To synthesize the landscape into a definitive aspect that perpetuates one’s sensation of it, that is the task the neo-impressionist have set for themselves.
French art critic Félix Fénéon coined the term “Neo-Impressionism” in 1886 in a review of George Seurat’s ground-breaking painting Sunday at la Gande Jatte. Presenting his monumental work at the 8th Impressionist exhibition in Paris, the young Seurat had showed the world a spectacular new way of depicting light. He challenged the Impressionists by renouncing their loose, spontaneous brushwork in favor of a more restrained painting technique, based on the study of optics and colour theory.
Sunday at la Gande Jatte consisted of meticulously applied small dabs of paint in contrasting hues, resulting in an over-all tapestry-like effect of extraordinary luminosity. Instead of on the painter’s palette, colours were blended in the spectator’s eye − a phenomenon called mélange optique (optical mixture). The painting technique of separating colours through the application of uncountable individual dots of pigment came to be known as Divisionism, or Pointillism. Its dazzling visual effect brought Seurat instant fame and strongly appealed to many European avant-garde artists, among them Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, Henri-Edmond Cross, and Theo van Rysselberghe, who adapted the technique with enthusiasm.
The Belgian Theo van Rysselberghe was tightly linked to the French Neo-Impressionist movement through his friendship to Paul Signac, who became the flag bearer for Neo-Impressionism after Seurat’s untimely death in 1891. Rysselberghe was co-founder of Les XX, and avant-garde art movement dedicated to the innovation of art, music and literature in Belgium. He is considered one of the most celebrated representatives of Neo-Impressionism, and the representation of light was one of his foremost artistic concerns throughout his career. Canal en Flandre, dated 1894, is an outstanding example of Rysselberghe’s Pointillist style.
The present painting depicts an iconic motive from Rysselberghe’s home country: the picturesque Damme Canal, commissioned by Napoléon Bonaparte in the early 19th century, which connects Bruges in Flanders with Sluis in Holland. The waterway is flanked by twin rows of tall Canadian poplars, which famously lean to one side, caused by the strong Western winds that consistently blow from the North Sea. Canal en Flandre is composed of brilliant hues of green, blue and violet, applied in small rhythmic touches of paint, leaving some of the blank canvas visible beneath. Van Rysselberghe is known to have painted at least two works depicting the Damme Canal. In his correspondence with his patron and friend Oscar Maus he mentions their completion – one presumed to be the present oil sketch, the other being the more sombre Le canal en Flandre par temps triste, which shows the canal under heavy grey skies from a slightly different angle.
In both works Rysselberghe puts strong emphasis on a dramatic perspective. The artist does exactly as Fénéon stated: ‘synthesizing the landscape into a definitive aspect that perpetuates one’s sensation of it’. He processes and stylizes what he sees by separating it into segments of colour: strips of grass, the reflective surface of the water, trunks and foliage of the perfectly aligned trees, the overcast sky. These diagonals meet at a point in the distance, thus creating a deep space, drawing the viewer’s gaze to one point at the far horizon. The flat Flemish landscape, void of people, with the seemingly endless row of slanting poplars, conveys an air of peace and tranquility in both versions of Canal en Flandre. The repetition of the trees, the relatively restricted colour schemes of both paintings add to the serene, dreamy atmosphere.
Like many other Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist artists, van Rysselberghe was an admirer and avid collector of Japanese woodblock prints, which first appeared on the European art market in the second half of 19th century, after Japan was forced to open its borders to world trade under foreign pressure in the 1850s. Utagawa Hiroshiges’s Night View of Saruwaka-machi from his famous series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-59), which employs a similarly bold use of perspective as Canal en Flandre, is known to have been in van Rysselberghe’s personal collection of Japanese prints. The cut off view of a tree trunk, dominating the left foreground in Ryssleberghe’s oil sketch, is a compositional feature that was probably also inspired by Hiroshige, who had a liking for placing peculiar close-ups of objects in the foreground of his compositions, as, for example, a ferryman’s leg and arms in the print The Ferry at Haneda and the Benten Shrine, from the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series, or part of a thick tree branch in his iconic print Plum garden at Kameido from the same series, which was famously copied by Van Gogh in oil in 1887.
Canal en Flandre was a gift of the artist to his friend Lucien Hauman in 1900. Hauman was renowned Belgian botanist, whose area of expertise were plants native to South America and Africa. Hauman lived and taught in Brussels and Argentina, and the botanical garden at the University of Buenos Aires commemorates his name. A photo of Hauman shows the present painting hanging in his study. Until sold in 2018, the painting had remained with Hauman’s family for more than a century.
- Félix Fénéon, “Le Néo-impressionisme,” L’Art Moderne 7 (May 1,1887) p.138-39, as translated in: H. Dorra ed. Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, Berkeley 1994, p.162
- Ronald Feltkamp, Catalogue raisonné 1862-1926. No.1894-005, p. 303).
- Yoko Takagi, Japonisme in Fin de Siècle art in Belgium, 2001, p.141