JAN DIRK BAETENS
Review of: Herwig Todts, Henri De Braekeleer 1840-1888: Fenêtre ouverte sur la modernité, Namur [Musée Rops] 2019 | Herwig Todts and André Bollen, Henri De Braekeleer 1840-1888: Het werk - L’œuvre, Brussels [Ronny Van de Velde/Ludion] 2019
From 19 October 2019-2 February 2020, the Musée Rops in Namur held a retrospective dedicated to the Belgian painter Henri De Braekeleer, entitled ‘Henri De Braekeleer (1840-1888). Fenêtre ouverte sur la modernité’. The exhibition, which was curated by Herwig Todts, was organised in collaboration with the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, where Todts is research curator, and with the art dealers and collectors Ronny and Jessy Van de Velde. Two new books accompanied the show: an exhibition catalogue, authored by Todts and published by the museum, and a more voluminous publication with a catalogue raisonné of De Braekeleer’s painted oeuvre, co-authored by Todts and André Bollen, and published by Ludion in collaboration with Ronny Van de Velde. Both books are generously sized and lavishly illustrated with a large number of full-page images and spreads of De Braekeleer’s works.
The Musée Rops has become something of a refuge for dix-neuvièmistes in Belgium. It is one of the few Belgian museums that regularly dedicates temporary exhibitions to Belgium’s rich nineteenth-century artistic past. In spite of its comparatively modest exhibition spaces, some of the most interesting shows on nineteenth-century Belgian art in recent years took place in Namur. An exhibition of De Braekeleer’s fascinating and rich work was much overdue, so the choice for the artist was certainly a good one. The last exhibition on his work was held in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, in 1988.1 The exhibition in Namur brought together a representative sample of De Braekeleer’s artistic production. It included, next to a good selection of the artist’s best-known large format figure paintings, a small number of still lifes, landscapes, oil studies, sketches, drawings and prints. An especially attractive feature of the show was the presence of a sizeable quantity of privately owned paintings, quite a few from the Van de Velde collection, which have been rarely on public view, if at all.
Left: Cover of Henri De Braekeleer 1840-1888. Fenêtre ouverte sur la modernité.
Middle: ‘Henri De Braekeleer 1840-1888. Fenêtre ouverte sur la modernité’ – installation view (Copyright: Copyrights©360images.be/Musée Félicien Rops).
Right: Cover of Henri De Braekeleer 1840-1888. Het werk - L’œuvre.
Possibly for practical reasons, the exhibition did not present a clear linear narrative of De Braekeleer’s career or artistic development. Works were clustered, however, around specific genres (landscapes, still lifes and graphic work), and themes (artist’s studios, bourgeois interiors, cottage industry and, of course, windows). The goal of the exhibition was to present De Braekeleer as a modern and modernist artist, whose artistic significance lies mainly in the dialogue set up in his work with French avant-garde art of the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. Accordingly, the exhibition emphasised the unidealised realism of some of De Braekeleer’s early depictions of artisans and, more importantly, the increasingly free handling of brush, paint and colour in some of his later works – especially the landscapes – still lifes and some of the late figure studies. The point was further driven home by a painting by James Ensor, the only work by another artist in the entire installation, accompanied by a quote from the early-twentieth-century painter Rik Wouters that describes the similarities between De Braekeleer’s and Ensor’s work in the formal terms of colour and facture.
For a chronological account of De Braekeleer’s career, visitors could turn to the bilingual (French and Dutch) exhibition catalogue, in which Todts builds on his earlier research carried out for the 1988 exhibition. It pays attention, amongst other things, to De Braekeleer’s education, his travels, his relationship with the art market, the reception of his work and his frustratingly elusive personality. The catalogue also provides a chronology, and a brief checklist of the exhibited works in the show.
