Recognized as Belgium’s leading exponent of Neo-Impressionism, Théo van Rysselberghe played a notable role in the development of modernism in the Low Countries. Indeed, through his paintings and his close involvement with avant-garde groups such as Les XX (Les Vingt) and La Libre Esthétique, van Rysselberghe helped introduce the latest trends in contemporary European art to Belgian audiences. His creative endeavors in Brussels and Paris also included furniture design, book illustration, and other activities related to the decorative and applied arts.
The son of an affluent contractor, Théo (Théophile) van Rysselberghe initiated his formal training at the Académie van Beeldende Kunsten in his native Ghent during the late 1870s, studying academic painting techniques under the history painter, Theodore-Joseph Canneel. During this period, he began painting portraits. In 1880, he moved to Brussels, continuing his studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, where he was taught by Jean-François Portaels, a painter of Orientalist themes. He made his debut at the Brussels salon in 1881, at which time he received a travel scholarship that that allowed him to visit and paint in Spain and Morocco, where he first became interested in the effects of light.
Upon returning to Brussels, van Rysselberghe became friendly with the symbolist poet and art critic Émile Verhaeren (1855–1916) and Octave Maus (1856–1919), a lawyer, arts patron, and amateur musician. In 1883, the three men established Les XX (Les Vingt), a group of progressive-minded artists and writers who banded together to promote vanguard art, music, poetry and decorative art in Belgium. While Maus, as secretary, played an important administrative role in the organization, van Rysselberghe helped organize the group’s shows, traveling throughout Europe to view the work of cutting edge artists such as Paul Helleu, Paul Signac, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh, all of whom participated in Les XX exhibitions.
Van Rysselberghe’s association with Les XX was vital in terms of his artistic development. Indeed, through his membership in the group, he encountered the paintings of Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and James McNeill Whistler, all of whom influenced his early painterly realist style. However, a turning point in his aesthetic outlook occurred in the spring of 1886, when he and Verhaeren had the opportunity to see George Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86; Art Institute of Chicago) at the eighth and final impressionist exhibition in Paris. Although Seurat’s systematic method of juxtaposing small, carefully applied dots of complementary colors to intensify sensations of light initially shocked him, van Rysselberghe’s attitude changed over the next two years as he began to experiment with Seurat’s theories. By 1889, he had converted to divisionism, applying the rigorous precepts of Neo-Impressionism to landscapes and seascapes. Van Rysselberghe is considered unique in that he was also one of a limited number of artists who explored the precepts of Neo-Impressionism in relation to portraiture, producing colorful yet highly sensitive likenesses of family members and a close circle of friends.
When Les XX disbanded in 1893, van Rysselberghe and Maus organized a new exhibiting society, La Libre Esthetique, which emphasized painting and sculpture, in addition to applied and decorative art. A versatile artist, van Rysselberghe continued to paint in addition to designing furniture and posters. He also did book illustrations for contemporary poets, including his good friend, Verhaeren. In 1898, he settled in the French capital, although he continued to maintain ties with the art scene in Brussels, executing important decorative commissions, among them a series of panels for the Hotel Solvay, an Art Nouveau townhouse designed by Victor Horta (1902).