Ker-Xavier ROUSSEL | The terrace [La terrasse]

Ker-Xavier ROUSSEL
France 1867 – 1944

The terrace
[La terrasse]
c. 1892
oil on canvas
canvas 71.0 (h) x 90.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1992
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

This painting is one of Roussel’s decorative works from 1890–95. Although plans for the project have been lost, this painting has been tentatively tied to two other canvases intended to decorate a mayoral office—Conversation on the terrace c. 1892–931 and Meeting of the women c. 1893.2 Certain features appear in all three works—the autumnal leaves, the patterned dresses and the terrace itself. The terrace, however, has an aura of isolation, while the other two project an air of engagement and social interaction. Despite the women’s close proximity, neither acknowledges the other.

The painting is set in the Tuileries Gardens, near Roussel’s house at 346 Rue St Honoré. The architectural space is reminiscent of medieval walled gardens.3 During the Middle Ages, the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) developed as an allegory for the Immaculate Conception. This gave rise to images of the Virgin and Child in protected gardens. The spiritual symbolism of this would have appealed to Roussel’s Nabis sympathies. Roussel also alludes to the European landscape feature of the ‘clearing’, a refuge in the wilderness, often seen in the work of Puvis, whose theatrical mythical compositions, such as The sacred grove, beloved of the arts and Muses 1884,4 had a considerable influence on The terrace.

The garden setting also signals the influence of Eastern, especially Japanese, art. The rendering of the tree has a Japanese quality, especially in the dotted sprays of leaves. Set slightly to the right, its many trunks have been cropped by the top of the canvas. The full extent of its glory is hidden, although the spread of its ochre-coloured leaves along the upper panel suggests its enormity. The canvas is broken into three horizontal sections: the upper above the terrace balustrade; the middle down to the base of the wall; and the lower where the woman lies prostrate. This tripartite division is a common device found in East Asian scroll paintings, where a poet or sage is often placed in the lower foreground of a landscape.

Roussel composes a quite theatrical stage for the two female figures. The middle section reduces the perspective, resulting in minimal depth, keeping the viewer’s eye on the foreground. The main figure is isolated by the strong arch to the left and the tree to the right, which defines two distinct spaces. Sliced by the edge of the canvas, the unobtrusive figure of the second woman, an intruder in the tranquil garden, is not immediately apparent.

Simeran Maxwell

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. Collection Josefowitz, Lausanne.
  2. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena.
  3. Araxie Toutghalian, ‘La terrasse’, in Caroline Mathieu, Marc Bascon and Akiya Takahashi, La modernité: collections du Musée d’Orsay, Tokyo; Nihon Zeizai Shimbun 1999, cat. 166, p. 244.
  4. Musée des Beaux-arts, Lyons.