The present panel is a softly rendered, intimate oil painting by Xavier Mellery, presumably showing the first communion of his daughter Lucy and that circumstance could be the reason why, until recently, this work was kept by the heirs. The figure looks very close to the girl depicted in an oil painting kept at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, and entitled La Fille de l’artiste (ca. 1882), i.e. the daughter of the artist. The work is ca. dated 1880, as Lucy was born in 1867.
The painter, draftsman and illustrator Xavier Mellery is recognised as a precursor of Belgian Symbolism. During his academic years Mellery committed himself to the study of nature, antiquities and historical composition, which resulted in winning the Prix de Rome in 1870. Spellbound by the many fresco’s he encountered on his voyage in Italy, he aspired to create a peinture d’idées without abandoning realism: this would become his lifelong artistic credo, and the root of his symbolist work. His involvement in the foundation of the Salon Pour l’Art (1892), his participation to the exhibitions of Les XX, and close contact with Octave Maus and Émile Verhaeren, illustrate his significance within the Belgian Symbolist scene. On top of that, he was the teacher of the young Fernand Khnopff.
This atmosphere of warm light, toned-down colours, and a refined hand are equally present in his paintings, such as La Communiante. The soft brushstroke and the light, silky colours do not only render the material of the girl’s dress and veil, but also contribute to the overall atmosphere of the painting. By putting the girl in the midst of the canvas, without much space around her, the viewer is immediately engaged, directed towards the protagonist and without intruding, enters an atmosphere of intimacy. This clearly dialogues with the ways and the style used by James Abbott McNeill Whistler in his portraits, and later by Khnopff. Mellery already knew Whistler’s work when he painted the present piece (1880), but he met him, and they became friends only a few years later, when the American artist exhibited with Mellery, Henry van de Velde and others at Les XX in Brussels.