The catalogue essay also privileges a modernist interpretation of De Braekeleer’s oeuvre, corroborated here by quotes on the painter from more radically adventurous artists, such as Vincent van Gogh and Rik Wouters. Todts writes: “I have come to the conclusion that the canonical account of De Braekeleer’s stylistic innovations [...] is and remains valid. What the artist shows, how that image is created and what its purpose is, are questions that cannot be answered without paying attention, as it were in the footsteps of Van Gogh or Wouters, to the artistic style, [which] is, after all, the ultimate argument of the artist and the factual object the art historian’s inquiries” (p. 25).2 Thus, the window evoked by the exhibition and exhibition catalogue’s shared subtitle, Fenêtre ouverte sur la modernité, gives out onto a, more or less formalist type of modernism, rather than on modernity.
“Modern” is not the first word that comes to mind when looking at De Braekeleer’s stuffy interior scenes or slightly claustrophobic views of Antwerp’s historical centre. Nevertheless, much can be said for Todts’ viewpoint. According to some of his contemporaries, De Braekeleer was obsessed with light and colour, and some, if certainly not all, of the critics who reviewed his work during his lifetime, already addressed it in this way. Light, colour and paint are clearly central concerns in some of De Braekeleer’s later works. Yet a modernist view on De Braekeleer’s oeuvre also entails a number of difficulties, which the author himself acknowledges in his text. Van Gogh’s taste, as Todts observes, was highly eclectic.3 In one of the letters quoted in support of the modernist reading of De Braekeleer’s work, the Dutch artist mentions him in the same breath as Victor Lagye, a talented but decidedly unmodern and belated follower of De Braekeleer’s uncle, the history and historical genre painter Henri Leys, and Emile Wauters, a prominent academic painter and former pupil of Jean-François Portaels and Jean-Léon Gérome (p. 23).
It is also worth considering whether we can actually see De Braekeleer’s freely handled studies as his “ultimate argument” or as the ultimate argument for a modernist account of his artistic development. Much of the aesthetic of late nineteenth-century avant-garde art was already present in the academic practice of the étude.4 However, it was only when paintings made in the étude’s sketchy aesthetic were no longer seen as preparatory works but presented as independent artistic statements in their own right, that we are able to speak of a truly modernist liberation of form. As Todts himself admits, the actual status of De Braekeleer’s studies and their relation with his finished paintings remains uncertain. Nor is it entirely clear how important the still lifes and landscapes, often executed in a looser style, were for the artist himself. A straightforward account of De Braekeleer’s development as a slowly budding modernist doesn’t, in any event, quite fit the chronology of his actual production: the brilliant and sketchy The villa of M. Coûteaux, made somewhere between 1871 and 1875, is almost as free in the use of colour and paint as most of the studies from the 1880s. Conversely, De Braekeleer made highly finished – if not quite academically polished – works such as The card game as late as 1887, a year before his early death.
As many nineteenth-century painters, De Braekeleer loved painting windows, and the views presented through them.5 If these views are, according to the exhibition title’s playful suggestion, views onto modernity, as if looking into the future, they also make one wonder about the actual house from which the artist was looking; a house, I suspect, which looked much more traditional than any modernist and teleological interpretation can account for. This is also clear from the actual views depicted in De Braekeleer’s paintings. Through the window in The Teniersplaats, the catalogue’s cover image, we see the late-Gothic St. James’ Church and a patchwork of old houses on an all but deserted square in provincial, non-metropolitan, Antwerp. Even the gas lantern on the corner of the square looks tired and dilapidated, rather than modern and new.
The importance of the past and tradition in De Braekeleer’s oeuvre is not lost on Todts. He recognises the artist’s fascination for seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting, refers to his acknowledgement of the influence of his father, the romantic genre painter Ferdinand De Braekeleer, and his uncle Leys, and muses over the pre-eminently antiquarian character of De Braekeleer’s Antwerp. Todts refrains, however, from a sustained engagement with this traditional, perhaps even historicist dimension of De Braekeleer’s oeuvre. It would have been interesting to perhaps more deeply explore how a modernist reading could be reconciled with Alison Hokanson’s recent research on De Braekeleer’s interior scenes and their relation to early symbolist ideas, which is referenced in the book, but not further engaged.6 One may also wonder whether we should not give more consideration to the influence on De Braekeleer’s oeuvre of Leys’ historicism, and even Ferdinand De Braekeleer’s humorous and sentimental genre scenes. Looking forward, out of the window, in other words, should not make us lose sight of what is just behind us.
