Paysage Coloré aux Oiseaux Aquatiques, or Colorful Landscape with Waterfowl in English, is a masterpiece of French painter Jean Metzinger’s early body of work. Completed in his 24th year, it stands out as a transitional piece from his earlier works which modeled themselves on the bright and idealistic divisionist theories to his later cubist and metaphysical styles. Paysage exemplifies both the bold color choices that characterize Neo-Impressionism and the more fluid, languid brushwork of Fauvism. Jean Metzinger had a tendency to drift from style to style, and was a thought leader in at least one artistic movement (cubism). At the same time, Paysage stands astride all of these styles and theories to evoke a unique, poetic reflection on a landscape populated with vibrant and diverse life.
This piece may seem an odd choice for this blog. Long time readers are no doubt aware of my affinity for Surrealism and Symbolism. Nonetheless, I saw this piece in person at the Portland Art Museum recently, and I became deeply fascinated with it.
Paysage Coloré aux Oiseaux Aquatiques harmonizes a number of competing techniques, theories, and styles into one cohesive composition in a way that other pieces from this period of Metzinger’s work does not. He painted a number of tropical bird compositions around the same time. Most of them featured some of the same techniques, though he would use one at a time- simple birds painted with choppy, pale turquoise blocks representing pond reeds in pastel, for example. That feature is echoed in Paysage with the fronds directly to the left of the central flamingo figure.
The first remarkable thing I’ll draw your attention to in Paysage Coloré aux Oiseaux Aquatiques is the diversity of styles used to represent the green tree foliage. Directly above the flamingo, we find an illustrative style with large fields of olive green outlined straightforwardly. To the right of this tree is a wistful, shaky cold green frond tree in a starkly contrasting style. To the right of the flamingo is a fern utilizing an entirely separate technique more akin to Gauguin’s Tahitian foliage. In this latter fern figure, Metzinger uses a cascade of parallel strokes in varying temperature and value. There are a number of shapes in Paysage which help create aerial perspective within a composition that also eschews aerial perspective (as with the cat tails to the bottom left of the painting).
There is a pervasive theme in Paysage Coloré aux Oiseaux Aquatiques of contrasting lyrical sweeps and blends with simplistically designed figures. We see this in the yellow flowers in the bottom right. They’re outlined with a sketchy red swirl. Another mustard yellow piece of foliage close to the center of the painting models the shape of the bush with tones of darker and lighter yellows, albeit with a squared off brushwork style.
The birds themselves also demonstrate this competition of painting styles: the flamingo and the bird to the bottom right of it actually have very similar poses. Yet whereas the bottom right figure has a primitivistic use of line to delineate the angular figure of the bird, the flamingo uses soft, warm fields of tone to define the bowed figure.
What stands out most to me is the juxtaposition between the distant mountains and the water before it. The crude, straightforward water plane stands in sharp relief against the beautifully subtle purples and pinks of the slopes behind it. In particular, the deliberate and artful thin streak of white that defines the faces of the central mountain peak could hardly be more different from the square blocks of white that represent the sun’s highlight on the water.
The overall effect of the varying styles of brushwork and color modeling in Paysage Coloré aux Oiseaux Aquatiques is a surprising harmony of bold and subtle colors populating an exotic, enchanting landscape. What ties it all together is the consistent temperature of the colors. I believe that without this unifying element, it would be a challenging painting to look at. There is a consistent, masterful application of warm tones across the landscape which evokes the copper tones of an early evening in summer. Somehow, everything appears to exist in the same space as a result.
This piece stands out in Jean Metzinger’s career as the most successful use of multiple styles in one piece. He would go on to create master pieces of the cubist and metaphysical styles. In those pieces, the visionary theories of space and color he employed are consistently applied. The harmonies of his later work are not of competing modes of expression, but rather harmonizing diverse living and inanimate subjects into one unified, highly altered vision.