David and Belgium

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On the occasion of its 6th edition, Paris Tableau is very pleased to present a focus exhibition on David and Belgium. We turn the spotlight on the artistic influence of the neoclassic painter Jacques-Louis David on the Belgian school during his exile in Brussels at the beginning of the 19th century En savoir plus



Situated behind the Théâtre de la Monnaie in the city centre, David’s home and studio quickly became a magnet – everyone wanted to see the painter at work, even the king himself. His Belgian ex-pupils hurried to his side, one of them being François-Joseph Navez (Charleroi, 1787 – Brussels, 1869), who cut short his studies in Paris to follow “the master of masters”, as he called him, and benefit once more from his teaching.i Many French artists also made the journey to Brussels, to discuss current affairs and debate developments in art with him. Navez wrote to Jean-Baptiste Roman on 30 May 1822: “We are expecting Monsieur Barbier and Horace [Vernet] here. I am curious to hear their conversation with Monsieur David. I know the latter would rather not see them: Barbier because he doesn’t like him, and Horace because he’s bored of endless disquisitions on genre and other shop talk.

Generous with advice to artists who asked for it, David was happy to open his studio to young pupils like Sophie Frémiet (Dijon, 1798 – Paris, 1867), who had taken the same road of exile as both her father and her future husband, the sculptor François Rude (Dijon, 1784 – Paris, 1855).i David found himself invited to dinners and ceremonies, and loaned paintings to charitable institutions. Those he showed at salons were reviewed in the press, mostly favourably, sometimes more critically. Navez painted three portraits of David, Rude made a bust of him and Joseph Denis Odevaere (Bruges, 1775 ­­– Brussels, 1830) depicted him in his studio, in a composition intended for an engraving ,ii while landscape painter Jean-Baptiste De Noter (Waelhem, 1786 – Mechelen, 1855) included David among the passers-by in his view of the Place de la Monnaie (cat. 29). The portrayal of David by Célestin François’ (Brussels, c. 1787 – Brussels c. 1846) in a work marking the creation of the life-painting class at Brussels’ Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1821, under his brother Pierre-Joseph-Célestin François (Namur, 1759 – Brussels, 1851), is testimony to the importance of his presence for the city’s artistic circles (Brussels, Musée de la Ville). While the students apply themselves to painting a life model, the teachers and administrators converse in small groups. In the right foreground, David, like an allegorical guardian of the fine arts, looks out at the viewer, hat and cane in hand.iii On his death, he was given a public funeral and his tomb in the Brussels Cemetery was depicted in an engraving sold to visitors (cat.)

In artistic terms, David’s presence in Brussels no doubt delayed the emergence of Belgian romanticism by encouraging the development and ascendancy of a late neoclassicism. As Denis Coekelberghs and Pierre Loze have argued, the neoclassicism which in France was running out of steam, or developing into something else, enjoyed in Belgium, thanks to David’s arrival, a climate unassailed by doubt, permitting its survival until 1830.i This Davidian orientation was due in great part to his former pupils who dominated the art scene of the day: Odevaere in Bruges, Joseph Paelinck (Oostrakker, 1781 – Brussels, 1839)ii in Ghent and Navez in Brussels. As court painters, they saw official commissions shared out between them and their skills as portraitists were in demand by high society. It was to them, too, that the Church turned for new altarpieces (cat. 12). They received a great deal of favourable coverage in the press, and it was their works that attracted the attention of visitors to the salons. Also involved in efforts to reform art education, these artists were enormously influential.

The fall of the Empire did however bring with it a reaction against neoclassicism and its doctrines, especially in Antwerp. More subtle at first, it crystallised after 1830 in a debate on national artistic identity, in which David’s influence on the Belgian school was vehemently denounced by a number of writers, with talk of David’s despotism, of foreign influence on the natural course of Belgian art. These prejudices would be endlessly recirculated by an art history that came to reject neoclassicism in principle, for once and for all, not only in the work of those historians who stoked Flemish national feeling, but also in that of those francophone authors who championed modern art, such as the erratic Camille Lemonnier.i It was not until 1985 that a dispassionate critical reflection on David’s place and role in the history of Belgian art was undertaken.

