Executed in 1909, Jeune femme de dos assise sur un tabouret dates from the highpoint of Spilliaert's Symbolist period. The work is imbued with a thick atmosphere, revealing Spilliaert as the quintessential proponent of the 'fantastique réel', a phrase coined by his friend, the writer Franz Hellens.
Several years before this picture was executed, Spilliaert had visited Paris, and retained strong links there for the rest of his life, going there often. During that time, he became a peripheral figure in the avant-garde circles of the day, not least that of Picasso. Already at that young age, Spilliaert's prodigal abilities received the admiration of many, especially the Symbolist writers, many of whom he counted amongst his friends. Interestingly, Spilliaert did not follow the exemple of the Parisian painters, it is instead a medley of Northern painters whose influences can be most strongly discerned in his art, especially Caspar David Friedrich, Vilhelm Hammershøoi and Edvard Munch. All of these show themselves in Jeune femme de dos assise sur un tabouret: the figure with her back turned marks the revival of one of Friedrich's devices; the absorbing tranquility of the room and the purity of the composition recall Hammershøoi, and the phosphorescence of the woman's outline evokes the expressionistic tension of Munch's pictures. However, of these varied sources is born something quite unique. The beguiling visual poetry of this picture is intense and intoxicating. We too are absorbed by the woman's undefined hopes as she looks into the world outdoors, and beyond.
Spilliaert grew up a resident of Ostend, and even had the chance to stalk his idol Ensor on occasion. The experience of living on the sea, and seeing the bustling and fashionable resort both on and off season, deeply affected Spilliaert's disposition and his art. It is the haunting world of the deserted beach, the night, the unpeopled street, the lonely and the abandoned that he explores. The sea itself was integral to Ostend's economic survival, both through tourism and through fishing. Thus as a theme we see the recurring figure of the sailor's wife gazing hopefully out to sea, a theme possibly revisited in Jeune femme de dos assise sur un tabouret. Certainly this picture is filled with an infectious, poignant sense of expectation.
As is only natural considering the trace similarities to Ensor as well as to Munch's work, Spilliaert's art was to become an important precursor of Expressionism and, more pertinently considering his own Belgian provenance, of Surrealism as well. He always remained at a safe distance from involvement with movements and groups, yet his pioneering art was to have a lasting legacy in the art of his compatriots, as well as Surrealists farther afield.