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Péniches sur l’Escaut

Péniches sur l’Escaut
signed with monogram and dated ‘1892’ (lower right); titled 'Péniches sur l’Escaut' (on the artist's label on the reverse)
oil on canvas
21 5⁄8 x 26 in. (54.8 x 66 cm.)
Painted in 1892
Galerie Druet, Paris.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 28 June 1988, lot 16.
Alain Delon, Paris and Geneva (by 1990).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
G. Vanzype, "Notice sur Théo van Rysselberghe" in Annuaire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, vol. 98, 1932, p. 130 (titled Les Barques and incorrectly dated 1893).
R. Feltkamp, Théo van Rysselberghe: Catalogue raisonné, Brussels, 2003, pp. 72 and 295, no. 1892-012 (illustrated in color, p. 72; illustrated again, p. 295).
Paris, 20 rue Laffitte, Groupe des peintres néo-impressionnistes, December 1893-January 1894, no. 3 (titled Les Barques).
The Hague, Kunst en Ambacht, October 1898.
Paris, Didier Imbert Fine Art, Alain Delon: 20 ans de passion, au profit de l’Association pour la recherche sur le cancer Léon Schwartzenberg, spring 1990, no. 19.
Further details
We thank Olivier Bertrand for providing additional information on this painting, which will be included in his Théo Van Rysselberghe catalogue raisonné.

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Eloquently constructed from thousands of tiny points of color, Théo van Rysselberghe’s Péniches sur l’Escaut depicts several boats sailing along the Escaut river outside of Antwerp. In the background, the city’s spires are just visible, while the soft, even light and purple shadows suggest that the artist has set up his easel in the early morning hours, when the river was calm and dawn had just broken. Completed in 1892, a year that is widely considered to be the high point of his career and in which the artist created masterpieces such as L’Escaut en amont d’Anvers, le soir (Feltkamp no. 1892-009; Private collection), this canvas demonstrates Van Rysselberghe’s mastery of the pointillist technique, pioneered by Georges Seurat in the mid-1880s.
Van Rysselberghe had first encountered this new avant-garde idiom in 1886, when he traveled from Brussels to Paris—his first trip to the French capital, at the age of twenty-three—for the eighth and final Impressionist group exhibition. Here, Seurat’s pointillist manifesto Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte (The Art Institute of Chicago) was the succès de scandale of the exhibition. Intrigued by this powerful style of image-making, Van Rysselberghe and his traveling companion, the poet Emile Verhaeren, met with Seurat and arranged for him to exhibit the canvas the following year in Brussels with the avant-garde group Les XX, the principal vehicle for disseminating new artistic ideas in Belgium. However, it would take a further two years for Van Rysselberghe to fully absorb the tenets of Neo-Impressionism. He began painting in a pointillist manner in 1888 and quickly forged a close and enduring friendship with Paul Signac, one of the movement’s most vocal adherents. In 1892, the year that Péniches sur l’Escaut was painted, Van Rysselberghe wrote to Signac, “Like you, I am more convinced than ever of the excellence of our technique… I find it genuinely voluptuous, it’s so logical and good” (quoted in Théo van Rysselberghe, exh. cat., Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2006, p. 135).
Considering the shared formal qualities between the present work and Signac’s own paintings, it is not surprising that it dates from the height of their friendship. On 26 March 1892, Van Rysselberghe and Signac set sail for Southern France, traveling in Signac’s sleek cutter, the Olympia, named for Edouard Manet’s revolutionary painting; they arrived at the lively Mediterranean port of Cette on 14 April. There, Van Rysselberghe painted three major oils including Port de Cette, Les Tartanes (Feltkamp, no. 1892-006; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), a work which moves beyond the representational to probe the relationship between man and nature. Even after he returned home two months later, this idea remained at the forefront of his mind.
Taking a favorite subject of the Impressionists—that of a boat meandering along the water—Van Rysselberghe transferred the motif to a Belgian setting. While the Impressionists employed painterly effects that captured the transience of the material world, the Pointillists sought to reveal the essential qualities that lie behind the changing face of nature. Péniches sur l’Escaut is one of several works that Van Rysselberghe painted of the river near Antwerp, including Dues à Cadzand ou Vue de l’Escaut, now in the collection of Kunstmuseum Den Haag (Feltkamp, no. 1893-004). Belying the energy required of pointillist paintings, these compositions evoke a profound stillness, a harmony between the boat and the water. Indeed, Van Rysselberghe, for his part, developed his own distinct form of Divisionism, based on Seurat’s Post-Impressionist vision yet with a uniquely Symbolist sensibility—a more deliberately inward path of heightened subjectivity, seeking to experience the world and its meaning through the exaltation of the spirit.
“It is in landscapes that Van Rysselberghe was at his boldest, producing pictures characterized by an almost abstract sense of color and a strict, geometric scheme,” argues Marina Bocquillon. “Going far beyond a mere diversion, these landscapes are genuinely successful and reveal a freedom with regard to nature that is not present in his portraits” (“Signac and Van Rysselberghe: The Story of a Friendship, 1887-1907” in Apollo, no. 436, June, 1998, p. 14). Such pictorial freedom was underpinned by the artist’s application of the pointillist technique. In the present work, the surface vibrates with the myriad touches of pigment that together coalesce into a luminous atmosphere. For Van Rysselberghe, each touch of paint was painstakingly considered for how it would impact the image, from the initial forms defining this river scene, to the tiny points of color depicting the figures in the boats and the touches of pigment added at the final stage to accentuate certain features within the composition. He particularly loved the “petit point,” which he used to make his canvases come alive (R. Feltkamp, op. cit., 2003, p. 22). In Péniches sur l’Escaut, such painterly accumulation can be seen where the city meets the water as well as along the riverbank, emphasizing the break separating dry land and the lapping surface of the water.
Péniches sur l’Escaut was first shown in Paris at a gallery devoted to Neo-Impressionism at 20 rue Lafitte. Financed by the aristocrat, painter, and patron of the arts, Count Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, the space had been founded with the aim of showcasing the work of these revolutionary artists. Writing to his son Lucien, Camille Pissarro described the venture as an “Anarchist grouping—regular storefront—new exhibitions every month” (quoted in M. Ferretti-Bocquillon, “Signac: Drawings and Watercolors,” in A. Distel et al, Signac: 1863-1935, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 43). Signac, too, wrote of the gallery to Van Rysselberghe, saying, “Greenish blue, round metal letters, vermillion red, it already sings the dynamogenic song of light, energy, health, and triumph” (quoted in ibid., p. 44). An invitation dating from 1893 to 1894 explained that exhibits would rotate every month, and though the venture was short-lived, it proved highly impactful. Van Rysselberghe was listed alongside several other Pointillist painters in the gallery’s program, including Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, and Signac, and Péniches sur l’Escaut was displayed between December of 1893 and January 1894, under the title Les Barques.

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