The Belgian William Degouve de Nuncques (1867-1935) is undoubtedly one of the most inspired pastel artists of the late 19th century. Indeed, this friend of Jan Toorop, Henry de Groux and Fritz Thaulow (all fervent practitioners of the colored chalk medium) produced a wealth of stunning pastel landscapes throughout the 1890s, all shrouded in a dreamlike, mysterious aura.

His compositions, often nocturnal or crepuscular and with a total absence of human figures, seem to be inhabited by an indefinable presence; swans, peacocks, old medieval buildings and even the trees (as seen here in this forest, which seems straight out of a work by Maeterlinck) loom before us, taking on the category of mysterious symbols or grim omens. And there is no doubt that his landscapes would lack such a penetrating charm, were it not for the fact that they are pastel works. Because, like other artists of his generation (Émile-René Ménard, Fernand Khnopff, József Rippl-Rónai, Henry Le Sidaner, Lucien Lévy- Dhurmer, etc.), Degouve de Nuncques understood all the aesthetic possibilities he could draw from that powdery, fragile, delicate material, which offered access to a vast expanse of dreams and imagination: a skillful use of blending, above all else, together with a frequently bleak palette — ranging from blue, through gray, aqua green, celadon, etc. to mauve — enable him to create intensely poetic twilight atmospheres.

The work In the Forest (1894) is, in this sense, emblematic: in this undergrowth where any form of life other than vegetation is absent, at no time can the foliage of the trees be distinguished, much less the sky; and, above all, in that intriguing space given its confined nature, the green trunks take on a disturbing presence, accentuated by the almost radiant nature of the pigments. It is true that the incomparable brightness of the pastel colors and the powdery material offer an undeniably tactile appearance. In stark contrast with all those who place pastel within the narrow confines of tradition, or even turn to it solely for the convenience of its use (absence of drying time, ease of handling) or for trivial commercial considerations (lower cost), Degouve de Nuncques (together with others) gives back to that procedure all its profound necessity.

Sometimes likened to Vermeer, the painter infuses in his pastels a supernatural dimension with religious-mystical resonances: indeed, the very delicacy of this medium gives rise to a feeling of profound recollection, despite facing what we guess is really perilous. Some years earlier, the Symbolist poet Henri de Régnier had already understood that the charm of pastel lay in such fragility: “From a superimposition of disaggregated powders […] pastel takes — and employs — its melancholic charm,” he wrote. And later on: “by means of curious analogies […] this seems to be the most philosophical way to preserve an identical phantasmagorical memory of the missing appearance […] Multicolored decrepit powder that, for an instant, through Death, comes between Life and Oblivion.”

William Degouve de Nuncques Intérieur de forêt, 1894 [In the Forest] Musée de l’École de Nancy, Nancy © Nancy, musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Photo Studio Image
William Degouve de Nuncques
Intérieur de forêt, 1894 [In the Forest]
Musée de l’École de Nancy, Nancy © Nancy, musée de l’Ecole de Nancy.
Photo Studio Image