Review of: 'Adjugé! Les artistes & le marché de l’art en Belgique 1850-1900' (2020)
Review of: Émilie Berger, Véronique Carpiaux, Noémie Goldman (eds.), Adjugé! Les artistes & le marché de l’art en Belgique 1850-1900, Namur [Mare et Martin] 2020
The Musée Felicien Rops is dedicated to the eponymous Belgian symbolist artist (1833-1898), with numerous exhibitions dedicated to its namesake. The museum’s more recent programming also encompasses exhibitions that focus on the nineteenth-century Belgian art world in a larger context. Such exhibitions have included women artists, humor in art and presentations on individual artists and the art market. ‘Adjugé! Les artistes & le marché de l’art en Belgique 1850-1900’, was held at the museum from 11 September 2020-3 January 2021. The museum’s purpose was to offer a look behind the scenes of the nineteenth-century art market, which was subject to unprecedented change in the 1850s, the same decade that Rops launched his career. As a living artist, he had to deal with increased speculation by art dealers and collectors who saw art mainly as a form of investment. The exhibition and the publication focused on the strategies artists applied chose to sell their work. In addition, the role of Belgian taste and location in becoming commercially successful, is addressed and illustrated by means of a diverse selection of paintings, prints and other works of art, selected by curators Émilie Berger and Noémie Goldman. The exhibition had the misfortune of opening during the Covid-19 pandemic and although the museum extended the closing date by three months until 18 April 2021, I was unfortunately unable to visit the exhibition due to all manner of travel restrictions. This review is therefore limited to the exhibition catalogue.
The painting that adorns the publication’s cover is aptly chosen: Louis Delbeke’s (1821-1891) wittily titled Le Jugement de Paris, shows a Parisian salon jury assessing a painting, which in turn depicts a painting in an artist’s studio (fig. 1). Evidently, it’s a pun on the ‘Judgement of Paris’, who was tasked with selecting the most beautiful goddess: Hera, Athena or Aphrodite. This Greek myth was often used as a metaphor for painters who were expected to be able to select the most beautiful elements from nature.1 Obviously, it here refers to the book’s ambition to discuss the development of the contemporary nineteenth-century art market and its impact on the visibility of artists and their work.
The book is comprised of seven essays. Instead of entries for all the exhibited artworks, the editors have chosen to discuss only seven key paintings. The rest of the exhibited works are included in a checklist. The catalogue begins with two articles that give a broad overview of the Belgian nineteenth-century art market. The second section – the Focus thématiques – zooms in on various art market actors namely, artists, art dealers and art collectors, while also focusing on artists’ strategies to deal with the art market. The central theme of the book is that an individual is part of a network of people, to which he or she must relate to, to succeed in the art world.
Émilie Berger and Noémie Goldman, who both wrote their dissertations on the Belgian nineteenth-century art world from a sociological point of view, give a lucid overview of the development of the Belgian art world between 1850 and 1900, in which the official triennal salons – alternating between Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent – originally ruled supreme.2 These salons were in fact sales exhibitions. When a painting was sold, a vendu sign was put up next to the work, with the idea that it would stimulate others to buy paintings, as well. For an artist and for the audience, such a notice indicated success; even more so when a buyer was a prestigious collector.3 From about 1850 onwards, other actors started tampering with the salons’ sovereignty: more and more art dealers opened galleries and started to compete with the salon as sales venues. Auctions became fashionable happenings, especially those concerning the sale of renowned collections. Artists’ societies started to organise their own members’ exhibitions.
Cover of: Adjugé! Les artistes & le marché de l’art en Belgique 1850-1900
Left: fig 1. Louis Delbeke, The judgement of Paris (Le Jury et le juge à Paris, Les Perplexités d’un jury or Le Jugement de Paris) c. 1877, oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm., Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels, CC1520
Middle left: fig. 2 Alfred Stevens, The New Year’s gift (Le Cadeau de Nouvel An, Le Coffret à bijoux or La Lettre), c. 1860, oil on canvas, 72 x 59 cm., Musée Charlier, Brussels, 338
Middle right: fig. 3 Florent Willems, A woman and a small dog in an interior (Femme et petit chien dans un interieur), oil on panel, 56 x 44.5 cm, Sale Lokeren (De Vuyst) 5 March 2016.
