Théo VAN RYSSELBERGHE | Sailing boats and estuary [Voiliers et estuaire]

Belgium 1862 – 1926

Sailing boats and estuary
[Voiliers et estuaire]
c. 1887
oil on canvas
canvas 50.0 (h) x 61.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1982
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In this work van Rysselberghe employs the Pointillist technique to luminous effect. The eye is led from the foreground to the mid-ground, and across the expanse of ocean by the jutting landmass, to the horizon where sea and sky mingle. The upper-third of the canvas is dominated by sky—billowing clouds give way to a pale, lemon sunshine that glistens on the water below. In the foreground the ocean reaches right to the very edge of the canvas, emphasised by the deep shadow cast by the jetty. In the distance sailboats become specks on the horizon and a sense of the ocean’s enormity is achieved.

Van Rysselberghe worked in many styles throughout his career, and in this work we see the synthesis of several. The inspiration for the composition seems to have come from Seurat, whose seascapes often draw the viewer in with a close-up view of land or a jetty at the side of the canvas, and then give way to an expanse of ocean and sky separated by a thin wedge of land.

Painted in the Pointillist manner which van Rysselberghe adopted after befriending Signac, the delicate, shimmering quality of light in Sailing boats and estuary is also reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler. The use of colour is far more naturalistic than in the work of Signac and other Neo-Impressionists, and reveals a tendency towards Realism. Indeed, describing the art of van Rysselberghe, Denis commented: ‘[his is] an art of probity and reflection, with neither hesitations nor maladroitness, a realistic art, but with all the seductions of reality’.1

Sailing boats and estuary illustrates an important moment in modern art: that at which artists found the resolve to depict nothingness. Contrary to the tradition of maritime painting, no boat dominates the scene, no action takes place. We are shown the ocean as flat, calm and unending. Here is stillness.

Emilie Owens

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. Quoted in Robert L. Herbert, ‘Théo van Rysselberghe’, in Jean Sutter (ed.), The Neo-Impressionists, London: Thames and Hudson 1970, p. 184.