This work is the most spectacular and most celebrated of George Morren’s neo-impressionist oeuvre. The piece is equally among the greatest specimens of the pointillism movement in Belgium in the early 1890’s. In his early twenties, Morren presented this work at his first salon, which was organized in Antwerp by the Association pour l’Art in May 1892 . The painting was immediately sold during the exhibition and was kept in a private collection until its appearance in the 1970’s at the Brussels gallery Willy D’Huysser and then, consecutively, resold to two private collections, first in Belgium, then, until recently, in the US. Today, this work is highly appraised and has been exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay for the large retrospective on neo-impressionism in 2005.
Lesser known than his French fellows, the young George Morren played a key role in the neo-impressionist movement. Born in Antwerp as Joris Morren, in a wealthy family active in the cereal market, his vocation was early encouraged by family friend and renowned painter, Emile Claus. Disappointed by its conservatism, Morren shortly stayed at the Academy of Antwerp, a few months in 1888-89. He was not the first at condemning the place: Henry van de Velde and Vincent van Gogh, both students in 1881 and 1885, shared the same opinion. The former, a friend of Claus, would prove to have a key influence on the young Morren and his art. van de Velde introduced Morren to the leading avant-garde of Europe at the time, Le Cercle des XX in Brussels and Les Independants in Paris, where he became acquainted with Seurat, van Gogh and Signac, the principal promotors of the new aesthetic, i.e. pointillism and neo-impressionism. These encounters would ultimately revolutionize the painter’s ability to bring light and brightness to a scene.
Morren quickly turned away from the dull Belgian art of the 1870-80’s to embrace this aesthetic revolution with the Frenchmen and the few Belgians van de Velde, Théo Van Rysselberghe and Willy Finch. In February 1890, Morren and van de Velde visited the seventh edition of the salon Les XX in Brussels . That year, many international neo-impressionists were presented: the three Belgians, the French Dubois-Pillet, Lucien Pissarro, Signac and the Dutch van Gogh, who had six works in the show. For Morren this show was the creative turning point in which he started experimenting pointillism with two trials, Jour de Lessive et Jardins Romains, that same year.
The year 1891 marked a significant step in Morren’s life. He divided his time between Antwerp and Paris and visited friends and ateliers, even meeting Puvis de Chavanes, Eugène Carrière and Henri Gervex. In March, the sudden death of Seurat, a few weeks after his participation at the salon of Les XX, had a strong impression. Unlike the French and the Belgian press, who were critical of Seurat’s work, his neo-impressionist oeuvre had a manifesting impact on the members of Les XX. One of the major testimonies of this is the present shimmering A l’Harmonie, a masterful arrangement of different colours into isolated brushstrokes of pure pigment.
The female figures, at the center of the composition, reside motionless, elegant and peacefully. The silhouettes create a delightful, decorative attraction with their clothes and accessories, and – Seurat’s Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte alike – Morren used colorful umbrellas for the scenery. Robert Herbert’s description of La Grange Jatte may be similarly applied to A l’Harmonie: both artists “treated the park as a stage across which he could position a variety of persons strolling or at rest” . But the scenes are also like an artifice devoted to a social institution in a contrived setting, an artificial stage.
The composition is placed in the Koning Albertpark, Antwerp. A part of this park is called the Harmonie park, due to the identically named music theatre. This concert gazebo is perceptible in the background of the painting. Conceived by Morren, a motive unique to this work is the arresting presence of the two ribbons of the nurse costume, encircling her white bonnet mimics the aura of a religious character. This nurse, with her hat and coat, in the park reoccurs in the painting Le Renouveau (coll. Josefowitz, Lausanne), created in 1892. Morren might also have been inspired by the scene of ladies in an orchard in Van Rysselberghe’s painting En Juillet (Kröller-Müller, Otterlo), presented at Les XX.
The title A L’Harmonie holds a double connotation: the location of the composition in Antwerp, as well as the harmonious emotion expressed in the work. In this world inhabited by women and dolls, each one is taking care of and looking at each other. The only one looking directly at the viewer is the girl on the bench: perhaps an invitation to join the harmonious tableau. From a contrasted and warm palette on the left side, the composition evolves towards a softer and colder chromatic atmosphere on the right. By strategically placing them in various sizes, the golden yellow dots unify both sides in a glittering environment, as though it were small pieces of gold. This beautifully balanced composition is a remarkable achievement for such a young artist. The viewer is attracted by the bright colours, followed by the engaging presence of the figures, in a quiet and sunny afternoon. Although the painted structure is largely made up of dots, some areas, more impressionistic, would announce further development in Morren’s oeuvre.
The exhibition of the Association pour l’Art in Antwerp opened on May 29 and was very soon reviewed. The Antwerp conservative press was predominantly negative about the show, considering it an affront, despite the several hundred visitors in three weeks. On May 31, L’Impartial of Ghent praised the show and Morren: “Il est fort dès maintenant ce peintre […] Les adversaires systématiques de la fragmentation, du procédé pigmentaire, devront reconnaitre qu’on obtient par la petite touche de couleur primitive ou presque des effets surprenants.” A few days later, the critic of L’Art Moderne of Brussels examined the work and observed how the Seurat’s technique was difficult to implement.
It is worth mentioning that Morren was directly linked to the birth of the new circle of the Association pour l’Art, with Van Rysselberghe and van de Velde, who aimed at shaking the artistic provincialism of Antwerp. They wanted to revolutionize the artistic vision of their fellow citizens. Its first show had an international impact due to the quality of the exhibits and the importance of the invited artists: Signac, Toorop, van Gogh, Anquetin, Camille Pissarro. Not to mention Max Elskamp as the secretary of the group, van de Velde as creator of the poster, and Morren as designer of the catalogue cover. Representing a bunch of flowers placed on a dead tree, the message was clear: imposing a new art in the ambient artistic desert.
Between 1891 and early 1892 Morren made a small number of works following Seurat’s colour theory: Dimanche après-midi (Indianapolis Museum of Art), Déclin du jour, and Lawn Tennis and La Couture, these three in private collections. Le Renouveau of 1892 already exhibited a blend of styles. After 1892, Morren would liberate his touches and palette, moving back to some form of impressionism. Overall, he produced five pointillist paintings, a rare corpus like those of his friends van de Velde and Willy Finch.