Sunday night in the park with William

January 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

Wiliam Degouve de Nuncques, Nocturne in the Parc Royal, Brussels (1897)

If someone were to ask me what my favourite work in the Musée d’Orsay was, my answer wouldn’t be one of the obvious ones. Not a Manet. Not a Courbet. Not one of Monet’s views of Rouen Cathedral, not Le Bal au Moulin de la Galette and not even something more clearly ‘me’ like a Gauguin or a Van Gogh. No, it’s this exquisite little pastel that lives in a dark corner of the pastel galleries on the top floor.*

I first came across it – or rather, a detail of it – in a rather different place. It was on the cover of a Penguin 60s edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens that I found in a secondhand bookshop in Chicago when I was still in high school. Never mind the saying about not judging a book by its cover, I bought the book purely because of its cover (wanting to read the story inside was a bonus). Even if it was only a detail, I was enthralled. That unearthly blue, that eerie light, that palpable silence that seemed to hold its breath… The only information the back cover provided was that its title was Nocturne in the Parc Royal, Brussels, its creator one William Degouve de Nuncques, and it lived at the Musée d’Orsay. I tucked that information away in the back of my mind for when I eventually made it to Paris.

It took me another five years to get there. And after climbing several flights of stairs at the museum and negotiating a warren of passages, there it was, hanging behind glass in the Symbolist corner of the pastel gallery. I hadn’t even known up until then that it was a pastel, but it made perfect sense – perhaps no other artist so completely understood pastel’s parallels with stardust. I stood there and lost myself in the nocturne, noticing for the first time that what I had taken for park lamps were not attached to posts, they hung in the treetops instead – like moons that had fallen to earth or outsize fireflies. The silence that had so captured me in the book-cover detail seemed to envelop me, seemed to hum (I realized in subsequent visits that the hum was actually coming from the climate control system, but it almost doesn’t matter – I happily count it as my first experience of synaesthesia), holding its breath in expectation of – what?

That air of mystery seems to extend a lot further than the pastel or the vitrine it hangs in, though. I’ve tried since to learn more about the elusive Degouve de Nuncques but he seems to have left few tracks. The only monograph was published in the 1950s, few of his works are in public collections (mainly in Belgium and the Netherlands) and, even in the rare exhibitions where he features, the catalogues have little to say about him or his art beyond a bare biographical outline (born to an aristocratic family in the French Ardennes, active in Brussels, married the sister of the poet Emile Verhaeren, spent several years in Mallorca, died in Stavelot) and noting the enigmatic quality of his night scenes and their influence on Magritte. And yet the Orsay gift shop sells both postcards and posters of Nocturne in the Parc Royal (neither of which I’ve ever been able to bring myself to buy, especially the poster – a large part of the pastel’s magic lies in its small scale)… so clearly I’m not its only admirer.

But now I wonder if perhaps I’ve gone about things the wrong way. Maybe knowing more about Degouve de Nuncques doesn’t matter at all (a strange thing for an art historian to say, I know). Maybe all that really counts is that Nocturne in the Parc Royal exists, ready to cast its spell over whoever comes across it.

*At least, it did until the museum underwent a thorough renovation over the last couple of years. I’ll be on the lookout for its new home on my next trip to Paris.

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