The romantic movement 19th century
The romantic movement 19th century
The romantic movement, which may be dated between 1780 and 1850, turned its face agai nst authoritarian classicism. Released from everyday concerns by the power of the imagination, the romantics sought new artistic forms, but also a new ideal of life based upon a demand for freedom. The romantic artist was drawn towards mysterious, ambiguous and unknown territory, while his feeling of profound loneliness could take on tragic proportions. Romanticism served to unite Europe, but each country reacted in accordance with its special national character. German romanticism had a penchant for the magical, English romanticism was lyrical, while the French had a taste for everything dramatic.
The same applied to Belgian romanticism. Inspired by Belgium’s recently won independence from the United Netherlands, there was a marked preference for portrayals of the heroic and dramatic elements of the nationalist struggle in the country’s past. The large format pai ntings with their diagonally arranged compositions, animated movement and strong contrasts between light and shadow and different colours, often recall the Golden Age of Rubens. Nicaise De Keyser constructed his Charles Vfreeing the Slaves at Tunis in accordance with these principles from the Baroque era, but it was Gustaf Wappers in particular who became Belgium’s foremost romantic artist. The inspiration for his paintings was drawn from his wide knowledge of romantic literature, the history of the Low Countries, and his reflections upon the role of the artist and politics i n general. His best work (1828-1 850) reveal s a characteristic style and rich use of colour. In the painting The De Mitt Brothers in Captivity (1838), he succeeded in combining a sober composition with dramatic tension. Cornelis and Johan de Witt, 17th century Dutch statesmen and fierce anti-Orangists, are about to be dragged from prison by the mob and lynched. To Wappers and other romantics, they were a symbol of faith in liberalism and in political steadfastness. From 1840 onwards, the historical painting gradually became a rather sedate, bourgeois genre. Henri Leys, for instance, chose to portray the Arrival of Albrecht Diirer in Antwerp in 1520 (1855) rather than a more tumultuous and momentous occasion. The accuracy of colour, form and historical reconstruction contrast with a certain nostalgic tone, characteristic of romanticism.
The breakthrough of realism, which, like romanticism, originated in France, occurred in Belgium between 1850 and i860. According to the realists, everyday subjects should no longer be considered unworthy of being painted. The innovation of the realists lay not only in the manner of painting, but also in the themes and subjects of their work. They chose to portray their immediate surroundings rather than seeking refuge in composite works or imagination. Landscapes were painted in situ, and were no longer the result of combined studies from nature and the imagination or ideals of the artists. The world surrounding the artist was more important than historical scenes or tales from Antiquity and the Bible. Rules of composition, colour and execution had to give way to the accurate representation of reality.
The artist Alfred Stevens was the chronicler of the Paris demi-monde. One of his best works is the Parisienne Sphinx (1867), in which an enigmatic female portrait with sober colouring and delicate lighting is preferred to an anecdotal and sentimentally bourgeois approach. Realism adopted a socially engaged character with Jozef Stevens, Charles De Groux and Constantin Meunier. In Stevens case this was sensitive, in De Groux’s wretched, while in Meunier’s Coffee Tin, the worker is portrayed as noble. Meunier’s skill as both an artist and sculptor is evident from Return from the Mine and Man with a Sledgehammer. The Antwerp museum has a rich selection of realistic landscapes, including Francois Lamori niere’s Fir Wood (1883) and Hippo- lyte Boulenger’s Josafat Valley (1868), both highly accurate slices of nature. Every shape, detail, nuance of colour, reflection and effect of the light is conveyed with almost painful precision.
A further step in the representation of nature is provided by the landscapes and marine paintings of Louis Artan, Guillaume Vogels, Jan Stobbaerts and Pericles Pantazis. Given the realists obsession with the problems of visual observation and the outward appearance of things, it is inevitable that they would also wish to capture the changeability and transience of nature. The impressionism of the Belgian landscape artists is melancholy and grey, and retains a certain solidity of form. Louis Artan’s Marine scene is subtle in its combinations of water, air and light, Guillaume Vogels’ work, particularly My Garden, records the dull Belgian climate, Jan Stobbaerts worked with green, hazy patches of colour in Dragging in the Woluwe, while in his On the Beach, Pericles Pantazis recalls the sea views painted by Boudin. All four of these landscape painters had a rich pictorial talent which, though not inclined to sumptuous colouring, nevertheless reveals a delicate and poetic tonal shading.
enri De Braekeleer has been described as the first really significant figure in 19th century Belgian art. The Antwerp museum possesses 33 of his paintings and 45 drawings. The key- elements in his painting are Old Antwerp with its quiet squares and peaceful rustic facades, solitary people, almost medieval craftsmen and stuffy bourgeois interiors. He is totally oblivious to the active life, his work exhaling instead an atmosphere of silence and peace. A warm palette, sober composition, strict division of the painting’s surface and a passion for the substance of things are characteristic of De Braekeleer. One of his best-known paintings is The Man in the Chair (1875). Light floods through the open window into a room in the Brouwershuis, in which an old man sits staring in a chair. The precise realism of his Flower Grower’s Garden (1864), an early work, is combined in one of his last paintings, Strawberries with Champagne (1883) with a free painting style and a more lively range of colours.
