The History of the Royal Museum in Antwerp

The History of the Royal Museum in Antwerp

The History of the Royal Museum in Antwerp

The earliest nucleus of the collection has its originswith the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke to which the city’s artists belonged between 1382 and 1773. The guild’s gallery or konstkamer was used for both meetings and festive occasions, and for displaying the guilds treasures. In 1663, at the behest of David Teniers, an academy was founded under the guild’s auspices. When the guilds were finally disbanded in 1773, the Academy of FineArts took possession of the aforementioned gallery, which included works like Portrait of Abraham Grapheus, by Cornells de Vos, Virgin with a Parrot, by P.P. Rubens, three paintings by Jacob Jordaens, and a number of other works.

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Paradoxically, the next stage in the museum’s development was brought about by the confiscation of paintings from Antwerp’s churches, monasteries and one or two public buildings during the French occupations of 1794 and 1796. According to an official report, 70 paintings, including 30 well- known works by Rubens, were stolen from Antwerp alone. Forty of the stolen works were eventually returned in 1815, 26 of which found their way into the Academy’s museum. These included Christ on the Straw, The Lance (Christ Crucified between the two Thieves), The Adoration of the Magi, The Incredulity of Thomas and The Education of Mary, all by Rubens. These works form one of the centres of gravity of the Antwerp museum’s collection, which had been moved in the meantime, together with the Academy, to the buildings of the former Franciscan monastery in 1810.
The catalogue of 1817 already included 127 items, one of which was Quinten Massys Triptych of the Lamentation of Christ, painted in 1510 for the cathedral, which managed to escape the Iconoclasm of 1566. It is evident, therefore, that in the early years of its existence, the museum’s collection was limited, but of the highest quality. It dated primarily from the second half of the 16th century and from the 17th century, with Rubens as its crowning glory.
During the period of Dutch rule, Willem I, King of the United Netherlands, donated three noteworthy paintings to the museum. In 1823 he gave Titian’s famous youthful work, Pope Alexander IV presents Jacopo Pesaro to Saint Peter. This painting was the first work by a foreign artist to join the collection. Panorama of Valenciennes, a remembrance of the battle between the Spanish and the French in 1656 by David Teniersthe Younger, was also donated in 1823. In 1829, Willem I presented the museum with its first work by a living artist, Matthijs van Bree, Director of the Antwerp Academy and Museum. The painting in question was The Death of Rubens. By Royal Decree of 25th March 1827, Will em I also granted a subsidy of 20 000 guilders for the purchase of contemporary artworks from the salons of Amsterdam, Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels. The revolution of 1830, and Belgium’s subsequent independence, however, meant that Antwerp was not able to benefit from this. It was not until 1873 that the museum began to buy works by living artists.

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The rather limited composition of the museum’s collection continued until 1840 when 141 works were bequeathed to it by Florent van Ertborn, former mayor of Antwerp. As a patron of the arts, he had built up a collection of 15th century paintings with flawless taste at a time when appreciation of the Flemish Primitives was extremely low. The Flemish Primitive works which he donated have helped assure the museum’s reputation. They include Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara and Madonna at the Fountain, Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of Philips de Croy and The Seven Sacraments triptych, Dirk Bouts’ Madonna with Child, and Hans Memling’s Portrait of Jan de Candida. Works by later Flemish artists included Flight into Egypt by Joachim Patinir, and Quinten Massys’ Saint Mary Magdalene. Van Ertborn also bequeathed a number of works by important foreign masters, such as Jean Fouquet’s Madonna, Simone Martini’s beautiful series of panels depicting The Annunciation and The Crucifixion, Antonello da Messina’s Christ on the Cross and Lucas Cranach’s Caritas, all of which have helped ensure the international fame of the Antwerp collections.
A large number of works, including contemporary items, primarily of national importance, were added to the museum’s collection during the course of the 19th century. A Royal Decree in 1852 led to the foundation on 5th September 1853 of the Academic Corps, membership of which was granted to artists as an honorary title in recognition of their contribution to Belgian art. Upon joining the Academic Corps, artists were expected to donate a self-portrait to the Academicians Gallery. Although the quality of these acquisitions was not uniformly high, the Academic Corps and its collection nevertheless represented a first step towards the foundation of a separate ‘modern’ museum. It was only in 1873 that a genuine purchasing committee was set up, with, as its first action, the acquisition of an ‘old-fashioned’ painting by the established artist Karel Verlat, The Mother of the Messiah and the Four Evangelists. During the first few decades of its existence, the committee continued to favour the work of traditional and local artists.
In the meantime, the example set by Van Ertborn had been followed. In 1859, the Douairiere Adelaide Van den Hecke-Baut de Rasmon left 41 works of art to the museum. Her bequest consisted primarily of the work of 17th century Flemish and Dutch masters, including Portrait of a Boy, by Erasmus Quell in, and works by Jan Fyt, Salomon and Jacob van Ruisdael, Jacob Jordaens, David Teniers the Younger, Adriaan van Ostade and others. The foundation of the society Artibus Patriae on 27th July 1864 was just as important as the donations and bequests of private collectors. The aim of the society was to enrich the collection of the Antwerp museum by means of acquisitions – made using the annual contributions of its members – and by encouraging donations. The society functioned for about a hundred years, during which time it was responsible for the addition of 62 works to the collection, including contemporary, 19th century and older items. Examples areJoachim Beuckelaer, Cornelisde Vos, Marinusvan Reymerswael, Jan Wi l dens, the Master of the Saint Magdalene Legend, Roelant Savery, Henri Leys, Henri DeBraekeleer, Rik Wouters, George Minne, Pericles Pan- tazis and Charles Mertens. As a consequence of these acquisitions there simply was not enough space to accommodate the collection as a whole, despite the extension and alteration of the Academy’s buildings on a number of occasions, including Pierre Bourla’s addition of a monumental staircase, a classical facade and a gatehouse which functioned as the entrance to the museum.

