45 x 34 cm (17 11/16 x 133/8 in.)
Oil on canvas
Verso, upper left, inscribed in pen on a label on the stretcher: N°27 /Automne /360
• France, Private Collection.
• Luc Haesaerts, William Degouve de Nuncques, Cahiers de Belgique, Brussels, 1935.
• André de Ridder, William Degouve de Nuncques, Monographs of Belgian Art, Elsevier: Ministry of Public Instruction, Brussels, 1957.
• Denis Laoureux, Véronique Carpiaux, Evert van Straaten William Degouve de Nuncques maître du mystère, exh. cat. Namur, Félicien Rops Museum & Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum. Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 2012.
“Mr. Degouve’s canvases are precious sealed cases which only open to poets.”
Dubbed the “Master of Mystery” following an exhibition devoted to him in 2012 at Namur and Otterlo, William Degouve de Nuncques is considered today among the major artists who worked in Symbolist circles. The young artist, who was from a noble French family, drew closer to literary spheres which inspired him more than his brief passage of academic instruction whose work methods did not suit him.
“Wary of any discipline, I was the very distracted rebellious student walking off to the side, liking solitude, fields, woods…”
At the age of 16, the artist met the painters Jean Toorop and Henry de Groux with whom he developed a “profound and indefectible” friendship. In addition, Henry de Groux stood up for him throughout his career, notably when he was unjustly closed out of artistic circles and Symbolist exhibitions, the Group of XX in particular. Starting in 1888 for three consecutive years, Degouve shared a studio house in Brussels with de Groux: an installation that rang in the beginning of a flourishing career. By 1895, the artist was exhibiting internationally between Brussels, London and Paris where he met Félicien Rops. Degouve took several trips during which his inspiration and his relations with art dealers developed. Long lists of works left in his path make it possible to trace the artist’s abundant production.
Degouve’s enigmatic paintings lead the viewer to look beyond their subject matter, since they evoke this independent, solitary, somewhat melancholy man’s temperament. His subjects are calm, serious, and immobile (ill. 1). Villages, forests, lakes, and deserted countryside, Nature herself is the artist’s real master.
“What is essential here is that I never wanted to take lessons in painting; I walked alone, taking whatever stylistic models a more or less vague academy could give me; working at home and in the countryside, I was able to acquire in all naivety and freely all that I wanted; incontestably one thus manages to have a technique which corresponds better to perceived sensations and personal logic.”
Under the soft light of a winter sun in a desolate landscape bare of all academic embellishment appear two isolated or abandoned houses, perhaps a thatched roof building or a farmyard. Here is an illustration of solitude and silence, without figures or animals, the only life is that of barren trees which punctuate the composition and give room for strange feelings, mystery, and a new contemplative vision of Nature:
“It was mute somber Nature offered me its mirror which reflected life both emotionally moving and frozen in death.”
The period in which our work was realized probably corresponds to the time when the artist was settled in the Brussels area: “I now live in a thatched roof cottage, a real one…in the middle of the countryside in total isolation…” Beyond subject matter, the artist turned towards symbolic depiction of feelings which painting brought him:
“…straight trees infinitely repeating themselves, meadows in arid greens, the overwhelming sadness of bleak waters where spring causes only a few ephemeral flowers to bloom, tall poplars at the intersections of footpaths shivering like phantoms.”
Deaf to all academic demands, Degouve poured his doubts and feelings into his works: mysterious disquieting painting transcended by marvelous light effects. Indeed, in our work, the delicate study of light filtering through trees causes forms and materials to vibrate. The artist made his own materials and specially mixed his pigments with a waxy substance which in this case captures the veracity of the elements, such as the blurred vaporous quality of Nature.
A mysterious haze has settled around this artist rediscovered at the dawn of the 21st century, and today considered one of the outstanding painters during the golden age of Symbolism.
Portraits, crowds of figures, a few still lifes, Degouve was inspired by all painting genres, but he especially put landscape at the forefront of his oeuvre, as he gazed neutrally at Nature which he depicted systematically in its elegant simplicity.