Théo VAN RYSSELBERGHE | The man at the tiller [L'homme à la barre]

Belgium 1862 – 1926

The man at the tiller
[L'homme à la barre]
oil on canvas
canvas 60.2 (h) x 80.3 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Ginette Signac 1976
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Van Rysselberghe, a member of the Belgian avant-garde exhibiting group Les XX (The Twenty), took part in an aesthetic revolution in his homeland. He was instrumental in inviting Seurat to show his monumental painting A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte 18861 (see studies 13 and 14) in Brussels, the year after it was first exhibited in Paris. With his friend, the Symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren, van Rysselberghe had visited the Société des Artistes Indépendants, where the painting had a stunning effect. Verhaeren wrote that it ‘asked me to forget all colour and spoke to me only of light’.2

Influenced by Signac, the theorist and enthusiast of Neo-Impressionism, van Rysselberghe adopted the new technique of Divisionism. He separated hues, and placed them side-by-side on the canvas, where they combine as the viewer perceives them. More startling than his technique is his daring and original composition for The man at the tiller. A dark, triangular figure sits in the extreme lower-right corner, counterbalanced by a light triangle of sail and boom at upper left. The blue silhouette of the helmsman forms a wave, reminiscent of Hokusai’s The great wave off Kanagawa c. 1829–32. Curling across the central area are lines of green waves, repeating with variation. A band of white foam links the sailor to the ropes and the sail. The sea’s power over the little boat, and the concentration which the man needs to prevail in the elements, contrast with the large distant sailing-ship, secure in a tranquil band of sky and sea forming the top third of the composition.

The chromatic use of opposites is seen best in the blue and orange clothes of the helmsman, opposed by the use of orange and blue for flesh and wood. The sail is not white, but rather picked out in pinks, yellow and blue, intensified in the yellow wood of the boom. Dots and dashes of green and white enliven the moving surface of the waves. As well as tonal divisions, contrasting directions of the paint strokes distinguish each of the picture planes. The canvas is framed in a darker blue, following the theories of Seurat and Signac. Although the sailor has traditionally been identified as van Rysselberghe’s friend Signac, the artist’s correspondence identifies him as Yves Priol, the Breton crew-man on Signac’s yacht Olympia.3 Van Rysselberghe later exchanged this work for one of Signac’s paintings, a mark of friendship among artists.

Christine Dixon

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. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
  2. Quoted in Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, ‘Signac and Van Rysselberghe: The story of a friendship, 1887–1907’, Apollo, vol. 147, no. 36, June 1998, pp. 11–18.
  3. Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, ‘Théo van Rysselberghe et Paul Signac: histoire d’une amité’, in Théo van Rysselberghe, Brussels: Bozar Books 2006, p. 136