Maria Sèthe poses for Van Rysselberghe
A young woman gazes dreamily. Her face radiates determination, calm and self-confidence. She’s smiling. Is she thinking of something nice? Her blonde hair, worn up, her fine features and slender neck gleam in an ivory light. Her dress is purple, like the curtain in the right background.
Wife of Henry Van de Velde
Her name is Maria Sèthe. She later married the painter, designer and architect Henry Van de Velde. Theo Van Rysselberghe painted a lush portrait of Sèthe, yet she doesn’t come over as ostentatious. She’s sitting at a harmonium but not playing it. The head of a cello rises up behind it. The painting is signed VTR at the top, along with the date of the portrait. The harmonium, the cello and the work of art suggest the social status of the wealthy Sèthe family and their musical interests.
As a Belgian, Van Rysselberghe was imbued with the portrait tradition of the Flemish masters. And as a 19th-century artist, he was attuned to the artistic tastes of the bourgeoisie. In 1886, Van Rysselberghe visited the Impressionist exhibition in Paris. He discovered the work there of the French artist George Seurat and promptly embarked on a Neo-Impressionist course.
Pointillism in Van Rysselberghe
The way Van Rysselberghe used Seurat’s pointillism or stippling technique in his portraits is downright masterful. Colours were achieved in traditional painting by mixing paints. The Pointillists, by contrast, applied dots of paint in primary colours to the canvas. Because of the way the human brain works, the viewer then perceives a secondary colour. Placing red and yellow stipples next to each other, for instance, makes us see orange. Van Rysselberghe painted little dots for expressive parts, such as hands and face. The rest of the work was done with larger touches.
Van Rysselberghe plays with colour
Theo van Rysselberghe did not adopt Seurat’s style and simplification. He continued to work realistically and paid a lot of attention to volumes, light and shadow. His pointillist paintings create a bright, almost luminous impression. The purple of the dress is overwhelming. Equally attractive is the blonde hair done in yellow and orange, complementary colours of purple and blue.
Birth of modernism
Strict colour theory and the systematic method were applied less stringently after Seurat’s death. The brushwork became more personal and expressive. Colour became increasingly important. There was more room for personal insight and a less analytical approach. In this way, Pointillism eventually led to the birth of 20th-century modernism.