Right: fig. 4 Jean-Baptiste Madou, Visit to the art dealer (L’Amateur d’art of La Visite chez le Marchand d’art), 1873, oil on panel, 101.5 x 88.5 cm, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen, 1634
In the 1890s, numerous artists’ initiatives, notably Les XX, which was supported by the lawyer and editor of the periodical L’Art Moderne Octave Maus (1856-1919) created an engaged and faithful public. They sold subscriptions to salons that organised exhibitions and concerts, and they issued luxuriously bound and illustrated catalogues. Moreover, contrary to the official salon, artists were responsible for the presentation of their own work. Salon exhibitions were compared to bazaars, with works of art being hung from plinth to ceiling. Paintings carried the risk of being ‘skied’ – hung near the ceiling so that the artwork was invisible to the public. Instead, in shows organised by societies such as Les XX, all artworks were hung à la rampe – at eye level – in galleries that were tastefullydecorated. In such intimate surroundings with plenty of light, collectors could view the art works at their leisure and imagine how they would look in their own homes. In addition, the marketing of art works grew exponentially: art dealers and artists’ societies paid more and more attention to the publicising ‘their’ artists and the art works that were exhibited at their venues.
These essays are followed entries which discuss the position in the art market of seven key paintings that were also on show in the exhibition. In 1869 Louis Artan’s (1837-1890) Le Retour de Pêche (The return of the fishing fleet) was bought by the Belgian King Leopold II (1835-1909) during the Brussels Salon, which constituted an enormous boost to Artan’s career.
The third section of the book consists of five essays, which take a closer look at several subtopics. Berger, Jan Dirk Baetens and Laoureux focus on the choices artists made to succeed in the art world. Berger shows how Rops, while publicly renouncing commercialism, quietly and consciously maneuvered the art market and developed a unique strategy that enabled him to become successful. Originally, Rops chose to publish reproductions of his work as illustrations in journals and newspapers, instead of showing at exhibitions. Working with one or two art dealers, he built up a network of elite clients and collectors who bought and – at the explicit request of Rops – disseminated his work amongst their peers, in the hope that they too would acquire his artworks. In the 1880s, Rops attempted to canonise his own work by compiling an oeuvre catalogue of his engravings, while simultaneously seeking entry into the official art world (the légion d’honneur and state acquisition).
Baetens comprehensively focuses on a specific aspect of the nineteenth-century artist’s practice: the realisation of repetitions of works (single-handed copies with possible small variations) and reductions (single-handed copies in a smaller format). French demand for seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art, since the second half of the eighteenth century, had created a market of its own.4 After Belgian independence was proclaimed in 1830, growing feelings of nationalism resulted in outsized demand for Belgian historical subjects; so much so that works of art by living artists were costlier than those painted by Old Masters. Especially the era’s new collectors preferred contemporary pastiches, as the authenticity of a work by a living artist, could more easily be guaranteed. The practice of repetitions and reductions had, therefore, the effect that contemporary artists could finish in less time. During the first half of the century, such practice was still linked with the classic theory of emulation, but as originality became a growing factor of importance, especially art critics started to criticise such blatant copies. As a result, artists began to introduce subtle innovations. Alfred Stevens’ contemporary adaption of the depiction of young women in a historical setting by Florent Willems (1823-1905), for example, encompassed the commercialism of the art market and demand for originality by art critic (figs. 2 and 3). It made him one of Belgium's most famous artists.
Laoureux – using the list of state acquisitions as the starting point – writes about the position of Belgian women artists, and how they navigated the art world. Although only four per cent of the works bought by the state were made by women, by looking at the acquisition prices, Laoureux demonstrates that women artists were in no way inferior to their male colleagues.5 Especially interesting is his analysis of the women’s background as it gives an insight into how women artists gain an entrance into the art world.
Women also play a significant role in Ulrike Müller’s excellent article on private collectors; another group of actors within the Belgian art world. Not focusing exclusively on women, she does show that women used art collecting as a means of representation and emancipation, in conjunction with the avant-garde – especially during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Müller also explains that between 1800 and 1850 private Belgian art collections were relatively accessible to visitors of a higher class. Collectors held the belief that they helped preserve Belgian history and that by publishing collection catalogues and opening doors to the public, they helped disseminate art historical knowledge. With the growing presence of public museums and rising literacy rates in society, this notion – typical of the classic amateur – was replaced by the search for aesthetic sentiment, and for exclusivity. In addition, the museum took over the preservation of historic artifacts, including Old Masters, paving the way for the collection of contemporary art by private collectors. Such practices also facilitated relations between artists and collectors creating a network of patronage and friendship, which Octave Maus and others, harnessed and expanded.
