Writings on Le Sidaner tend to focus on the silence and subtle play of anticipation exemplified in his work, and his contemporary Paul Signac even went so far as to characterize Le Sidaner's entire career as a progression towards the elimination of human figures: "His oeuvre displays a taste for tender, soft and silent atmospheres. Gradually, he even went so far as to eliminate all human presence from his pictures, as if he feared that the slightest human form might disturb their muffled silence" (quoted in Y. Farinaux-Le Sidaner, op. cit., p. 31).
Painted in 1920, Le quai au clair de lune depicts the canal in the picturesque town of Nemours near Fontainebleau. Catherine Lévy-Lambert could easily be thinking of the present painting when she describes the artist's ability to capture "the indistinct hour when the day is about to die" (ibid., p. 31). It is the hour that the critic Camille Mauclair has evocatively termed "l'heure Le Sidaner" (quoted in R. Le Sidaner, "Le peintre Henri Le Sidaner tel que je l'ai connu," Henri Le Sidaner, exh. cat., Musée Marmottan, Paris, 1989, p. 11).
Le Sidaner developed his distinctive visual lexicon during the 1890s, under the influence of Symbolism. The poignant fin-de-siècle mood of early Belgian Symbolists Maurice Maeterlinck, Emile Verhaeren, and Fernand Khnopff set the tone of his oeuvre. On a formal level, he found a suitably harmonious, all-over treatment for his compositions in Neo-Impressionism. The sense of understated mystery and gentle poetry, evident in the present work, was Le Sidaner's artistic inheritance from his Symbolist-inspired early years; while the highly-keyed palette, subtly worked contrasts and painterly application of pigment owed its debt to Impressionism. This dual aspect of his art was touched on by Mauclair who wrote: "born out of Impressionism, [Le Sidaner] is as much the son of Verlaine as of the snow scenes of Monet" (ibid., p. 12).
Le Sidaner differed from the older generation of Impressionists in that he rarely painted outdoors. He would quickly sketch the scenes he observed as he walked through the town, later crafting the compositions from his imagination. Painted from memory, Le quai au clair de lune, is an intimate manifestation of the artist’s imaginative psyche. It is an ode to symbolist ideology and a model of neo-impressionist execution, and demonstrates the artist’s ability to construct “symbolically charged, atmospheric images with veiled views of the town in the dreamy stillness of twilight” (I. Mössinger and K. Sagner, Henri Le Sidaner, Chemnitz, 2009, p. 39).
(fig. 1) The artist at work in Villefranche-sur-mer, circa 1910.