Le Silence

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer
Le Silence
H. 54,0 ; L. 29,0 cm.
Dation, 2006
Droits réservés © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865 - 1953)
Artwork not currently exhibited in the museum

Le Silence, a picture that Levy-Dhurmer kept throughout his life, is without doubt one of his most fascinating works. It has the suggestive power of an icon, an image that is all the more compelling for being presented as an enigma: fixed in a hieratic pose, with eyes hidden in shadow, the figure eludes all explanation. Solid and immobile, it keeps what we imagine to be the secret of its mourning to itself. The long, falling folds, enhanced by the vertical format, cannot but evoke both physical gravity (from which it is impossible to escape) and moral gravity.
This figure of silence is also an allegory of destiny: it expresses the arbitrary force that governs the world, as opposed to the determinism of the scientists. Stripped of any anecdotal context, expressing no identity, period or precise location, the work becomes symbolic and universal. The choice of pastel, Lévy-Dhurmer's favourite medium, gives intensity to the colours used, while the hatching makes the whole image shimmer.
The critic Achille Ségard was right when, in 1899, he referred to a face "like that of a statue". For although Lévy-Dhurmer picked up the traditional iconography of silence (the gesture was that of the Egyptian god Horus, and later of the Greek god Harpocrates), he took his inspiration more directly from the sculpted medal by Auguste Préault for Jacob Robles' tomb in the Père-Lachaise cemetery (1842). Given his literary connections, it is also plausible that Lévy-Dhurmer took his inspiration from the writings of his time. In particular, a collection of poems by his friend Georges Rodenbach comes to mind, The Reign of Silence (1891), which ends thus: "And since night approaches, - I slumber into death".
Exhibited in Paris in 1896, and again at the end of 1899 and the beginning of 1900, Le Silence fascinated his contemporaries, and had a major impact on the Symbolist generation from Fernand Khnopff to Odilon Redon.

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