Painted in 1893, Jeune femme en robe verte (Germaine Maréchal) is a rare and stunning example of Pointillist portraiture, a genre in which Théo Van Rysselberghe was one of the leading protagonists. The importance of this painting is reflected in its impressive early exhibition history, having been included in a range of international shows within a very short period of its completion. Indeed, looking at the exhibitions in which this picture was shown during the Nineteenth Century provides an insight into the esteem in which Van Rysselberghe was held, and reveals the importance of the celebrated group of artists to which he belonged, Les XX. Jeune femme en robe verte was even exhibited in the group's final show. This picture is believed to show Germaine Maréchal, the niece of Van Rysselberghe's wife Maria, adding another fascinating historical and profoundly personal dimension to this portrait.
In August 1886, alongside his friend the poet Emile Verhaeren, Van Rysselberghe visited the eighth and final exhibition of the Impressionists, in Paris, where he saw Georges Seurat's Neo-Impressionist masterpiece, Un dimanche à la Grande Jatte, painted in 1884. Van Rysselberghe was at the time painting in an Impressionist manner, in part influenced also by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He had already seen the works of some of the protagonists of French Impressionism, such as Monet and Renoir, when they had exhibited as guests of Les XX, of which Van Rysselberghe had been a founder member. Gradually, though, over the next couple of years the impact of Seurat's Pointillism would gestate within his work, coming increasingly to the fore in 1888, not least in his Campement devant Marrakech of that year.
As is clear at first glance in Jeune femme en robe verte, with its deft, delicate and judicious use of the scintillating, shimmering points of juxtaposed colour, Van Rysselberghe very soon had become one of the masters of this manner of painting, and was one of the undisputed leaders of the booming Belgian Neo-Impressionist movement. In this picture, he has used the hallmark contrasts between the tiny areas of colour to give that extra vibrancy to the image of his sitter, embracing current scientific theories about the ability to perceive colour in order to add life and intensity to the painting. In this way, like several of his Neo-Impressionist contemporaries, he has brought modern developments into the realm of art, creating a picture which, while filled with poise and stillness and the character of the sitter, is nonetheless a banner celebrating a new dimension in painting.
Crucially, Van Rysselberghe has also followed Seurat's lead in adapting the technique in order to create an incredibly vivid sense of the three-dimensional modelling of her hands and face especially. The shadows and tones have been picked out with an incredible attention to detail, rendering her skin porcelain-like yet sculptural, as though this were some Pointillist riposte to Ingres. Van Rysselberghe has used this incredibly labour-intensive technique to create a picture which is deliberately understated; the complex play of light and colour is heightened by the glint of her hair, the brightness of her skin and the vivid green of the sash which is largely bundled behind her. That this technique demanded a great deal of time and attention from the artist is reflected in the few pages devoted to this, the most important period of his career, in his catalogue raisonné: in short, such paintings took so much time that his output diminished in quantity in inverse proportion to its leap in quality. Indeed, only eight Pointillist paintings are listed for 1893; it is a tribute to their quality that four of those are in museums. The painstaking technique and demand on time of such Neo-Impressionist paintings perhaps have their part in explaining why so few of the artists practising Pointillism turned to portraiture as a genre, not least as those demands often extended to the sitter. In that sense, Van Rysselberghe was among a minority, alongside his friend and one of the great pioneers of the style and movement, Paul Signac, whose celebrated portrait he painted three years later.
That the sitter appears to be Germaine Maréchal links this picture all the more to Les XX, as the family of Van Rysselberghe's wife, Maria-Philomène-Andrée Monnom ('Maria') were intricately linked to this fascinating group of artists. Indeed, her father had been the printer for various publications linked to this group, including L'Art Moderne, and Maria, whose portrait had earlier been painted by Fernand Khnopff, another sign of the standing of her family within the Belgian avant-garde, was the heir of that company. Her father's company had also printed the catalogues for the exhibitions of Les XX and its successor movement, Libre Esthéthique. Germaine, then, who was born on 11 August 1879, was intimately associated with the movement, regardless of her age, and her sister Denise was likewise painted by Van Rysselberghe, both during the same period and earlier in 1889.
Les XX had been founded by a range of artists dissatisfied with the conservatism of the group with which they had previously been associated, L'Essor. Les XX was intended as a group which would provide a forum for avant garde art without the encumbrance or political meddling of any jury, and as such would set an important example for a number of subsequent movements. Numbered within the ranks of Les XX alongside Van Rysselberghe was a range of artists which included James Ensor and Fernand Khnopff, giving an indication of the breadth of tastes and styles embraced by the group. There was instead a general sense of purpose, a shared, movement, momentum and motivation. The radicalism of the artists extended to the organisation of the group itself which, in place of any president or hierarchy, instead had as its secretary Octave Maus. In the exhibitions held by Les XX in the years between its formation in 1884 and its dissolution in 1893, guest artists were also invited to show their works, ensuring the international outlook and influence of the group. Included in this number were artists as varied as Paul Cézanne and Odilon Redon, Paul Signac and Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler and Sargent.
Jeune femme en robe verte was shown in the final 1893 exhibition of Les XX, after which many of its members joined Libre Esthéthique, founded by Maus at the same time. The work was subsequently shown in a range of other exhibitions in The Hague, Paris, Dresden, Berlin and importantly in Vienna in 1899. That year, Van Rysselberghe was invited as the guest of the Viennese Secession, or the Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs, which had been founded only a couple of years earlier in part inspired by the example of Les XX. This invitation, a telling indication of the international esteem in which Van Rysselberghe was held, resulted in his works, including Jeune femme en robe verte, being shown at the Secession's third exhibition, which was in fact only the second to take place in the specially-built building which is still such an iconic part of the Viennese landscape to this day.