Some of art history’s greatest names grace the walls of M.S. Rau’s New Orleans' gallery — Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and René Magritte are among them. Yet, when asked to name the most important painting in our gallery, many of us will generally reply with an artist who is somewhat lesser-known, the Neo-Impressionist Georges Morren. His is a name that doesn’t immediately come to mind when pondering the finest painters over history, though he is undoubtedly among that talented milieu. Independently wealthy, Morren never felt the pressure to sell his work or himself, and thus never gained the celebrity of some of his better-known colleagues such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Nevertheless, he exhibited his works in some of the most groundbreaking exhibitions of the Post-Impressionist movement, and his paintings certainly rival those of his fellow Neo-Impressionists.
When I learned that the Musée d’Orsay (Paris) recently acquired one of his paintings, I was thrilled that Morren was slated to receive long overdue and much-deserved recognition. Entitled À l'Harmonie (To Harmony), the museum's new Morren actually first popped up on our radar in May 2018, when it set a new auction record for the artist of $915,000 at Sotheby's. Then and now, I am struck by the similarities between that work and our own.
Our Morren, entitled Le Renouveau (The Renewal), ranks alongside À l'Harmonie as one of the most important works of the Neo-Impressionist movement. Both are exemplary of the divisionist technique of painting for which he was renowned. The technique was developed in 1884 by the great Georges Seurat, who was inspired by Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s scientific theory on complementary colors. Seurat theorized that he could scientifically apply small-scale, tightly painted dots of saturated complementary colors as a way to optically mix pigments, rather than physically mixing them on a palette.
Seurat’s fully developed theory was unveiled in what is now considered his masterpiece, Un Dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte), currently in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Though the method was controversial at the time, it is today regarded as one of the most innovative movements in the history of art. Morren similarly used the divisionist technique to bring Le Renouveau and À l'Harmonie to life. The compositions build upon Seurat's innovations through daring explorations into complementary colors and their visual interactions. Brilliant dots of yellows are speckled throughout each of the scenes against verdant greens and vivid blues; the result are canvases that appear fully illuminated with a flickering sense of light. This approach that Morren pioneered would become majorly influential for a later generation of artists; Gustav Klimt, for one, whose swirling strokes of color would even include gold leaf to achieve a similar luminosity.
À l'Harmonie is a stunning representation of these popular leisure subjects. His characters are scattered across the space, and the eye moves along the planes of the composition in order to view them all. Like the figures in Seurat's Un Dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, Morren’s subjects are static, as though they are an integral part of this well-ordered natural world rather than just visiting. The impressive figure of the children’s nurse, in her brilliant blue coat and traditional hat with its long green ribbon, forms a central vanishing point in the scene. This same model appears in our Le Renouveau, though here she faces the viewer as she cares for her charge. The result is much more intimate, and the full humanity of the figure is felt, even with Morren’s scientific approach to the composition.
As a whole, Le Renouveau and À l'Harmonie can be counted among the Belgian artist’s most representative paintings of the early 1890s — both their vibrancy of the color and poetic atmosphere make them both masterpieces of the Neo-Impressionist movement. The addition of À l'Harmonie to the collection of the Musée d'Orsay enriches its Post-Impressionist offerings. The work can be viewed in the gallery in early 2020 on the 5th floor alongside the works of Paul Signac and Georges Seurat. Or visit the galleries at M.S. Rau to view our Le Renouveau for another Morren masterpiece closer to home.