Image: Théo van Rysselberghe, À Thuin ou La Partie de tennis monogrammé
His art immerses us not in a dreamlike or ecstatic state but in a sort of chosen life which he shows in all its healthy and beautiful aspects. A fresh happiness flows through them without bringing to mind either the idylls of the antique poets or the classical Elysium.”
E. Verhaeren, ‘L’Art Moderne’, 6 March 1898, quoted in R. Feltkamp, Théo van Rysselberghe, Catalogue raisonné, Brussels, 2003, p. 65.
It was in 1886, on a trip to Paris with poet Émile Verhaeren, that Théo van Rysselberghe met Seurat and Signac. On his return to Belgium, determined to introduce the new divisionist style to the Belgian artistic set, van Rysselberghe helped to found and was subsequently an active member of the Les XX and very quickly became one of the key members of the divisionist movement in Belgium.
Like other Neo-Impressionists such as Signac, Luce and Seurat, van Rysselberghe was interested in landscapes and the popular diversions of modern life, but his work is distinctive for its sensitivity and its determination to capture the intimate aspects of the models it portrays.
Painted in 1889, À Thuin, also known as La Partie de tennis, which epitomises the mature phase of van Rysselberghe’s Neo-Impressionist explorations, immerses us in the setting of “Le Berceau” in Thuin, the country house the Monnoms “were renting in an annex of Aulne Abbey” (quoted in M.-J. Chartrain-Hebbelinck, ibid, p. 110).
The artist chose to depict women playing tennis, a very modern subject given that women’s tennis did not appear at the Olympic Games until 1900 in Paris, just over 10 years after this picture was painted.
In this composition, handled almost like an interior scene in which the building and vegetation serve as a backdrop, the figures are scattered in various poses on either side of the tree trunks, the majestic verticality of which is suggestive of the influence of Japanese prints, which were very much in vogue at the time.
Applying specks of pure, radiant colour, the artist uses a vibrant technique for this picture, the vivid quality of which is praised by Ronald Feltkamp: “With many pointillists, the small dot introduces a monotonous, mechanical effect; but not with van Rysselberghe. Apart from the visual effect of the non-mixed colours, he succeeds in giving the dots a kind of effervescence and makes them swirl.” (R. Feltkamp, op. cit. p. 51).
For this harmonious composition in which the figures seem to be in symbiosis with the landscape, van Rysselberghe chooses to juxtapose green and blue-mauve, unlike Seurat and Signac, who preached the law of simultaneous contrast: the pairing of red and green or blue and orange. Rather than strictly conforming to Neo-Impressionist theories, the artist celebrates the symbolic power of colour, giving his bucolic pictures a poetic ambiance also to be found in other charming paintings by the artist portraying women in a garden (Le Verger and La femme au jardin, 1890, Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum, fig. 1).
Théo van Rysselberghe, À Thuin ou La Partie de tennis monogrammé
Although the artist’s innovative touch differentiates him from Signac and Seurat, he does share with them an obsession with light, which is celebrated here in a triumphant manner, to the point of being blinding in places.Apart from his iconic technique, this picture provides us with valuable evidence of how society was changing with the arrival of sporting activity in the late 19th century. Although women taking exercise had been represented since antiquity (fig. 2), they became considerably more active in sports in the late 19th century.
At the turn of the 20th century, sport for women was still limited, consisting either of the physical education necessary for maternal good health or leisure activities for society ladies. Riding, hunting, fencing, golf, polo, mountaineering, motor sports and of course lawn tennis were eagerly taken up by high society, both Parisian and provincial, who used these activities to liven up their social occasions.
It was in the 19th century that tennis, inspired by royal tennis, took off and became widespread, under the aegis of Major Walter Clopton Wingfield who set out the rules in his book A Portable Court of Playing Tennis. Initially considered as more of a game than a sport, tennis was, as this picture shows, played exclusively at private properties, usually on a grassy area, at high-society country-house parties and at tennis clubs.
The first tennis “kits” were sold in 1874, as suggested by the accessories distributed across the lawn and represented by the artist by means of vivid colours. Tennis caught on immediately, for men and women alike.
From the mid-1880s onwards, women played in the Wimbledon tournaments and the implications of this were particularly remarked upon in the 1891 guide, Wright & Ditson Officially Adopted Lawn Tennis: “Lawn tennis has done more to give young girls a taste for outdoor sport than every other sport combined.” This picture, acquired by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec directly from van Rysselberghe, bears witness to the strong connection that had developed between these two artists since their meeting in 1887. From the very beginning of his career, van Rysselberghe had genuinely admired the Montmartre artist and drawn inspiration from the paintings he produced around 1890. Moreover, Toulouse-Lautrec wrote to his mother in July 1887: “My dear Mother, I have been, these past two days, in a foul mood and don’t know how it will end. […] Apart from that, everything is fine. I am exhibiting in Belgium in February, and two uncompromising Belgian painters who came to see me [van Rysselberghe and Eugène Boch] were charming, and lavish with their alas unmerited praise.”
This painting has remained in Toulouse-Lautrec’s collection until the artist’s death. Disposed of by the artist’s descendants to a family in Toulouse, À Thuin, also known as La Partie de tennis, has remained in the same private collection until now, when it is being placed on the market for the first time since it was painted.
Art Impressionniste et Moderne, Christie's, Paris, June 4, 2020
Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926)
À Thuin ou La Partie de tennis
Estimate: EUR 2,000,000 - EUR 3,000,000
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