
Before World War II, Le Mayeur painted in a highly impressionist style: with thick short strokes, he created a colourful idyll. With just colour and light, the artist manages to create a highly personal impression of a subject. His technique, though simple, proved to be highly effective - flowers depicted by the application of short dabs on the canvas, and leaves as just swiftly applied staccato strokes. In the complementary use of light and dark colours, he created sunspots and depth. Although seemingly simply executed with the minimum of effort, each work accomplishes in capturing the brightness and colour of the tropical paradise Le Mayeur had created by his brilliantly effective colouring. A critic in The Strait Times in Singapore wrote: "His treatment is of a rare quality. He has brought down the elimination of detail to a fine art and there is hardly any modelling, yet the effect is all that it should be. Bold strokes of the brush on hands and feet and arms he has shown are all that is necessary after appreciating the line of the body. He finds very beautiful colours in the shadows. Most Western artists find it difficult to escape from shadows more sober".
Later, in the postwar period, Le Mayeur's brushwork became smaller and he painted in greater detail. His application of paint became heavier, as is very clearly seen in the mass of flowers in Dancers in the Garden. Also, in the post-war era, he used more green on his palette. His compositions gained in complexity, and figures retreated in size, becoming less the focal of a picture in relation to the depiction of an overall scene. In Dancers in the Garden, Le Mayeur’s sense of a pleasing composition became particularly evident. He sought to depict in some degree of detail his villa, a central and important aspect of his life in Bali but which is not as often depicted.
The American golfer and multi-millionaire Joe Kirkwood visited Le Mayeur in 1937 and expressed his admiration for his host's villa:
"My host's cottage was unique unto itself with his canvasses as well as antique wood carvings on every wall. Attached to the house was a patio where the natives daily left flowers. In the midst of all was his studio, where three flawless native women lived and posed as models of voluptuous perfection … In the evening the atmosphere became even more dreamlike with the changing patterns of light and shade playing on the colours of the forest and sea."
The painter himself has written extensively about his house and garden in many letters. In one, he writes, "I've evidently made all things serviceable to my art. All my actions have but one purpose: facilitating my work." In another, he again talks about the inspiration his residence gives to his works, "you will understand my paintings wherever you may see them, for everything in this little paradise which I created for myself was made to be painted" . In yet another, Le Mayeur shares the importance of his garden to him, "I organized my home exactly as I liked it. I intended to surround myself with nothing but beauty. [K] I planted a mass of bougainvillea, frangipani, hibiscus and all around the cottage I put groups of intertwining plants. I built little temples, completely made of white coral, dug little ponds in which the reflections of all the Gods of Hindu mythology can be seen among the sacred lotus flowers. The two temples are surrounded by approximately two hundred of these little sculptures, which have integrated with the flowers whose silhouettes are drawn on the purple and pink tropic skies."
And within this wondrous setting, Le Mayeur went about the uninterrupted pursuit of beauty and painting. He wanted to surround himself "with nothing but beauty" and not only transformed his garden into a tropical paradise full of exuberant trees and flowers, terraces, pergolas, statues and lotus ponds, but also preserved the interior of his cottage as an arena to stage dramatic compositions for his interior paintings.
Here in Dancers in the Garden, the viewer is offered a rarer view of the villa, its distinctive blue-painted window sills set off against white-washed walls. It rises prominently in the background, providing a natural foil to enter the picture. At the verendah of the villa, a lady sits with her back facing the viewer, and she is engaged in weaving whereas the other ladies are posed gathering flowers. Be it in the garden or in the villa, Le Mayeur’s ladies pursue a life of grace and elegance, where the vestiges of life and labour is kept out.