While living in Paris during the mid-1880s, in conversations with his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh coined the term 'painters of the petit boulevard.' He was referring to up and coming artists like himself who were experimenting with Neo-Impressionism and other avant-garde techniques, and who featured subjects from contemporary city life. Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley - the established Impressionists - were the masters of the 'grand boulevard'; their dealers, Georges Petit and Durand-Ruel, had galleries located on the large thoroughfares in the center of Paris. Among the painters of the petit boulevard, Vincent included his friends Emile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin, all of whom had studied at Fernand Cormon's atelier in Montmartre.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s, Anquetin stood out from this group. John Rewald has noted that 'His friends, especially Lautrec, admired the ease and forcefulness with which he expressed himself as an artist as well as the passion with which he set out to invent painting all over again. Lautrec went so far as to say that since Manet no painter had been so richly gifted as Anquetin' (in Post-Impressionism, New York, 1978, pp. 29-30). Anquetin was not yet thirty when he made his own distinctive and innovative contribution to modernism. In an essay in the 1 March 1888 issue of La Revue Indépendante, the critic Edouard Dujardin pointed out 'a rather new and novel manner' that he had detected in the recent work of his friend Anquetin: 'At first sight, his works proclaim the idea of decorative painting: traced outlines along with strong and fixed colouration... Outline, in quasi-abstract sign, gives the character of the object, unity of colour determines the atmosphere, fixes the sensation. From this derives the circumspection of outline and colour as conceived by popular imagery and Japanese art. The artists of the image d'Epinal [popular French woodcut prints] and Japanese woodcut albums first trace lines within which are placed colours according to the 'colour pattern' process. Likewise, the painter Anquetin traces his design with enclosing lines, within which he places his various colour tones juxtaposed in order to produce the desired sensation of general colouration. Drawing predicates colour and colour predicates drawing. And the work of the painting will something like painting by compartment, analogous to cloisonné works of art, and his technique consists in sort of cloisonnisme'(quoted in B. Welsh-Ocharov, Vincent van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1981, pp. 23 and 24).
The technique of cloisonné was widely practiced in medieval France, with its great center in Limoges, and consisted of firing ground coloured glass that had been placed in compartmentalised metal framework that outlined the design of the object. Anquetin's best-known painting in the cloisonist style is Avenue de Clichy, painted in late 1887 (fig. 1). This street scene greatly impressed van Gogh, Lautrec and Bernard, and attracted them to this new manner. In some measure, it may have influenced Gauguin as well, who was working in a similar direction at this time. Anquetin showed Avenue de Clichy in the Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste exhibition that Gauguin organized at the Café Volpini in 1889. Such was Anquetin's profile at this stage that critics assumed he was the leader of this new and growing movement, having misattributed the achievements and role of Gauguin, who was frustrated at having been thus overlooked.
Anquetin drew Femme au parapluie during this landmark period in the development of Post-Impressionist modernism. This pastel may have been done in preparation for an oil painting executed in the same year (sold Sotheby's New York, 14 May 1998, lot 107). The artist's subject is a stylish modern woman of the petit boulevard, taking an evening stroll. Anquetin composed this scene using a series of curved, circular and arching outlines, by which he described the forms of the ladies' umbrellas, the carriage wheels, the bust and profile of the young woman and even the contour of the sidewalk. Clearly circumscribed and flat zones of colour comprise the overall nocturnal tonality of the picture, against which the artist has spotlighted smaller areas of more detailed treatment, as in the woman's hat, the decoration on the front of her dress, her hands, and the umbrella handle.
Anquetin's position as a leading modernist lasted only a few years. In 1892 he began to study the work of Rubens, Titian and Tintoretto, which inspired him to undertake what he called his 'retour au métier,' a return to traditional craftsmanship in painting. His friend Bernard also turned to pursue a similar, conservative path during this time. Anquetin nonetheless continued to show with the Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste. He remained a close friend of Lautrec, with whom he often shared a table, as well as his unstinting attraction to the 'petit boulevard' and Montmartre night life.
(fig. 1) Louis Anquetin, Avenue de Clichy, 1887 (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut). © Wadsworth Ateneum, Hartford, Connecticut