Quiet Evenings with Henri Le Sidaner
The French Intimist painter loved to work during the brief period after sunset.
While the Impressionists were fascinated by the changing effects of daylight (Claude Monet’s haystacks may be the best example), the Intimist painter Henri Le Sidaner (1862–1939) often worked at dusk.
In his book about the painter (which I translated a few years ago) Camille Mauclair (1872–1945) suggests that appearances are purified and simplified in the half light, allowing the mind to take up the work of the retina. Here is a quote from page 107:
It requires a particular taste for voluptuous pleasure to remain sitting in a garden at twilight, watching all the details as they fade away and seem to die one by one, merging into the inexorable darkness, losing their colours and even their shapes, becoming ideas of themselves. This is when the Impressionist reckons the day is done — since there is neither daylight nor chromatic effects, he can no longer paint. But this is the moment when poetic depiction begins, when everything is a spirit, a dream, a refraction in consciousness, a prayer. And it was at this moment that Le Sidaner often set to work.
Later on in the same chapter, Mauclair describes a typical evening spent en famille with Henri Le Sidaner:
Daylight fades and it becomes difficult to see clearly. They call Le Sidaner to come out for dinner. His wife is there, and sometimes they are joined by one of his sisters, or by his timeless old mother. The table is in the courtyard, set at an angle to the house. Rather than using a lamp, Le Sidaner had a notion to string paper lanterns in the tree branches — they provide enough illumination in the lingering summer twilight. Once the meal is has ended, everyone gets up; the women go for some fresh air in the gardens, or on the terraces, and the artist will follow them shortly. He pauses for a moment, contemplative, and looks around. In the fading evening light, the glowing spheres of gold, orange, and blue give off a soft light that intensifies as the night approaches, but still remains subdued because it is offset by the last bit of day. This contrast gives the white tablecloth a charming, tea-rose colour that is more pink than yellow, while the patches of falling shadows are almost violet and the more distant whites on the wall are tinted with a periwinkle blue. The warm nuances of the artificial light from inside the house become more vivid amidst the cool tones of the setting sun. The subtle clash of waxing and waning sources of light extends to the flowers, the crystal, the gloss on the diaphanous cups, the vase, and to the bowl full of fruit — these objects still retain their shape and density, but in a moment they will only be ghosts of themselves.
Silk scarves hang languidly over the empty chairs. Colour becomes ethereal, but at the same time it refuses to be absorbed into the darkness. You can not see anything, and it is all there. The ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary by the miracle of the time of day and the silence which fills it, and yet their souls remain. It is as if these people, who love one another and who share this meal every evening, are still present — it is as if you can hear the light rustling of their movements and their voices as they disappear into the garden and the summer night.
This is the Le Sidaner hour, the hour when he is most thoroughly himself. Refined people from all over the world who love his work await this hour and hope to receive something other modern painters no longer provide — the sweetness of life transformed by love and made visible in objects. This is the Le Sidaner hour. It is at this moment more than any other that he allows the mystery of half-light to enter into him, that he listens to silence and takes its counsel, that he accomplishes the painter’s task with a mixture of tenderness and compassion.
If you would like to know more about this master of twilight, you can buy a copy of my translation here.