Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926)
Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926)

Le canal en Flandre par temps triste

Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926)
Le canal en Flandre par temps triste
signed with the artist's monogram and dated '1894' (lower left)
oil on canvas
23¾ x 31½ in. (60 x 80 cm.)
Painted in 1894
Auguste Weber, Luxembourg.
Mr & Mrs Hugo Perls, New York, by 1962.
Private collection, New York.
Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York.
John T. Dorrance Jr., Pennsylvania, by whom acquired from the above on 20 February 1970; sale, Sotheby's, New York, 18 October 1989, lot 34.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
L'Art Moderne, 13 March 1893.
O. Maus, letter of 13 March 1898.
T. van Rysselberghe, letter to O. Maus, 1898.
E. Verhaeren, 'Théo van Rysselberghe' in Ver Sacrum, vol. II, Vienna, 1899, p. 9.
M.O. Maus, Trente Années de lutte pour l'art, Les XX La Libre Esthétique 1884-1914, Brussels, 1926, p. 228.
G. van Zype, 'Théo van Rysselberghe' in Annuaire de l'Académie Royale de Belgique, Brussels, 1932, p. 131.
M.J. Chartrain-Hebbelinck, 'Le groupe des XX et La libre Esthétique' in RBAHA, vol. XXXIV, no. 1-2, 1965, p. 117.
M.J. Chartrain-Hebbelinck, 'Les lettres de Théo van Rysselberghe à O. Maus' in Bulletin des Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, vol. XV, 1966, no. 1-2, pp. 55-130.
A.M. Damigella, L'impressionismo fuori di Francia, Milan, 1967 (illustrated, pl. VIII).
S. Venturi, Le pointillisme, Milan, 1991.
W. Januszczak, 'Turn a dark eye' in The Sunday Times - The Culture, London, 1994, p. 29 (illustrated pp. 28-29).
S. Mund, 'La cote de l'artiste Théo van Rysselberghe' in Arts Antiques Auctions, June 2001.
R. Feltkamp, Théo van Rysselbergh, 1862-1926, Brussels, 2003, no. 1894-006, p. 304 (illustrated pp. 17 and 304, John Dorrance provenance incorrectly named 'John Porrance').
Dresden, Internationale Kunst Ausstellung, September 1897, no. 657.
Brussels, La Libre Esthétique, February - April 1898, no. 385.
Vienna, Sezession, 1898 (not included in the catalogue).
Brussels, Galerie Giroux, Théo van Rysselberghe, March 1922, no. 66.
Brussels, Galerie Giroux, Théo van Rysselberghe: Exposition d'ensemble, November - December 1927, no. 27.
Brussels, Galerie Giroux, Theéo van Rysselberghe, 1937.
Ghent, Museum voor Shone Kunsten, Rétrospective Théo van Rysselberghe, July - September 1962, no. 62.
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Neo-Impressionism February - April 1968, no. 138, p. 186 (illustrated).
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Post-Impressionism, Cross Currents in European Painting, November 1979 - March 1980, no. 411; this exhibition later travelled to Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, May - September 1980.
Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Het landschap in de Belgische kunst, 1830-1914, October - December 1980, no. 225.
Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Théo van Rysselberghe, néo-impressioniste, March - June 1993, no. 48.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Impressionism to Symbolism: The Belgian avant-garde 1880-1900, July - October 1994, no. 74.
Amsterdam, van Gogh Museum, The origins of art nouveau: the Bing empire, November 2004 - February 2005; this exhibition later travelled to Munich, Museum Villa Stuck, March - July 2005, Barcelona, The Caixa Forum, September - January 2006 and Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs, March - July 2006.


Théo van Rysselberghe's Le canal en Flandre par temps triste was painted in 1894 and is a Neo-Impressionist tour de force. The picture appears to show the tree-lined canal that runs between Bruges and Damme, which exists to this day, still affording similar vistas. In this way, it invokes a whole history of Netherlandish canal paintings, causing the viewer to recall the ice-skaters of the Old Masters while also revelling in its own highly modern style, with the reality of the view condensed into an almost abstract, rhythmic format. The quality of this picture, and indeed Van Rysselberghe's own appreciation of its merits, is clear from the extensive exhibition history, which features many international shows from his own lifetime beginning only a few years after it was completed. It was shown in Brussels at the show of La Libre Esthéthique, which was a continuation of the avant garde group of artists, Les XX, in 1898, and was reproduced the following year in Ver Sacrum, the celebrated publication of the Vienna Secession which had been founded by Gustav Klimt and some of his contemporaries only two years earlier.

