Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926)

Théo Van Rysselberghe

Théo Van Rysselberghe

Théophile “Théo” van Rysselberghe was a Belgian neo-impressionist painter, who played a pivotal role in the European art scene at the turn of the century. Van Rysselberghe first studied at the Academy of Ghent under Theo Canneel and from 1879 at the Academy of Brussels under the directorship of Jean-François Portaels. Portaels’s North African paintings had started an orientalist fashion in Belgium and strongly influenced the young van Rysselberghe.

Between 1882 and 1888 he made three trips to Morocco, staying there for a year and a half. Back in Belgium, he showed about 30 works from his trip at the “Cercle Artistique et Littéraire” in Ghent. It was an instant success, especially The kef smokers, The orange seller and a seascape entitled The strait (setting sun), Tangier (1882). In April 1883 he exhibited these scenes of everyday Mediterranean life at the salon L’Essor in Brussels before an enthusiast public. It was also around this time that he befriended the writer and poet Emile Verhaeren, later portrayed several times by van Rysselberghe. In September 1883 van Rysselberghe went to Haarlem to study the light in the works of Frans Hals. Rendering light in oil would continue to occupy his mind.

In 1883 Van Rysselberghe was one of the prominent co-founders of the Belgian artistic circle Les XX. This was a circle of young radical artists under the patronage of Oscar Maus (1856-1919). They rebelled against the outmoded academism of that time and prevailing artistic norms. Among the most notable members were James Ensor, Willy Finch, Fernand Khnopff, Félicien Rops, and later Auguste Rodin and Paul Signac. This membership brought van Rysselberghe in contact with other radical artists, such as James McNeil Whistler, who had exhibited in Les XX in 1884. In November 1883 he departed for Tangier with Frantz Charlet. In April 1884 he visited Andalusia in the company of the American painter John Singer Sargent and Ralph Curtis. It was here that he realized his best known work from this period, the large Arabian fantasia, a theme introduced by Eugène Delacroix. Bathed in the harsh light of the Moroccan sun, it illustrates Van Rysselberghe’s intense preoccupation with capturing light through paint. This aspect of his work would develop through is experimentation with Impressionism in 1886 and 1887, which he first saw in the paintings of Monet and Renoir at the show of Les XX in 1886.

That same year he discovered Pointillism after seeing Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte at the eighth Impressionist exhibition. Together with Henry Van de Velde, Georges Lemmen, Xavier Mellery, Willy Herman Schlobach and Alfred William Finch and Anna Boch he introduced this style to Belgian painting. Seurat was invited to the next salon of Les XX in Brussels in 1887, but there his La Grande Jatte was heavily criticized as “incomprehensible gibberish applied to the noble art of painting”. Van Rysselberghe abandoned realism and became an adept of pointillism. While staying with Eugene Boch in summer 1887 he met several painters from the Parisian scene such as Sisley, Signac, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose style formed the basis of his graphic work. In December 1887 he was invited, together with Edmond Picard, to accompany a Belgian economic delegation to Meknès, Morocco. His works from this era are among the rare pointillist paintings of Morocco.

Soon after he met with Theo Van Gogh in Paris and invited his brother Vincent to the next exhibition in Brussels. That is where Van Gogh sold Vigne Rouge in Montmajour to Anna Boch, the only painting he ever sold. In 1895 Van Rysselberghe made long journeys to Athens, Constantinople, Hungary, Romania, Moscow and Saint Petersburg in order to make posters for the “Compagnie des Wagons-lits”. After all his years as talent scout for Oscar Maus, he made the mistake of his life: he didn’t recognize the talent of the young Pablo Picasso (who was in his Blue Period at that time), finding his works “ugly and uninteresting”.

Today the top auction records for Van Rysselberghe’s works are dominated by paintings from the 1890s: ‘Le canal en Flandre par temps tristes’ sold in 2011 for $4.27m; ‘Port de Cette, les tartanes’ sold in 2005 for $3.15m; and ‘Voiliers sur l’Escault’ sold in 2002 for $2.65m. His paintings can be found in numerous international collections, including the Musée d’Orsay, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery in London, the Neue Pinakothek and the Prado.

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