The sculptor Jef Lambeaux and the painters Jan van Beers, Leon Frederic and George Hendrik Breitner, the only foreigner to be well represented in our collection (seven works) belong to the following generation – that of 1850. The Naturalism which links these artists was expressed in a different fashion by each. The animated movement of The Kiss (1881), is characteristic of Lambeaux’s sculptures, while the photographic realism of the Portrait of Peter Benoit by Jan van Beers takes on a magical dimension through the floating accessories. In his Two Walloon Peasant Children (1888) Leon Frederic executes a naturalistic portrait with a clearly social intent; his work does, however, often waver between naturalism and symbolism. Breitner, the leading figure amongst the Amsterdam impressionists, used his own photographs – in Women in Amsterdam we are offered a kind of snapshot – in order to work new motifs into his paintings.
As in the case of De Braekeleer, the museum also boasts the leading collection of works by Belgium’s other main figure from the 19th century, namely James Ensor. A total of 35 paintings are preserved here, ranging from an early attempt at the age of 17, to late works dating from 1906/07, together with a collection of 606 drawings. Ensor took the inspiration for his early work from his immediate surroundings: he painted members of his family, interiors, city views and the sea in a dark-tinted style with an impressionistic touch, as in his Bourgeois Drawing Room (1881). Under the influence of the French, and particularly J.M.W. Turner, he lightened his palette and his point of view became more modern, as in his famous Woman eating Oysters. In other paintings, like Adam and Eve driven from the Garden of Eden, the clarity of the light became piercing and incandescent. Serenity was banished from his work once and for all, to be replaced by fear, vulnerability and oversensitivity which were best expressed in the discovery of greatest genius and originality, the mask. In his finest creations, such as The Intrigue ( 1 8 9 0 ), Masks fighting over a hanged Man (1891), his strange, fantastic and menacing mask people express rage, sarcasm and vengeance, feelings with which Ensor himself was ravaged. His style became increasingly personal; bright colours, expressive brush strokes, theatrical composition, harsh contrasts, linear technique. Ensor’s art is unique in Europe, and represents one of the main gateways to the 20th century.
The use of symbols by James Ensor, who held society up to ridicule with his mask people, differs fundamentally from the symbolist movement which arose in France. Following the example ofliterary works, artists sought to react against impressionism by no longer concerning themselves with the outward appearance of things, but by attempting instead to convey the mystery behind the reality. In order to portray the world of dream, allegory, myth, spirituality and literature, the symbolists simplified form and used decorative elements and colours to embody an idea. In his painting Inspiration, Xavier Mellery has achieved something of his ideal: murals depicting allegorical scenes with floating (and simultaneously petrified) figures against a golden background. His grisaille interiors in chalk are amongst the best in Belgian symbolism. This black and white painting shows clear affinities with the drawings of Edward Burnes – Jones, by whom the museum possesses three works. Eugene Laermans Blind Man (1898) represents a synthetic image of the proletarian type in an elementary landscape. His work – grey, expressive and socially engaged – forms a link between realism, sym- bolism and expressionism. The Blue Thistle or Portrait of Louise Lari don and Josue Dupon’s ivory statuette Diana bear witness to another confluence – that between a certain severity characteristic of symbolism, and the decorative refinement of Art nouveau. The second generation of symbolists is to be found after 1900 at Si nt-M artens-Latem, where they were responsible for a major renewal of ideas and form.
It is clear that up to the turn of the century, a wide variety of styles existed both alongside one another, and in a number of hybrid forms. The characteristic fin-de-siecle melting pot included realism, impressionism and symbolism, together with all their variants. The short-lived Henri Evenepoel paid homage to M anet in his Louise in Mourning (1894) with its solid construction and sturdy use of colours, but within a few years, his work underwent a fundamental change. Emile Claus also set off along the realist path, but his contact with impressionism turned him around 1 goo into a pioneer of Belgian luminism. Summer (1893) is a masterpiece of fine colour shading representing light, sun and heat. There were also Belgian adepts of French neo-impressionism or pointillism, and it is with two masterpieces of this genre that we round off this survey of Belgian art in the 19th century: Henry Van de Velde’s Woman at the Window (1889) and Theo Van Ryssel berghe’s Portrait of Marie Sethe (1891). WhileVan Ry ssel berg he uses the poi n- tillist technique to achieve a fairly realistic portrait, despite the unusual, artificial colours, Van de Velde produced an entirely different result using the same procedure. The simplification of the surfaces and a combination of pink and purple colours imbue his portrait with an almost symbolic quality.