Weissenbruch, Crépuscule
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‘Crépuscule’: a special watercolour by J.H. Weissenbruch (1824–1903)

Tuesday 12 June 2018
Weissenbruch, Crépuscule
J.H. Weissenbruch, Crépuscule

For a long time this watercolour was in a private collection in Wassenaar. When the owner died, it came on to the market and at this point I was asked to suggest a suitable home for it.

Of course I was immediately struck by the special atmosphere of the scene; the beautiful chiaroscuro and the mystical feeling of the emerging day in a small unrecognisable port. Beside the bridge we can just make out two figures on their way to the port in the darkness of the early morning. Here and there a light glimmers while the sky is already turning milky white, announcing the advent of day.

Further research in the archives of the RKD in the Hague revealed that Weissenbruch painted this watercolour around 1887/8 and that it acquired the French title Crépuscule when it was offered for sale by the Preyer Gallery in The Hague. The term ‘crepuscule’ also exists in English and means the same as ‘twilight’, that is the period of partial darkness at the beginning or end of the day as the sun is rising or setting. This moment between day and night is traditionally associated with dreams. It is the mystical quality of this time that Weissenbruch has so beautifully captured here.

Given the positively un-Dutch character of this watercolour, the French title seems rather fitting. The image is reminiscent, in fact, of the French painter Georges Michel (1778–1843), who in the first half of the 19th century painted grandiose, atmospheric landscapes inspired by Dutch masters such as Rembrandt, Philips Koninck and others. In 1888, Weissenbruch’s colleague Hendrik Willem Mesdag bought Michel’s Landscape (oil on canvas, 51.5x68.3 cm) for his private collection in the Laan van Meerdervoort. That painting drew the attention of the critic Carel Vosmaer, who discussed its merits at length the same year in the magazine Hollandsche Spectator. It seems likely that Weissenbruch, who lived only a few streets away from Mesdag, would have heard about the acquisition and gone to the Laan van Meerdervoort to see the picture for himself. Interestingly, Weissenbruch’s watercolour dates from exactly this time!

Weissenbruch must have found the motif for Crépuscule in the vicinity of Haarlem, for the houses along the quay remind us somewhat of his Souvenir de Harlem (now in the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague), which was painted at about the same time. We know that Weissenbruch frequently made excursions to this area in 1887/8 having been a regular visitor in previous years to other parts of the country, especially the villages of Noorden and Nieuwkoop, the province of Limburg, the Kempen region and the islands of Zeeland.

Weissenbruch clearly welcomed the challenge of being outdoors in direct confrontation with natural phenomena. In 1924, in his article ‘Weissenbruch als aquarellist’ (Weissenbruch as a watercolour painter) for Elsevier’s Geïllustreerd Maandblad (Elsevier’s Illustrated Monthly), H. de Boer wrote: ‘The extraordinary thing about Weissenbruch was that he was able to extract the essence of a momentary effect whilst sitting in nature. And, drawing inventively on his inner creativity, he was able to express this essence in a unique and surprising form, taking what he needed from his observation of nature, but ultimately inspired within himself, through an ability to immerse himself completely in his subject.’

This comment seems to apply perfectly to Crépuscule. At the same time it shows that Weissenbruch’s art was not created in ‘splendid isolation’ and that he was aware of new trends that were emerging in France in the decade 1880-90. Namely, at the end of the century, Naturalism had gradually to make way for the dreams and spirituality of the Symbolists; it was the Fin de siècle, or twilight, of a century that was drawing to a close. Crépuscule eventually found a long-term home in the Teylers Museum.

Weissenbruch, Crépuscule