The Servants of Death (Nocturne)

William Degouve de Nuncques

(Monthermé, 1867 - Stavelot, 1935)
Pastel on paper 48 x 94.5 cm (18.9 x 37.2 in.) Signed with monogram ‘W D de N’ Brussels - circa 1897

Being born into a wealthy, aristocratic family in Monthermé in the French Ardennes near the Belgian border, Degouve de Nuncques was able to indulge his interests in painting and music without material constraints. Although self-taught, he was advised by the Dutch symbolist Jan Toorop with whom he shared a studio. Later, he lived with the Belgian Symbolist painter Henry de Groux. A regular exhibitor at the Belgian avant-garde Les XX, Degouve was also frequently showing in Paris, where he was championed by Puvis de Chavannes and Maurice Denis. His paintings are considered to have been a significant influence on René Magritte and a predecessor to Belgian surrealism.

As for most Symbolist artists, Degouve found inspiration for The Servants of Death from the obscure fin de siècle poetry of Trilogie noire by Emile Verhaeren, who became his brother in law in 1894. Degouve’s relationships in literary circles effectively contributed to his own attempts at writing, adding to the highly mysteriousness of his own character and the art he produced. His passion for nature and landscapes created powerful work in which silence is almost audible.

In the case of The Servants of Death, Verhaeren's poetry and Degouve's pastel show many shared concerns: they both essentially sought to transfigure reality in the sense that it affords a view of the invisible. Degouve in particular wanted to create works that transfigure the everyday and metamorphose the real into something magic and surreal. The nocturne atmosphere in the dim forest, the macabre scene of the two gloomy figures working in the darkness, one of which seems to emerge stunned from the underworld, the moonlight reflecting on the teeth of the handsaw, the unclear impression balancing between dreamlike nature and nightmarish setting. The felled tree they labor over, braced above a grave-like pit, from which one of the men gazes ghoulishly upward, seems to barely cover the underworld.

Two versions of The Servants of Death exist that were made over a timespan of three years. The earlier version from about 1894, depicting the same subject and fantastic scenery, shows a range of vibrant red and orange colors indicating sunlight at dawn, while the present elongated shaped format with its monochrome palette embellishes the darkness of night, representative of the night scenes executed between 1895 and 1898. The psychological gravitas of the night scenes was inspired by Whistler’s Nocturnes, who visited Brussels in 1886 with the intend to join Les Vingt, a group of works now in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands. The present pastel conveys an idea espoused by fin de siècle Symbolism: human life subjected to the rule of inescapable invisible forces, most often the face of death.

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Mireille Mosler, Ltd.

"Old Master Paintings and Drawings, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Paintings and Drawings,"

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