William de Degouve de Nuncques

This is one of the largest and most powerful pastels ever seen from William Degouve de Nuncques. The symbolist content is so vigorous that it belongs to the heart of the Belgian Symbolist movement, without equivalent about the subject.

Being born into a wealthy, aristocratic family, Degouve de Nuncques was able to indulge his interests in painting and music without material constraints. Although self-taught, he was advised by Jan Toorop, with whom he shared a studio, and later lived with the off-screen artist, Henry de Groux. In 1894 he married Juliette Massin, a painter and sister-in-law of the influential Symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren, who became a close friend and introduced him to the circle of Symbolist poets. Verhaeren’s poetry and Degouve’s art shared many concerns, and both essentially sought to transfigure reality in the sense that it affords a view of the invisible. Degouve in particular wanted to create works that transfigure the everyday and metamorphose the real into something magic and surreal. He belonged to the Belgian avant-garde group Les XX and later exhibited at the Libre Esthétique. A regular exhibitor in Paris, Degouve de Nuncques was championed by Puvis de Chavannes and Maurice Denis. His paintings are considered to have been a significant influence on Surrealism and the paintings of René Magritte.

As far as the date is concerned, the pastel is dated “9” with another figure that seems a “4”. Most of Degouve works are dated with only two figures, lower right; starting by 9 for the works of the 19th century and of course 0, 1 ore 2 for the 20th century pieces. We do incline for the “94” date. The technique of pastel and the style are here very close to other pastel works of this period, especially this way of representing trees and forests, i.e. the Intérieur de Forêt (dated 94, Nancy, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy), Le Cygne Noir (dated 95, Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum) and A Venise (dated 95, Otterlo). After 1899-1900, Degouve will not work with pastel anymore, except for very rare exceptions much lighter on paper.

The subject area is typical for Degouve in the years 94-98 and the link to the Symbolist poetry is obvious through the “Trilogie noire” of Verhaeren (Soirs (1887), Débacles (88) and Flambeaux noirs (91)), poems by Maeterlinck and Rodenbach. Also, by Degouve, the painter is never far away from the poet and his own poems could be also adduced for the present composition. Although our researches continue, we have not been able yet to link the present subject to an identified poem or a theatre by Degouve or by the three others authors. Everything is here: nocturne atmosphere, macabre scene, unclear meaning, opposition between dark and light at dawn of the day, the light of the sun being relegated in the background. The chromasticism of nocturne as a musical model used by Debussy, Fauré and d’Indy is evident. It is worth mentioning that the present work was in Degouve’s studio and in the hands of his wife up to 1948. It was bought by the father of the current owner, so the provenance is back to its creation. It is also described in the 1935 list of the Degouve works known in collections.

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