Leon Spilliaert was born at the “Queen of Beaches”, the very fashionable sea resort of Ostende, in 1881, into a family of luxury perfumers who supplied the court of Leopold II. A sensitive, introverted dreamer, young Spilliaert filled his notebooks with drawings and was passionate about literature. He read the Symbolist writers, as well as Nietzsche whose writings fed the tormented and painful introspection which characterized his first two decades of existence. The 1900 World’s Fair which he visited with his father was to be decisive in his choices of a future.
Spilliaert’s career developed gradually. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bruges for a year, then worked for a Brussels publisher, Edmond Deman, between 1902 and 1904: the art collector encouraged young artists by displaying their canvases in order to attract the attention of potential purchasers. At his peak, Spilliaert joined up with James Ensor, Georges Lemmen, Fernand Khnopff, and Theo Van Rysselberghe, but his dark and phantasmagorical work hardly attracted buyers. Odilon Redon’s oeuvre, which Deman collected, profoundly affected the young artist. After a sojourn in Paris in 1904 hosted by Emile Verhaeren, Spilliaert returned to Ostende and, at the age of 27, exhibited in 1908 for the first time. He worked at the heart of various groups, such as that of “Kunst van Heden” where James Ensor could also be found. His marriage in 1915 and the birth of his daughter Madeleine were to play a decisive role in the equilibrium of his life.
In 1920, when he executed Love, Lovers in the Park, Leon Spilliaert and his family had been living in Brussels for three years. In August 1920, he joined the “Selection” group founded by Paul-Gustave Van Hecke and André De Ridder, where his work was passionately defended. He regularly illustrated the review of the same name in which one could read verses by Apollinaire and Tristan Tzara.
Born twenty years after the Symbolist generation, Spilliaert was an artist who continued to create in that vein. His beginnings betrayed his inner torments, in hallucinatory works predominated by black and Nature; trees were especially dominant by the last years of the first decade. The painter, who preferred paper and supple media, such as watercolor, gouache, and ink, hardly ever worked directly on site. This avid hiker, who in Ostende considered the parks and polders as much as a destination as the seaside, observed, recorded, and composed. His works are stamped with an oneiric touch, atmospheric reflections, and impressions reconsidered in retrospect.
Here, the painter has drawn a couple reduced to two silhouettes embracing on a bench at the heart of a surrounding sumptuous Nature. The clear view of the sky above the trees shows that the scene takes place at night under a full moon. A shadow descends in a long stream to envelope the lovers. In contrast to the intensity of variations in Payne’s grey, Van Dyck brown and raw umber, the vegetation is formed by light pastel colors placed on a paper mainly left in reserve. Washes of Madder pink, yellow ochre, green chrome oxide and emerald green compose planar surfaces of foliage, heightened in certain spots by small close rectangular touches around sinuous branches. Abstracted from night, the luminous vegetation is that of late spring, when certain trees still in blossom gradually give way to summer foliage. The spirit of our sheet, the types of brushstroke, the light juxtaposed washes and the chromatic range is characteristic of several 1920’s works, as in the Old Poet (watercolor on paper, 1920, 35.5 x 54.8 cm. / 14 x 21 9/16 in., Vuyst Sale, October 27th, 2012, no. 201.)
The grand economy of means by which Spilliaert establishes equilibrium forms the essence of Spilliaert’s gracefulness, which his friend Paul Haeserts summarized in a publication devoted to him in 1941: “Spilliaert’s genius consists of making something of almost nothing – with an enlarged detail, with the residue of a memory, with an unforeseen association of colors. Each work is audacious in its simplicity.”
Couples punctuate the artist’s work and, as he constantly reinvented himself, the measure of their differences makes it possible to judge his evolution from Lovers in a Park of 1917 (watercolor on paper, 1917, 48 x 69 cm. / 18 7/8 x 27 3/16 in. De Vuyst Sale, May 10th, 2008, no. 418), the year of his marriage, until Couple in a Landscape of 1927 (watercolor on paper, 27 x 27 cm. / 10 5/8 x 10 5/8 in. Christie’s Sale, Amsterdam, no. 303). In keeping with this prolific career, our watercolor, now freed of the anxieties of his early period, reflects the artist’s growing interest in Nature, while retaining the stamp of a delicate mystical Symbolist.
We would like to thank Mme. Anne Adriaens-Pannier for having confirmed the authenticity of our work.
Bibliography related to this piece:
Norbert HOSTYN, Anne ADRIAENS-PANNIER, Léon Spilliaert. Paysages et arbres (Landscapes and Trees), exh. cat. Brussels, Patrick Lancz Gallery, 2016, pp. 12, 20, cat 3, repr. p. 21.
General Bibliography :
Alain JACOBS, Anne ADRIAENS-PANNIER, Léon Spilliaert dans les collections de la Bibliothèque royale de Belgique (Léon Spilliaert in the collections of the Royal Library of Belgium), exh. cat., Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, 2006.
Anne ADRIAENS-PANNIER, Léon Spilliaert. Un esprit libre (Léon Spilliaert : a Free Spirit), exh. cat. Brussels, Royal Fine Arts Museums of Belgium, 2006.
Anne ADRIAENS-PANNIER, Spilliaert : le regard de l’âme, (Spilliaert : The Gaze of the Soul), Ghent, Ludion, 2006.
Norbert HOSTYN, Léon Spilliaert : Vie et œuvre à travers la collection du Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Ostende (Léon Spilliaert: Life and Work through the Collections of the Fine Arts Museum of Ostende), exh. cat. Ostende, 2006.