Théo VAN RYSSELBERGHE ( 1862 - 1926 )

Théo Van Rysselberghe was a Belgian neo-impressionist painter who played a pivotal role in European art at the turn of the 19th century. Born in Ghent in 1862 to a French-speaking bourgeois family, he studied first at the Academy of Ghent under Theo Canneel and from 1879 at the Academy of Brussels under the directorship of Jean-François Portaels. The North African paintings of Portaels had started an orientalist fashion in Belgium. Their impact would strongly influence the young Théo Van Rysselberghe. Between 1882 and 1888 he made three trips to Morocco. Barely 18 years old, he already participated at the Salon of Ghent, showing two portraits. Soon afterwards followed his "Self-portrait with pipe" of 1880, painted in sombre colours in the Belgian realistic tradition of that time. His "Child in an open spot of the forest" already departs from this style and he sets his first steps towards impressionism. Yet soon he would develop his own realistic style, close to impressionism. In 1881 he exhibited for the first time at the Salon in Brussels. The next year he travelled extensively in Spain and Morocco together with his friend Frantz Charlet and the Asturian painter Dario de Regoyos. When he set foot in Tanger at the end of October 1882, a whole new world opened for him: so close to Europe and yet completely different. He would stay there for 4 months, drawing and painting the picturesque scenes on the street, the kasbah and in the souk. Back in Belgium, he showed about 30 works of his trip at the “Cercle Artistique et Littéraire” in Ghent. 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 became befriended with the writer and poet Emile Verhaeren, who would later be portrayed several times by van Rysselberghe. In September 1883 Van Rysselberghe went to Haarlem to study the light in the works of Frans Hals. The accurate rendering of light would continue to occupy his mind. He also met there the American painter William Merritt Chase. Théo Van Rysselberghe was one of the prominent co-founders of the Belgian artistic circle "Les XX" on October 1883. This was a circle of young radical artists, under the patronage, as secretary, of the Brussels jurist and art lover Octave Maus. They rebelled against the outmoded academism of that time and the prevailing artistic standards. 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. He saw the works of the impressionists Monet and Auguste Renoir at the show of "Les XX" in 1886. He was deeply impressed. He experimented with this technique, as can be seen in "Woman with Japanese album" in 1886. Because of his growing ties with the Parisian art scene, Octave Maus sent him as a talent scout to Paris to look out for new talent for the next exhibitions of "Les XX". He discovered the pointillist technique when he saw Georges Seurat’s "La Grande Jatte" at the 8th impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1886. This shook him up completely. Together with Henry Van de Velde, Georges Lemmen, Xavier Mellery, Willy Herman Schlobach and Alfred William Finch and Anna Boch he “imported” this style to Belgium. Seurat was invited to the next salon of "Les XX" in Brussels in 1887. But there his "La Grande Jatte" was heavily criticized by the art critics as “incomprehensible gibberish applied to the noble art of painting”. Théo Van Rysselberghe abandoned realism and became an adept of pointillism. This brought him sometimes in heavy conflict with James Ensor. In 1887 Van Rysselberghe already experimented with this style, as can be seen in his "Madame Oscar Ghysbrecht" in 1887. While staying in summer 1887 a few weeks with Eugène Boch in Batignolles, near Paris, he met several painters from the Parisian scene such as Sisley, Signac, Degas and especially Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He appreciated especially the talent of Toulouse-Lautrec. He could invite several of them, including Signac, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec to the next exhibition of "Les XX". He now turned to portraiture, resulting in a series of remarkable Neo-Impressionist portraits. His famous portrait of "Alice Sèthe" in 1888 in blue and gold would become a turning point in his life. This time he used merely points in the portrait. Vincent Van Gogh 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 the final years of the 1890s, Théo Van Rysselberghe had reached the climax of his Neo-Impressionist technique. Slowly he abandoned the use of dots in his portraits and landscapes and began applying somewhat broader strokes. After 1903, his pointillist technique, which he had used for so many years, became more relaxed and after 1910 he abandoned it completely. His strokes had become longer and he used more often vivid colours and more intense contrasts, or softened hues. He had become a master in applying light and heat in his paintings. After some prospecting together with his friend Henri-Edmond Cross, of the Mediterranean coast between Hyères and Monaco, he found an interesting spot in Saint-Clair. His brother Octave Van Rysselberghe, built him there a residence in 1911. He retired now to the Côte d’Azur and became more and more detached from the Brussels art scene. Here he continued painting, mostly landscapes of the Mediterranean coast, portraits and decorative murals. He died in Saint-Clair in 1926.