The late 18th and early 19th century was a new high-water mark for painting in Bruges. The Bruges Academy, then one of the best in the country, played a pioneering role in the promotion of Neoclassicism. It trained a number of artists who completed their studies abroad and subsequently achieved international success.
Joseph-Benoît Suvée was undoubtedly the most eminent of these, building up a dream career in Paris and Rome. He vanquished Jacques-Louis David – the French figurehead of Neoclassicism – as the winner of the Prix de Rome. Moreover as a citizen of Bruges, he even reached the heights of becoming director of the prestigious Académie de France in Rome.
Neoclassicism is characterised by a balanced composition, the preference for line over colour, and a highly refined finish. The style is generally cool, static and sculptural. Neoclassical painters typically favoured the portrait genre and that of history painting in which themes were drawn from classical antiquity.
According to a story by the Roman writer Valerius Maximus, the Vestal Virgin Tuccia was wrongly accused of impurity. Helped by the goddess Vesta, she proves her innocence by using a sieve to carry water from the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta. The drama – note Tuccia’s moist, red eyes – is heightened by the anxious looks of the figures on the left.
According to an ancient story, the art of drawing was invented when Dibutades drew the shadow of her lover on the wall of her father’s pottery workshop. She wanted to remember his features as he was leaving on a long journey. Suvée donated this neoclassical masterpiece to the Bruges Academy in gratitude for the training he had received at the school.
In 1799, Joseph-Benoît Suvée donated this canvas to the Bruges Academy. He did so out of gratitude for the education he enjoyed as a teenager. At the time of the gift, Suvée was a celebrated artist with an international reputation.
This is an absolute masterpiece of Neoclassicism. Look at the detailed execution of the robes, which are reminiscent of those worn in antiquity. Notice the balanced composition, which is made up of diagonals. The subdued colours. The powerful and sober décor that resembles a theatrical stage set. The interplay of light and dark.
The title of this work is The Invention of Drawing. It is based on a story from Greco-Roman antiquity, the era from which many Neoclassical subjects are taken. Dibutades was the daughter of a Corinthian potter. One day, she received news that her beloved was about to depart on a long journey. In order to remember his features, she drew around his shadow on a wall in her father’s studio. This is what we see here. It is how the art of drawing was invented.
Suvée adored this story, as did many other painters. He made various other paintings and sketches on this theme.
Next to the Flemish Primitives, the 18th- and early 19th-century paintings form the second pillar of the collection. Many of the painters had a close relationship with Bruges. There is a reason for this. If you’d like to hear it, press the green button.
Thanks to his fine painting technique and skill for penetrating psychological observation, Suvée became a celebrated portraitist. In this late portrait he reveals himself to be at the height of his powers. It honours the military career of adjutant commander De Travanet. On the map before him we read Metz, a reference to his battles on the Eastern Front and the siege of Luxembourg in 1795 during the French Revolutionary Wars.
In this painting, Suvée portrays his 75-year-old father-in-law at work. Jean Rameau was a goldsmith in Paris, at the Place du Carrousel. He looks up while sketching, as though perhaps making a drawing of the meticulously rendered terracotta sculpture. This is not a coincidence: the goldsmith acquired his status as master with a depiction of the Vestal Virgins who carry the sacred flame.
Bruges-born Duvivier painted this portrait of the aristocratic Villers family in Paris, during the turbulent years of the French Revolution. Loyalty is the central theme, which is symbolised by the medallion in which a woman strokes a dog while holding a laurel wreath. Loyalty within the family, but also a nobleman’s loyalty to his king and nation. Their refined world would soon come to an end.
Suvée worked on several commissions for the prominent Van Outryve family from Bruges. In this work, he portrays Augustin, a successful businessman, shipowner and maritime insurer. He took over his aunt’s flourishing trade in fabrics, pottery, tea, tobacco,.... The inscriptions Paris, Hollande, Allemagne [Paris, Holland, Germany] on the files indicate the international character of his business, which at the time was one of the most important companies in Bruges.
Legillon specialised as a landscape and animal painter. In this bucolic stable interior, two women wash the linen at a well, assisted by a little boy. Next to them, a woman is milking a cow. A man with a bundle of wood on his back leaves the stable. The dark interior forms a stark contrast to the sun-drenched mountain landscape in the background.
This lively portrait was created during Legillon’s stay in Rome. It is executed in pastel chalk, which was a very popular medium in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially for portraits. It allowed artists to draw in a picturesque manner. After his trip to Rome, Legillon opened an art school in Bruges. In 1782, he settled permanently in Paris where, like his friend Suvée, he was included in the renowned Académie royale.
This painting pays homage to Charles of Lorraine – governor of the Southern Netherlands – as patron of the arts. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, is holding his portrait. Painting, Sculpture and Architecture are also personified, with the latter figure holding a drawing of the Poortersloge (Burghers’ Lodge).This was home to the Bruges Academy at the time, where the painter of this portrait was the director. This work was given a place of honour above the fireplace in the konst-kamer, or meeting room.
Suvée, who was born in Bruges, moved to Paris when he was twenty years old. Eight years later, and prior to Jacques-Louis David, who became a figurehead of Neoclassicism, he won the Prix de Rome for the work he is sketching here: The Combat Between Minerva and Mars. He donated this self-portrait to the Bruges Academy after being received with magnificent celebrations in his native town. Suvée later became director of the Académie de France in Rome.
This is the man who, from the 1750s onwards, helped propel the art of painting in Bruges to new international heights: Joseph-Benoît Suvée. The artist looks back at us from over his shoulder. He is sketching in white chalk.
Suvée was born in Bruges. He trained at the Bruges Academy, one of the oldest art schools in the Southern Netherlands. It had an excellent reputation. Throughout his life, Suvée would always refer to his formative years in Bruges. A number of other painters, whose work you can see in this room, also trained at the Bruges Academy and forged European careers.
Joseph-Benoît Suvée was no different. He moved to Paris when he was twenty, where he won the Prix de Rome at the age of twenty-eight. Here he pictures himself with the preparatory drawing of the award-winning picture: The Battle between Mars and Minerva. In the competition, Suvée triumphed over Jacques-Louis David, who later became the great figurehead of French Neoclassicism. Suvée’s victory led to great celebrations in his hometown. In return, Suvée donated this accomplished self-portrait to the academy of his youth.
Thanks to the Prix de Rome, Suvée was able to study classical, renaissance and baroque art in Italy. Upon his return to Paris, he became a teacher at the famous Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. A number of Bruges painters, whose work you can see here, were his pupils.
Their style is neoclassical. Neoclassical art is balanced, refined and clearly delineated. It is cool and also somewhat static. Two genres of painting are particularly important, as you can see here: the portrait, and also history paintings depicting Greek or Roman subjects. Suvée also became a much sought-after portraitist.
Landscapes with ancient ruins are typical of Neoclassicism. This is a fine example of a capriccio, an imaginary landscape with ruins. It combines elements that do not belong together in reality: on the right is the Pantheon, on the left the remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and in the background is the Colosseum. Here, De Cock copied a work by Gian Paolo Panini, who specialised in the capriccio genre.
Paul de Cock forged his career at the Bruges Academy, first as an architecture teacher, later as director. Over a period of fifty-two years, he left his mark on an entire generation of future painters and architects in Bruges. The oval format, the Louis XVI-style frame and the three-quarter posture of this portrait are very similar to Suvée’s self-portrait. Both canvases were hung in the portrait gallery of the academy.