Elsewhere, and in France especially, the question of David’s influence on Belgian painting – and vice versa – has hardly attracted the interest of art historians. And nor have his “Belgian” paintings found much favour, as Jean-Claude Lebensztejn noted in 1993.i Even in David’s lifetime, his Parisian followers expressed their discomfiture at the direction he took in Flanders. After a somewhat convoluted analysis of the “threatening rapprochement of idealism and realism” represented by David’s Belgian paintings – summed up by Coekelberghs and Loze – Lebensztejn maintains a prudent position in the conclusion to his article “Histoires belges” with a title of indulgent condescension. His goal, he says, “is not to rehabilitate these [Brussels] paintings, which some still find dismaying, although a certain revisionist tendency in their favour seems to have emerged over recent years; it is rather a matter of examining their logic – or perhaps lack of logic – and the reasons for the aversion with which they have generally been met”.ii More convincing is Dorothy Johnson’s in-depth analysis. Endorsing Baudelaire’s account of the Brussels paintings, which praised them for being eminently intellectual, Johnson finds David’s exile to have been rich and fruitful, “for the artist pitted himself against the limits of art and expression”.iii And this is perhaps the paradox of David’s Belgian output, so long decried – a total art that expresses the violent but controlled tension between the limits of the academic and the values of ideal beauty on the one hand and a sudden impulse towards total creative freedom on the other. A testament of sorts, his Mars Disarmed by Venus (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts) (fig.2, cat. 1) is a good example, reconciling as it does the demands of the real and the ideal in the most brilliant yet disturbing fashion in its mix of dream, prosaic, even ironically trivial reality, and an exalted irrealism, reflected also in the subtle discord of the colours.

One of the reasons for this achievement was the creative freedom David found in exile, cut off from the intrigue and rivalry of Paris. Nearly two years after his move, on 21 September 1817, he wrote: “I can tell you, in confidence, that I have never been happier at any time in my life; they like me here, I am afforded the highest consideration and I repay this hospitality by my attentions to those who practise my art; and everyone here can see the influence of my presence

Neoclassicism had flourished in Belgium long before David moved to Brussels, emerging there in autonomous and distinctive fashion, e.g. with the Antwerp painter and theorist Andreas Cornelis Lens (Antwerp, 1739 – Brussels, 1822), who developed a considerable following and whose painting was close to the international neoclassical movement inspired by Winckelmann (cat. 2),i or the influence of the Bruges-born painter Benoît Suvée (Bruges, 1743 – Rome, 1807), winner in Paris of the Grand Prix de Rome of 1771 and established in the French capital long before the Revolution. Many young artists from Bruges received a French-style training at the latter’s Paris studio, one being Joseph François Ducq (Ledeghem, 1762 – Bruges, 1829) (cat. 4).ii This earliest Belgian neoclassicism is distinguished by a marked mildness of tone, relying on intuition rather than declamation.iii After the French invasion and the annexation of the Low Countries to the French Republic, painting in Belgium aligned itself with that of France. As well as artists from other French cities, many Belgian artists who became French citizens and were keen to further their professional studies gravitated towards Paris, now synonymous with artistic modernity. Many competed for the Grand Prix de Rome, some just missing coming first, like Mattheus Ignatius Van Brée (Antwerp, 1773 – Antwerp, 1839),iv a pupil of François-André Vincent’s, who came second in 1797 (fig. 3), or Ducq, joint second with Ingres in 1800. Others succeeded, among them Joseph-Denis Odevaere,v winner of the Grand Prix for painting in 1804, Jean-Robert Calloigne (Bruges, 1773 – Antwerp, 1830) (cat. 9),vi a pupil of Chaudet, winner of the sculpture prize in 1807 and the sculptor Henri-Joseph Rutxhiel (Lierneux, 1775 – Paris, 1837),vii a pupil of Houdon and then of Roland, in 1808.

One of the Paris studios that attracted Belgian students was David’s. Having first been a pupil of Suvée’s, Odevaere entered it in 1801, to be joined about the same time by Joseph Paelinck. Pierre Van Hanselaere (Ghent, 1786 – Ghent, 1862) arrived in 1809i and François-Joseph Navez in 1813 (cat. 23). Through their influence on their compatriots on returning home, these artists introduced Davidism to Belgium, although they were by no means servile imitators of their teacher. Strangers to the French spirit, these Northern artists followed paths of their own, swayed on the one hand by their early training in the Flemish tradition and on the other by the expectations of a nation whose history had given it a different mindset from the French. This was noticeable even when these artists were induced to co-operate with the French authorities’ endeavours to create a fitting official art: a new symbolic language to communicate the glory of Empire – a genre to which Mattheus Ignatius van Bree applied himself with most success.