This reveals the early history of the appreciation of the incredible innovative and aesthetic power of Le canal en Flandre par temps triste. The picture manages to combine an incredible attention to detail, present in the meticulous pointillisme that makes the vibrant surface positively vibrate with colour, with an almost abstract view of the landscape, which has been condensed into sweeping horizontal, vertical and diagonal bands of colour. The perspective plunges into the background towards the left-hand side of the canvas, the eye drawn there through the vortex-like arrangement of the stately, rhythmic trees on the right, the green sward of the banks and the water and sky. Far away, the shade of the trees gradually acquires a bluish tinge before fading into a distant haze.

The composition of this picture in a sense recalls the swirling abstract forms that had featured in the background of Paul Signac's famous portrait of Félix Fénéon, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Yet Van Rysselberghe's Le canal en Flandre par temps triste is wholly anchored in the visual world, in the landscape of Flanders itself. Indeed, it is a masterful example of the Neo-Impressionist landscape, made all the more enthralling by the ray-like strands that emanate from that vanishing point: this is Divisionism at its best. These traits, with which Van Rysselberghe pushed his views of the landscape to the limits of abstraction, were likewise evident in other paintings from this period, for instance Paysage côtier of circa 1892, now in the National Gallery, London, with its jagged progression of inlets cutting into the silvery sea, and Gros nuages of 1893, now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, with its glowing horizontal composition, its regularity punctured by clouds that recall the streaks in a painting by Clyfford Still. In Le canal en Flandre par temps triste, that sense of abstraction is likewise vivid, invoked by the formality of these bands of colour. This effect is heightened by both the gesturality of Van Rysselberghe's paint application, which varies in parts from the dots - the points that gave Pointillisme its name - to small dashes, as in the darting vertical strokes that he has used to render the grass in the foreground. Likewise, the abstraction of the composition is intensified by the rhythmic progression of the trees as they recede into the background: these provide a vibrant counterpoint to the larger swathes of colour that comprise so much of this scene.

Considering the visual links between Le canal en Flandre par temps triste and the works of Signac, it is perhaps not surprising to find that this picture dates from the height of the friendship between the two artists. Indeed, during the course of 1894, the pair exchanged paintings. Van Rysselberghe gave his friend and mentor his 1892 painting, L'homme à la barre, now in the Musée d'Orsay, while in return he received Signac's 1893 oil, Le Pin de Bonaventure, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In that latter work, Signac treated the lush green of the foliage in his painting, interspersed with the deft areas of cool shade, with a similar versatility and similar techniques to those used by Van Rysselberghe in Le canal en Flandre par temps triste. While in part it is a reflection of the constraints of the Pointillism that they both used in their paintings, Signac and Van Rysselberghe also shared artistic practices: both would create sketches from life which served as preparatory documents for their paintings. This appears to have been the case with Van Rysselberghe's Le canal en Flandre par temps triste, for which he created both a watercolour which is filled with a vitality that implies that it was created before the motif itself, en plein air, and also a smaller oil study. Van Rysselberghe then used these works as a form of aide-mémoire, taking his cues from them while he slowly and carefully created Le canal en Flandre par temps triste. The results of this system of working were evident in the small number of paintings that both Signac and Van Rysselberghe completed in some years: in the course of 1894, for example, Ronald Feltkamp lists only four other oils, excluding small studies, giving some indication of the incredibly rigorous working process involved in creating such a scintillating Neo-Impressionist masterpiece.

Le canal en Flandre par temps triste was clearly already considered an important picture soon after its completion, as is made evident by its extensive exhibition history and by the attention it has been granted by various writers over the span of more than a century since it was painted. The picture's first owner was Auguste Weber, who was also the sitter for a portrait that Van Rysselberghe painted in 1893, the year before Le canal en Flandre par temps triste was created. Weber was the nephew of Emile Mayrisch, an industrialist from Luxembourg whose name still lives on in several buildings there, erected thanks to his generosity and philanthropy. This picture subsequently formed a part of the collection of John T. Dorrance Jr., a member of the family famous for owning the Campbell's Soup company. Dorrance's formidable collection included works by Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir amongst others.