France 1858 – 1941
The Seine at Herblay
[La Seine à Herblay] 1890
oil on canvas
canvas 50.5 (h) x 79.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1937
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
This exquisite rendition of graduated pinks and mauves, in delicately stippled brushwork, conveys the light and atmosphere of dusk. We look down onto a property nestled in a bend of the Seine: a white stone wall leads into the dark, densely vegetated section at the centre of the composition, and the roofs jutting up from the hillside. Luce’s carefully balanced composition is structured by diagonals—the triangle of grassy bank in the foreground, the interlocking sections formed by the bend in the river. Wedges of high-key colour are complemented by darker sections, and punctuated by the upright trees. Adopting a high viewpoint, Luce, like Seurat in Port-en-Bessin at high tide 1888, exploits the patterns and textures of grasses, bushes, trees and water, set against the distant hills and graded sky.
Luce began experimenting with Divisionist techniques in the mid 1880s. He exhibited seven works at the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1887, and in all subsequent exhibitions between 1888 and 1892. He was close to Pissarro (they shared the same radical politics) and through him meet Seurat, Signac and Cross.From 1889, Luce painted central Paris locations between the cathedral of Notre Dame and the Musée du Louvre, particularly the quays and bridges of the Seine, often set at dusk or at night.1 He continued to paint urban scenes, the animated streets of the Latin Quarter, construction workers, and views over Montmartre throughout his career. He also worked on the Brittany coast and travelled widely in the 1890s—to London, St-Tropez, and Borinage, a Belgium coal-mining district—but unlike his contemporaries, and the Impressionists before him, he did not produce series.
Luce’s choices of picturesque scenes along the Seine, as well as his canonical perspectives of Paris, were probably an attempt to attract buyers.2 From the late 1880s the painter was in dire straits both financially and emotionally; he lived and worked peripatetically, visiting friends for extended periods in an attempt to save money. In 1889 Luce visited Signac at Herblay, now a north-western suburb of Paris—and returned the following year to paint this scene. The Seine at Herblay was exhibited in Paris in 1890, and again three years later at the fifth Exposition des Peintres Impressionistes et Symbolistes. Reviewing that exhibition Yves Rambosson complained:
Once again, the evidence is clear that impressionism is powerless to render night-time effects … there is too much heaviness, and the precision of the brush-strokes cannot communicate the haziness of the enclosing darkness, and the indecisiveness of reflected gleams of light.3
These comments seem particularly out of place when contemplating this dusky scene at Herblay however, and if we consider the artist’s broader interest in nocturnes. Indeed, The Seine at Herblay is surely one the more dramatic and luminous examples of the genre.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Jean Bouin-Luce and Denise Bazetoux, Maximilien Luce: catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, Paris: Editions J.B.L. 1986.
- Robyn Roslak, Neo-Impressionism and anarchism in fin-de-siècle France: painting, politics and landscape, Aldershot: Ashgate 2007, p. 89.
- Yves Rambosson, La Plume, no. 79, 1 August 1893, p. 352, quoted in Bouin-Luce and Bazetoux, p. 64.