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Félix Vallotton

Un grain, baie de Seine, 1918
oil on canvas
55.0 x 92.0 cm
Framed by a mountainous horizon and a strip of grass in the foreground, a seaside bay can be made out through the misty effects of a passing rain shower. Long relegated to the background of his compositions, landscape, starting in 1910, becomes a genre in its own right in Félix Vallotton’s work. The artist devotes himself to the form right up to his death, turning out around forty landscapes per year.

Like all of his descriptions of panoramas, Un grain, baie de Seine (A Squall, the Seine Bay) is the result of the artist’s use of a range of different visual documents such as sketches, photographs and postcards. Generally, Vallotton only puts down on the canvas a summary of his various observations and approaches. The artist explains in his diary, two years before painting the canvas. “I’ve begun a landscape of Honfleur, seen in May, I’m interested in that, and [it] may be profitable to see what a three-month-old impression becomes; maybe what’s essential about it will remain”. The landscape becomes “composed”, a notion that Vallotton theorises in 1918 in his Livre de raison (or Record Book). These are views that are done from memory, recreated in the studio, and not burdened by a single anecdotal detail. The nature he conjures up is the fruit of a mental construction based on the landscape of Honfleur, a region of Normandy that was one of Vallotton's favourite landscapes.

Un grain, baie de Seine displays a composition of parallel pictorial planes that play out horizontally. Blue-grey hues dominate, enhanced with shades of mauve and lightened by the thin strip of grass in bright dazzling green, a recurrent colour in the artist’s work. These tints are lent movement and life by a sailing ship and a small boat, the only suggestion of depth amidst the unvaried patches of colour. Vallotton writes, “At times, I consider [using] grisaille, since the abundance of the palette leads to dispersal, crowding and randomness, which I detest the most”. In response to the omnipresence of grey in the canvas, a break in the clouds offers the eye a vista towards an intense blue sky.
Félix Vallotton, Un grain, baie de Seine, 1918