The last actors on the art market to be discussed in this exhibition catalogue are art dealers. Ingrid Goddeeris takes Brussels’ Almanachs du commerce et de l’industrie, as a starting point to plead for more attention for lesser-known Brussels’ art dealers active between 1850 and 1900. On the basis of the Almanachs, she identifies a total of 240 art galleries focusing exclusively on the sale of paintings. Most of them were situated in the rue Montagne de la Cour and the rue Royale from the 1860s onwards. Goddeeris then goes on to talk about the contacts some art dealers had with artists and museums. Although the art dealer Prosper Everard (1835-1881) is only mentioned thrice in the Almanachs, an inquiry into his life shows that his activities were significant for the international and Belgian art market. It is obvious that there is still much to be researched within this field.
Despite the fact that not all players in the Belgium art world of the nineteenth century receive their due attention (for instance one misses auction houses and art critics), the exhibition catalogue Adjugé! is a welcome example of research on Belgian’s nineteenth-century art scene. Along the lines of sociologists as Howard Becker (1928-) and Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), by highlighting the unconscious and deliberate choices of individual actors in order to become successful in the art world, the book’s approach provides a better understanding of how individuals operated within a modern art world.6 It is, therefore, a pity that the captions to the illustrations do not carry the names of each person depicted. The images used in the catalogue nevertheless deserve a special mention: besides artworks, photographs of artists, art dealers, collectors and exhibitions installations are all shown. Poster designs, invitations, excerpts from sales ledgers and libers veritatis wonderfully evoke the Belgian nineteenth-century art world.
Numerous studies on the French art market have already been published and it is obvious that there is a significant overlap between the French and Belgian situations.7 Adjugé! demonstrates that there are also fine distinctions between both of these countries’ art worlds, as well; specifically where it concerns the explicit Belgian deployment by an individual animateur d’art of elite collectors’ circles, to distribute artists’ work, during the second half of the nineteenth century. Such comparisons can only truly be made when in-depth research local art markets, such as in this case of the Belgian art market is done, which in turn can lead to a revised view of the international and local nineteenth-century art worlds.
Senior Curator of Nineteenth-Century Art
RKD, The Hague
1 F. Annegret, Das Urteil des Paris: ein Bild und sein Kontext um die Jahrhundertwende, Marburg 1997. H.Damisch, Le jugement de Paris, Iconologie analytique, Paris 1992.
2 Malika M’Rani Alaoui, PhD thesis (University of Ghent) on the Belgian triennale salons is eagerly awaited.
3 E. Berger, Les artistes de la Société libre des Beaux-Arts. Posture collective et carrières individuelles dans le monde de l’art en Belgique (1860-1880), PhD Université libre de Bruxelles, 2019; N. Goldman, Un monde pour Les XX. Octave Maus et le groupe des XX. Analyse d’un cercles artistique dans un perspective sociale, économique et politique, PhD Université libre de Bruxelles 2012.
4 E. Korthals Altes, Everhard De verovering van de internationale kunstmarkt door de zeventiende-eeuwse schilderkunst: enkele studies over de verspreiding van Hollandse schilderijen in de eerste helft van de achttiende eeuw, Leiden 2003.
5 In the introduction Émilie Berger and Noémie Goldman, a quote from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Pauvre Belgique’, in which he laments that the Belgians only talk of prices with regards to art. C. Baudelaire, ‘Pauvre Belgique’, Ouevres postumes, Paris 1908, p. 277.
6 H. S. Becker, Art worlds, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1982; P. Bourdieu, The field of cultural production: Essays on art and literature, Oxford 1993.
7 See for instance: A. White, Canvases and careers: Institutional change in the French painting world, Chicago 1993; N. Green, ‘Circuits of production, circuits of consumption: The case of mid-nineteenth-century French art dealing’, Art journal 48, no. 1 (1989), p. 32; R. Thomson, ‘Theo van Gogh: An honest broker’, in Theo van Gogh 1857–1891: Art dealer, collector and brother of Vincent, C. Stolwijk and R. Thomson (eds.), Zwolle 1999; pp. 67-68; M. Preti-Hamard, P. Sénéchal (eds.), Collections et marché de l’art en France 1789-1848, Rennes/Paris 2005; D. W. Galenson and R. Jensen, ‘Careers and canvases: The rise of the market for modern art in nineteenth-century Paris’, in Current issues in nineteenth-century art, Van Gogh studies, vol. 1, Zwolle 2007, pp. 137-166.
Mayken Jonkman, ‘Review of: ‘Adjugé! Les artistes & le marché de l’art en Belgique 1850-1900’, Oud Holland Reviews, March 2023.