At the end of the nineteenth century, artists from all over Europe flocked to Paris to learn and, perhaps more importantly, literally breathe in the new spirit of the arts. Traveling all the way from Hungary, Jozsef Rippl-Ronai lived in Paris from 1887 to 1901 before returning to his native land. While in Paris, Rippl-Ronai encountered many of the greats of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Born May 23, 1861, Rippl-Ronai’s Nude on a Balcony (above, from 1909) shows the influence of Edgar Degas’ nudes on Rippl-Ronai’s style. Rippl-Ronai knew Degas’ work quite well, eagerly listening to stories of the artist from his friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the only member of the younger artists’ circle brave enough to approach Degas. The shakiness of the line Rippl-Ronai uses in Nude on a Balcony, however, reflects the influence of Les Nabis, the “prophets” of modern art who based their art on the primal energy exemplified by Paul Gauguin, whom Rippl-Ronai met and championed when few others knew Gauguin’s work.
“He had recently returned for the first time from Tahiti,” Rippl-Ronai writes in his memoirs of his first meeting with Gauguin. “That is, he was already almost the real Gauguin.” Along with an artist friend, Rippl-Ronai learned “to love Gauguin's art, not every single item, naturally, but the artist as he was.” Spreading Gauguin’s around Paris, “where they either reviled him or thought he was mad,” Rippl-Ronai and his friend took credit as “the first to improve [Gauguin’s] reputation.” In Painter with Models (above, from 1910), Rippl-Ronai strikes a Gauguin-esque pose, placing himself among a gaggle of nude models just as Gauguin traveled to mingle with the scantily-clad Tahitian ladies. Rippl-Ronai clearly admired Gauguin “as he was,” and not necessarily Gauguin’s style of painting, hoping to emulate the antiestablishment radicalism that helped Gauguin break away from conventionality and find his true voice.
As much as Rippl-Ronai envied Gauguin’s freedom, he envied Degas for his technique. In Zorka (above, from 1923), Rippl-Ronai draws his favorite model in pastel, the medium Degas had almost single-handedly given respectability in the late nineteenth century. The nude woman’s unwavering stare at the viewer is pure Gauguin—shameless and powerful—but the stylized human figure, composed of pure gesture, reminds me of Degas’ later work featuring bathers in unconventional poses, configured more as abstract sculpture than living, breathing women. Gauguin and Les Nabis win credit for Rippl-Ronai’s bold palette and sensuous line, which won him fame upon his return to Hungary, but the influence of Degas, himself nearly blind when Rippl-Ronai encounters his work, clearly contributes to the eye-opening brilliance of the Hungarian’s art.