This painting will be included in the forthcoming Van Rysselberghe catalogue raisonné prepared by Pascal de Sadeleer and Olivier Bertrand.
Painted in 1900, Plage à marée basse, soir dates from an important period in Théo van Rysselberghe’s career, during which he began to move away from the rigorously disciplined methods of Neo-Impressionism and developed a more individual style. A harmonious mirage of jewel-like dabs of colour, the present work is one of a series of seascapes that the artist painted at Ambleteuse, on the north coast of France. The artist considered this series to be among his greatest works. Depicting the setting sun over the mouth of the river at low tide, Van Rysselberghe was fascinated by this scene, painting the same view on numerous occasions, revelling in the subtly changing light effects and the gentle movements and shapes of the water on the shore as the tide went out.
Van Rysselberghe first visited Ambleteuse, a small town on the north coast of France situated by the mouth of the river Slack, in the summer of 1899. He returned the next year, when he painted Plage à marée basse, soir, and continued to visit this area over the following years. The mouth of the river provided the perfect setting for the artist, the small tributaries of water caused by the low tide creating a decorative network of lines and an ever changing contrast between sand and sea. In 1901, the artist wrote to his friend, the Belgian artist and architect Henry van de Velde, ‘[…] the series of sunsets at low-tide with arabesques of water in the sand: among my canvases, those I believe are the best’ (Van Rysselberghe, quoted in R. Feltkamp, Théo van Rysselberghe: 1862-1926, Brussels, 2003, p. 59).
Divided up into horizontal bands of luminous colour – the pink of the sky, pale blue and green stretch of sea, and deep purple, green and pink tones of the beach – the surface of Plage à marée basse, soir is animated with individual daubs of pure colour, creating an almost abstract, mosaic-like effect of glowing colour. Plage à marée basse, soir exemplifies Van Rysselberghe’s later form of Neo-Impressionism. Van Rysselberghe had first been introduced to Neo-Impressionism when he saw Georges Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte (1884-86, The Art Institute of Chicago) at the Eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1886. Reacting against the spontaneous approach of Impressionism, the Neo-Impressionists, led by Seurat, favoured a precise, methodical application of individual daubs of paint, governed by scientific principles of colour theory. Van Rysselberghe enthusiastically promoted the movement in his native Belgium, adopting this style in his own work.
By the end of the 19th Century, Van Rysselberghe’s enthusiasm for the highly systematic and theoretical technique of Neo-Impressionism had begun to wane as the artist sought a more direct and instinctive depiction of nature. Adopting a less restrictive and dogmatic approach to the pointillist technique, Van Rysselberghe began to apply paint with larger and more loosely applied brushstrokes, combining colours with a new freedom that diverged from the rigid orthodoxy of Neo-Impressionist theory. In Plage à marée basse, soir, compositional detail has dissolved into a vision of luminous contrasts of pure colour, evoking the gentle movement of water and shimmering reflections of light. Plage à marée basse, soir demonstrates Van Rysselberghe’s development of his own, distinctive ‘way of seeing’, which enabled him to capture the fleeting effects of light and the subtle changes of the landscape, conjuring a composition of radiant colour.