Born in St. Cloud near Paris on 29 October 1854, Gaston La Touche demonstrated an early vocation for an artistic career. Little is known about his earliest training, only that he was under the tutelage of a M. Paul. At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the family moved to Normandy, and it was there that the young artist became fascinated with the people of the countryside and with their tales and legends. It was in the woodlands and fields of Normandy that the artist’s penchant for the interpretation of imaginary scenes was nurtured and developed.
Although La Touche received very little in the way of formal artistic training, he was greatly influenced by the work of two artists; Felix Bracquemond (1833-1914) and Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Manet, Degas and a group of painters, poets, critics and authors would frequent the Café des Nouvelles Athenes in Paris to discuss art and the events of the day. La Touche was also a frequent habitué of this café where he met the realist writer Emile Zola, the author and art critic Louis Edmond Duranty and Théodore Duret, the first champion of the Impressionists. In 1877, La Touche formally asked Manet to take him on officially as his student to which the older artist replied that he had nothing to teach him, telling him only that he should paint what he saw and that there was no black and white, only color. The young artist took Manet at his word, and in 1883, it was written about La Touche, ‘La Touche n’emprunta rien au divin réalism de Manet, il apprit du moins de ce maître, qu’il adorait, à déterminer la valeur et l’effet sans surcharge inutile, par le seule prestige de la lumière et de la couleur’ (La Touche did not take on any of Manet’s divine realism, what he did at least learn from this master, whom he adored, was how to determine the value and effect without useless overloading, by using light and color)(Ouest-France, ‘Gaston La Touche: Les Compositions Gallantes’, 29 July 1883).
It is impossible to characterize the oeuvre of Gaston La Touche. Sarah Maclennan writes: ‘La Touche’s oeuvre does not fall into any particular category. He attempted his own form of divisionism, but continued to experiment with feathery brushstrokes, each of a different shade, giving his pictures an ethereal serenity and making them appear far removed from the everyday world. This ambiance carries over even into paintings of a more prosaic subject matter, as though the most ordinary event or gesture is somehow transformed under his brush’ (S. B. Maclennan, Gaston La Touche A Painter of Belle Epoque Dreams, Suffolk, 2009, p. 13).
The present work depicts the Bassin de Neptune in the park at Versailles. As a young boy, when living in St. Cloud, La Touche would often escape from home and visit the palace and grounds of Versailles where he would roam the grounds and gardens and became fascinated by the fountains which appear so often in his artistic oeuvre. He loved the opulence and luxury epitomized by the residence of the Sun King, and spent many hours contemplating the play of light on the constantly moving waters of the many fountains and pools of the gardens and grounds.
Bassin de Neptune, Versailles, painted on a large panel, depicts a group of elegantly attired visitors to the famous fountains. Their bright costumes are captured in a rainbow of saturated pastel colors as they crowd the rim of the pool. The surface of the water shimmers with iridescent light greens and blues. Two sprays throw volumes of water back into the pool, and the artist perfectly captures the movement of water and the nuances of color created by that movement in the surface of the pooled water. On the wall surrounding the fountain, evenly spaced urns spout jets of water high into the sky, forming a curtain of light and water before the dense dark green foliage that forms the backdrop of the composition. The light of the late afternoon sun glows in pinks and oranges and bathes the tops of the trees in the golden hues of day’s end.
Bassin de Neptune, Versailles is also an extraordinary example of the virtuoso brushstroke for which Gaston La Touche is best known. Short brushstrokes, saturated in color, depict the finer details of the figures and their costumes. They lengthen to capture the movement and depth of the water and then lengthen and broader to capture the force of the water shooting into the sky. The overall effect is one of elegant and opulent spectacle, a moment in time frozen in color and light.
We are grateful to Roy Brindley and Selina Baring Maclennan for confirming the authenticity of this work. They will include the painting in the Gaston La Touche catalogue raisonné currently in preparation.
(fig. 1) Gaston LaTouche in his studio, 1899.
(fig. 2) Bassin de Neptune, Versailles.