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In August 1873 the Academy’s museum was put at serious risk as a result of a major fire at the nearby Stadswaag, and the authorities began to consider seriously the need to find a new home for the famous collections.
On 2nd December 1875, after two years of negotiations and discussions, the City Council decided upon the site formerly occupied by the Zuiderkasteel, the Spanish stronghold constructed in 1567 by the Duke of Alva. The clearance of the site yielded some 100 hectares for the construction of a new municipal district and harbour installation. The construction company Societe Anonyme du Sud d’Anvers submitted a number of plans to the municipal authorities before final approval was granted on 18th September 1875. This plan featured the museum as its geometric centre, surrounded by squares, streets and parks. On 29th January 1877, the City Council announced a competition amongst Belgian architects for the design of a new museum. The first prize was awarded to the design submitted by Jean-Jacques Winders (1849-1936), a young (28 year old) and ambitious architect, who had previously won an official competition for the design of the Scheldt Monument which stands in the present Marnixplein. Winders was not, however, the only winner: six entrants were chosen, but the main problem was that they all exceeded the specification of two million francs. The matter dragged on further, until another competition was announced in 1879, which was limited to the six former first prize winners. J.J. Winders won once again, with the even younger Frans Van Dijck (1853-1939) in second place. Both designs were adopted, on condition that the two architects combined them to produce a single plan. The combination of what for the time was an ultra-modern programme, with the prestigious facades and structures of the approved plan meant that nothing else could stand in the way of construction, and work on the new institution began in September 1884. The ceremonial inauguration of the museum in the south of the city on iith August 1890, with processions, speeches, banquets and a large-scale celebration marked the end of a difficult 17 years. The museum features a combination of the neoclassical and neo-gothic styles, and is an example of contemporary temple architecture. From the technical point of view, it is based upon the great new museums of Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
In 1927 the museum passed into the ownership of the nation. In addition to Artibus Patriae, two other primary benefactors of the first half of the century should be mentioned. The first was the Friends of Modern Art society which was founded in 1927, and which developed into a small group of art-lovers surrounding the brothers Louis, Francois and Charles Franck. The second source of support was provided by the brothers themselves. Over the course of a half century, the ‘Friends of Modern Art’ donated 42 works of art, beginning in 1921, before they had become an official society, with eight Ensors, including Afternoon in Ostend, The Intrigue and Masks fighting over a Hanged Man. The Franck family itself (Francois and Charles) donated between 1920 and 1967 Fisherwoman by Constant Permeke, Strawberries and Champagne by Henri De Braekeleer, The Ferryman and The Fall of the Rebel Angels by James Ensor, Xavier Mellery’s Inspiration and Jakob Smits’ Pieta.
Although donations and bequests have dropped off sharply during the last few decades, the museum recently came into possession of a marvelous collection. In 1989 Ludo van Bogaert-Sheid bequeathed no less than 69 artworks, including 58 paintings, drawings, watercolours and sculptures by Rik Wouters.
The collection as a whole now numbers more than 7 200 works of art, consisting of 3 200 paintings, 3 600 drawings and prints, and 400 sculptures.