Musée d'Orsay: Paul Ranson Lustral

Paul Ranson

Paul Ranson (1861-1909)
Tempera on canvas
H. 35.5; W. 24.3 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) /Gérard Blot


Paul Ranson, one of the Nabis, developed an original style with Symbolist and esoteric resonances. In 1891, he made two versions of Lustral, including this one, which belonged to his friend Maurice Denis.

Apart from its enigmatic title, the work can be classed as a genre scene. It can be seen as a female nude at her toilette. A sponge and bar of soap are laid on a mat at her feet alongside an ornate pottery pitcher. Ranson has multiplied details that give the scene a more symbolic meaning; the fabric which unfurls above the bather like a snake, the swan-necked fountain with its shell-shaped basin or the flower blooming on the wall invite a more erotic reading. The ablutions of the young women are a purification rite, as the title suggests. Apart from its esoteric connotations, the term "lustral" refers to medieval mysticism: lustral water is supposed to purify souls and drive out demons. It is still used for baptisms.

Ranson invites us to attend this intimate purification, almost by breaking and entering. The colour range is reduced to a palette of greens and blues conjuring up the night. The young woman's orange-brown body emerges sharply against this dark background. Keenly interested in decorative art, Ranson has surrounded his figure with arabesques and floral motifs. The deliberate flattening of form and the simplified treatment of the colour explain the nickname Ranson was given: "The Nabi who is more Japanese than the Japanese Nabi," an allusion to Bonnard.

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