It is worth remembering that Flemish artists cultivated the myth of Rubens and the reputation of Flemish art more generally in the context of an incipient national renaissance (cat. 6 & 7). Far from being superficial, this reawakening ran deep, as witnessed by the prevalence of historicist and troubadour themes, which emerged very early in works marking key moments in national history. The revival of religious painting following the Concordat of 1801 was also important in a country where it had been practised with brio for centuries. In the absence of a centralising temporal power, it was the authority of the Catholic Church that shaped the mentality of the inhabitants of the future Kingdom of Belgium. Commissions for religious paintings, to replace those stolen by the French or simply to inspire faith, represented in themselves a form of national resistance. Alongside the neo-Baroque paintings of artists such as Willem Herreyns (Antwerp, 1743 ­­– Antwerp, 1827)i at Mechelen and Antwerp, the neoclassical painters developed an eclectic form of painting, notably sensitive and lyrical, combining the declamatory style of the French, the inspiration of Flemish tradition and the influence of Italy, as exemplified in the work of Paelinck (fig.4, cat. 12), Philippe van Bree (Antwerp, 1786 – Brussels, 1871),ii who spent some time in Girodet’s studio, Navez and so many others who made the journey to Rome. For if Paris was a necessary staging post in the academic training of Belgian artists, Rome remained the home of the arts: the city that fostered talent and had nourished and revealed the genius of a Rubens. The teachers of the Flemish academies, with Lens at their head, never tired of drumming this into their students and, as a general rule, those completing their training in Paris would then go on to Rome. The study of the Italian masters and the atmosphere of Rome, with its special appeal to Flemish sensibilities, also tended to modulate the influence of France, giving a distinctive tinge to Belgian Davidism. It is worth mentioning here the popularity of the Italian scene among the Belgian artists and public, by artists including Navez (cat. 24 & 25), Van Hanselaere (cat. 21), Philippe van Bree or Jean-Baptiste-Louis Maes-Canini (Ghent, 1794 – Rome, 1856) (cat. 27).

Belgian painters’ relationships to David were complex and ambivalent, see-sawing as it were between attraction and distanciation. David’s presence in Brussels certainly revivified Davidism among the history painters, and even more obviously among portraitists, such as Charles-Pierre Verhulst (Antwerp, 1774 – Brussels, 1820) (cat. 10), Paelinck, responsible for the very Davidian portrait of Richard Le Poer Trench, 2nd Earl of Clancarty (1817; London, National Portrait Gallery) and especially Navez (cat. 26) and Sophie Frémiet (fig.5, cat. 30). Their portraits exhibit the Davidian framing with neutral backgrounds setting off the subject, shown in bust or in three-quarter view seated on a chair. Their technique is both brilliant and meticulous in its rendering of materials, the facture supple, the brushwork silky. And finally, they display that same effort – through wonders of tone and colour – to adapt to the personality of the model, whether in sober portraits of French exiles or local notables or in their elegant and charming portraits of women or families.

The end of the Empire saw political, declamatory subjects give way in history painting to a less weighty, more hedonistic repertoire. David too embraced the new trend, maintaining an ironic distance from the fundamental values of a neoclassicism of ideal beauty, calm grandeur and historic heroism. His choice of subjects – Cupid and Psyche (1817, Cleveland Museum of Art), The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis (1818, J. Paul Getty Museum), The Anger of Achilles (1819, Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum) and Mars Disarmed by Venus were not a rehearsal of the amorous exploits of gods or weary heroes, but an exploration – through a subtle combination of realism and idealism – of the complex and mysterious psychological states prompted by the uncertainty of fate, by those crucial moments when everything changes and all fixed points of reference disappear. This new painting that brings the saga of neoclassicism to an end was no better understood in Belgium than it was in the France of the day. The Belgian Davidians retained of David’s Brussels paintings only their simplicity of form, elegance of line, contrasting chromatic harmonies and the splendidly tactile finery, as one sees in Paelinck’s The Muse Erato (fig. 6, cat. 15). The fact is, even Sophie Frémiet made a formalism of David’s late style in her attempts in the grand genre. As for Navez, the most gifted of David’s Belgian pupils, his tragic sense of nostalgia for lost happiness shifted the Davidian language towards a tension between idealism and sentimentality. The manner that David had taught him – grand but spare – served, in his hands, to express softness, tenderness and innocence, that sense of comfort and wellbeing central to his conception of life. What survives of David in his The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphrodite of 1829 (Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten) (fig.7) is the fleeting instant of erotic ecstasy, eyes meeting and time suspended before the sublime fusion of two beings into one. The following year saw the outbreak of the Belgian Revolution, which carried off with it, by then gasping its last, an artistic current that left its mark on the history of Belgian art.

Exhibition Curator: Dr Alain Jacobs.