Ker-Xavier ROUSSEL | The seasons of life [Les saisons de la vie]

Ker-Xavier ROUSSEL
France 1867 – 1944

The seasons of life
[Les saisons de la vie]
1892-95
oil on canvas
canvas 58.0 (h) x 123.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Accepted in lieu of tax 1990
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Roussel painted according to the principles of Synthetism, using rhythmical flat planes of pure colour, with darker outlines. He also produced murals, lithographs and stained glass, but dated and exhibited few works, destroying many. The period and purpose of The seasons of life, found in the artist’s studio at his death, is unclear. Four static, puppet-like figures are positioned against a theatre-like background. Using broad lines and patches of colour, the artist has articulated trees, rocks, hills and other landscape features. The autumnal palette, the careful interspersing of the female figures between the trees, the colour, draping and pattern of their robes, all contribute to the pleasing effect of this work. But somehow, something is missing.

Throughout literature and the visual arts the seasons are commonly portrayed as female figures at different stages of life. In Roussel’s painting, the elderly female at left, with her hunched form and grey hair, may be winter but it is difficult to specify the other women as either autumn, spring or summer—unless the bare arms of the figure at right link her to warmer weather. The decorative quality and format of the work suggest a study for a mural, frieze, or panels for a domestic interior—like Vuillard’s grand decoration, Public gardens 1894. Another work by Roussel, sometimes referred to as a second version of The seasons of life, shows very similar figures but all young, in a dark green valley, with less topographical detail. These works are also linked with a further pair of paintings—Meeting of the women 1892–931 and Conversation on the terrace 18932—in which the costumes are similar but the figures are placed in an architectural setting.

The figures are clothed in the long, loose, simple quasi-medieval gowns popular at this time—and also visible in Roussel’s The terrace and Denis’ decorative panels (works 105, 106 and 107). The artist and his contemporaries were familiar with Italian predella panels in the Louvre, especially those by the Trecento and Quattrocento artists Fra Angelico, Pietro Perugino and Filippino Lippi. There may also be a connection to Edward Burne-Jones and the English Pre-Raphaelites, as Roussel and Vuillard visited London and the National Gallery in 1892. For all its simplicity, Roussel’s The seasons of life is an attractive, intriguing work.

Lucina Ward

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

  1. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.
  2. Collection Josefowitz, Lausanne.