René Seyssaud: Intoxicated With Colour

Rene Seyssaud, Olive Trees in the Alpilles

René Seyssaud plunges you into a riot of colour. His intense images evoke Expressionism and Fauvism without quite belonging to either movement. He brings a brilliant colourist's eye and muscular, off-kilter compositions to rural life in Provence.

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Highly prolific, Seyssaud would often polish off three paintings a week. There's no full catalogue raisonné of his career, but the art expert Claude Jeanne Bonnici believes it could be anything up to 6,000 pieces.

For this reason his paintings are not hard to see in Provence: most art galleries in the region have at least one or two.

However in 2012 an exhibition, L'Ivresse de la Couleur (Intoxication with Colour) organised by the Fondation Regards de Provence in Marseille, brought together some 80 of Seyssaud's works and underlined the extent to which he returned to the same timeless themes throughout his life.

Seyssaud (1867-1952) is an almost exact contemporary of Joseph Garibaldi (1863-1941), the subject of a previous show in Marseille.

And, different as his work is from Garibaldi's serene classicism, the two men share one thing in common: the 20th century is barely detectable in their work. It seems both artists were anxious to capture a fast-disappearing world.

The Harvest by Rene SeyssaudSeyssaud preferred to work outdoors, depicting almond trees, poppy fields, the grape and corn harvests and peasants, who were always seen toiling by hand, never using the machinery that, in real life, was at their disposal. Pictured: La Moisson / The Harvest (1910) and, top left, Champ d'Oliviers dans les Alpilles / Olive Grove in the Alpilles (circa 1942).

He was also a gifted portraitist. And there was the occasional seascape: each year Seyssaud would head to the coast, to Cassis or to his cottage at Saint Chamas on the Berre Lake in Southern Provence, to escape the cold winters of the Vaucluse, where he also had a base in Villes sur Auzon, in the foothills of Mont Ventoux. Much of his work was created around these two locations. Pictured: Les Pointes Rouges à Agay, circa 1902.
Rene Seyssaud, Les Points Rouges at AgaySeyssaud favoured a medium, distemper (détrempe), which involved a mixture of painting, water and glue kept liquid in a bain marie. This technique allowed him to achieve a fluid touch and luminous colours, but required him to work very quickly and on a small-ish scale.

His vivid, stylised compositions frequently observe their subjects from above, place the horizon high with just a narrow strip of sky and employ strong diagonals and complex perspectives influenced by Japanese art.

 

Seyssaud was born in Marseille into a decidedly odd family set-up. His parents were not married. Instead, his mother was - and remained - married to another man (also, confusingly, named Seyssaud, though he was not closely related to René's father).

René's father, a lawyer, adored his son and fully supported his artistic ambitions, enabling him to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Marseille. But he died when the painter was just 19. Bonnici, who wrote the catalogue notes for this show, describes René's mother as an unstable, unhappy and demanding woman who would pawn her son's paintings when short of money.

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Seyssaud contracted tuberculosis when he was 21 and so, unlike many of his contemporaries, had to stay in the south for health reasons (he was cured 12 years later). But he was acclaimed in Paris early on, while local critics in Provence were still calling him a "dauber". 

Sensitive, introspective and a bit of a loner, he depicted himself throughout his life in self-portraits as an unsmiling, brooding man with sad eyes.

He strove to develop his own language, was never guided by a mentor and kept apart from the schools and movements of the day. He also turned his back upon the powerful French Academy, preferring instead to exhibit in small independent salons. But there were also continual pressures on Seyssaud to conform.

Rene Seyssaud, Nudes Under the Trees Unable - like, say, Paul Cézanne - to draw on financial support from his family, he had, from the outset, to live from his art, paint to commission and produce commercially pleasing work.

His vision, bold and ahead-of-its-time at the start of his life, looked increasingly conventional as time went on and he seemed not to evolve, or be in a position to react to new modernist currents. Pictured: Nus sous les arbes / Nudes under the Trees (1934). Still, Seyssaud's rich, sensuous and passionate work grandly represents the tradition of provençal art.

Website for the Fondation Regards de Provence

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