The catalogue raisonné reproduces Todts’ text and the chronology from the exhibition catalogue, and, adds a number of full-page illustrations of a selection of De Braekeleer’s paintings, drawings, etchings and lithographs, as well as photographs of nineteenth-century Antwerp. It does not provide a complete synthesis of all prior research on De Braekeleer, including Hokanson’s, nor a complete bibliography, and thus complements rather than replaces Todts’ own 1988 catalogue and Mark-Edo Tralbaut’s 1972 monograph.7 The catalogue section is certainly impressive: it lists the entire painted oeuvre of De Braekeleer and gives information on titles, dimensions, dates, signatures, used materials, provenance, exhibition history, references to connected works (often illustrated) and references to literature (remarkably, only up to 1972).
A catalogue is of course always a work in progress, and never quite final. Forgeries of De Braekeleer’s work and paintings mistakenly attributed to him already circulated during his lifetime and many of them still do, which makes the reconstruction of his oeuvre a difficult task. One may raise questions, for instance, about some of De Braekeleer’s paintings of the interior of Antwerp’s Brewers’ House, a favourite spot for virtually every nineteenth-century Antwerp painter. One of the paintings in the catalogue, also included in the exhibition, shows a slightly different pattern of tiles than the others, which is also different from the actual floor, as it has been preserved in the Brewers’ House. This does not have to mean anything in itself, but it is noteworthy in the work of an artist who is known for his obsessive observation, and the resulting meticulous and detailed depiction of what he observed. The De Braekeleer catalogue is, nevertheless, clearly the result of a rigorous and profound study of the artist’s oeuvre. It will provide a very firm basis for the further study of a body of works that has not yet yielded all of its secrets.
Jan Dirk Baetens
Assistant Professor, Radboud University Nijmegen
1 H. Todts, Henri De Braekeleer 1840-1888, Antwerp 1988.
2 “Inmiddels ben ik tot de vaststelling gekomen dat het gecanoniseerde beeld van de stilistische innovaties van De Braekeleer, veel meer dan ik destijds dacht, van tel is en blijft. Wat de kunstenaar toont, hoe dit beeld tot stand komt en waartoe het moet dienen, zijn vragen die niet kunnen worden beantwoord zonder telkens weer, als het ware in het spoor van Van Gogh of Wouters, aandacht te hebben voor de artistieke stijl die de kunstenaar, De Braekeleer, ontwikkelt, deze is immers het ultieme argument van de kunstenaar en het feitelijk onderzoeksobject van de kunsthistoricus.”
3 C. Stolwijk (ed.), De keuze van Vincent: Van Goghs musée imaginaire, Amsterdam 2003.
4 A. Boime, The academy and French painting in the nineteenth century, New Haven/London, spec. p. 166ff.
5 S. Rewald, Rooms with a view: The open window in the nineteenth century, New York 2011.
6 A. Hokanson, ‘Henri De Braekeleer and Belgium’s nineteenth-century revivalist movement’, in A. Lepine e.a. (eds.), Revival, memories, identities utopias, London 2015, pp. 135-149. A. Hokanson, ‘The soul of things: Henri De Braekeleer as a forerunner of the treatment of light in Belgian symbolism’, in R. Neginsky and D. Cibelli, Light and obscurity in symbolism, Newcastle Upon Tyne 2016, pp. 156-174.
7 M .E. Tralbaut, De Braekeleeriana: Archivalia, rariora en curiosa in verband met leven en werk van de Antwerpse kunstschilder, Antwerp 1972.
J. D. Baetens, ‘Review of Henri De Braekeleer 1840-1888: Fenêtre ouverte sur la modernité'; Henri De Braekeleer 1840-1888: Het werk - L’œuvre', Oud Holland Online Reviews, April 2020.