A significant number of Bruges’ Neoclassicists made their name as portrait painters. One prominent example was François-Joseph Kinsoen, who would build an international career as a court and society portraitist. In addition to a number of his refined portraits, the Groeningemuseum also holds his only known history painting: the monumental canvas The Death of Belisarius’ Wife.
Joseph-Denis Odevaere specialised in history paintings but often turned his hand to the lucrative portrait genre. He became court painter to King William I. Joseph Ducq also undertook commissions from the King of the Netherlands and from other notables, such as the married couple De Keverberg de Kessel, whom he depicted in an official full-length portrait.
With his Madonna in white marble, the sculptor and city architect Jean-Robert Calloigne created a Neoclassical version of Michelangelo’s Renaissance sculpture in the Church of Our Lady.
As well as works by the best-known Bruges Neoclassicists, in 2015 the Groeningemuseum also acquired a portrait by the most important Belgian representative of this art movement, François-Joseph Navez.
A woman poses in traditional clothing. Judging by her attire and jewellery, she was not lacking in status. This juvenile work by Odevaere is dated to 1808. As the winner of the Prix de Rome he was able to join the Académie de France in the city. During Suvée’s tenure this was moved to the Villa Medici, which can be seen in the background.
Odevaere won the Prix de Rome in 1804. On his return to his hometown he was given a festive welcome. Out of gratitude, he gave the academy this friendship portrait, a genre that was especially popular around 1800. The Director, Van der Donckt, points to a document concerning the celebrations. Seated next to him is the chairman, Wynckelman. The laureate himself is also present in the form of the self-portrait on the wall.
Like many Neoclassical canvases, this painting also depicts an ancient story. Belisarius, a general under the Emperor Justinian, was wrongly accused of treason. He was imprisoned and blinded. Belisarius’ wife collapses at the sight of her mutilated husband. Tiberius, the soldier on the left, will later prove Belisarius’ innocence and marry his daughter, Eudoxe, who is weeping as she cradles her dying mother.
Before explaining the tragedy that unfolds before us, we will first look at how the Bruges painter, François-Joseph Kinsoen, ‘composed’ this monumental canvas. It is a typical Neoclassical painting. Look at the beautifully balanced composition, with a tall, erect figure at the left and, on the right, three figures in a compact, triangular group. The background is sober, the lighting well-regulated and the emotions subdued. All this, despite the drama.
Like many Neoclassical paintings, this work also depicts a scene from antiquity. The old man is Belisarius, a general under Emperor Justinian, who was wrongly accused of treason and sent to prison. While there, he was blinded on the orders of the emperor. At his homecoming, Belisarius’ wife dies from grief at the sight of her mutilated husband. There are two witnesses to this family tragedy: their daughter Eudoxe, who is weeping, and the soldier on the left, Tiberius. He would later prove Belisarius’ innocence and marry Eudoxe. Kinsoen was familiar with this version of the classical tale through a popular 18th-century French novel.
Kinsoen undoubtedly also linked a moral to this story: Belisarius is what is known as an exemplum virtutis, an example of virtue. For despite the injustice done to him, he remains faithful to the emperor.
Kinsoen donated this work to the Bruges Academy, which is how it became part of the museum collection. He did so out of gratitude for his training.
This is a fine example of how the museum acquired its collection of Neoclassical art. If you haven’t listened to this story yet, you can do so now. Press the green button.
Kinsoen, who was born in Bruges, enjoyed a lucrative international career as a court and society painter. We are looking at the idealised, flattering portrait of the fashionably dressed opera singer Marie-Joséphine Lafont-Porcher. A member of the Parisian beau monde, she organised literary salons and travelled throughout Europe with her husband, the violinist Charles-Philippe Lafont. The pince-nez in her hand lends her an intellectual cachet.
This fashionably dressed Parisian opera singer belonged to the beau monde of her day: her name was Marie-Joséphine Lafont-Porcher. She travelled throughout Europe together with her husband, the violinist Charles-Philippe Lafont, and hosted literary salons. She welcomed the stars of the Parisian art world to these gatherings, such as the writers François-René de Chateaubriand and Alexandre Dumas. The latter described her in the following words:
“She is a beautiful brunette, with black, eloquent eyes and supple black hair. Add to this her ravishing smile, the most gracious hands in the world and a spirit that is both distinguished and friendly.”
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The pince-nez in the singer’s hand lends her an air of intellectual cachet.
François-Joseph Kinsoen, who was born in Bruges, established a profitable international career as a court and society painter. His portraits were immensely popular with aristocrats and wealthy citizens. They adored these kinds of idealised, flattering and romanticized depictions. The lucrative portrait genre flourished during the 19th century.
Kinsoen was also known for his unparalleled skill in rendering fabrics. This painting shows you why. He reached the pinnacle of his profession in France: Kinsoen became the portrait painter of the Bonaparte family and Louis XVIII, amongst others.
Kinsoen’s flattering portraits were much appreciated by the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. In this family portrait, he shows himself to be highly skilled in the realistic depiction of luxurious fabrics such as velvet, silk and cashmere, as well as the play of light.
Ducq was the court painter to King William I. This work depicts the Governor of East Flanders: Baron Charles-Louis de Keverberg de Kessel. He was fifty years old at the time and had just married the Englishwoman Mary Lodge, aged twenty-four, who is dressed in the height of fashion. The book in her hand was written by her new husband: the first monograph on Hans Memling.
Joseph Ducq is another painter who trained at the Bruges Academy and enjoyed a distinguished career. Among other achievements, he was the court painter of William I, King of the Netherlands, from 1815 to 1830.
This is the Dutch Baron, Charles-Louis de Keverberg de Kessel, a man in his fifties who became the governor of East Flanders under King William I. This was just one of his many roles. He is depicted with his new wife, the British-born Mary Lodge, aged 24, who is dressed in the height of fashion. They met one another in Bruges. He is probably standing in his office, while she is sitting outside in a colonnade. The surroundings radiate prestige and prosperity.
Behind Mary, we see a rolling English landscape with a country house and the ruins of a castle. The curtain behind Charles-Louis, which is drawn back, reveals a niche containing a statue of the Greek goddess of grain and fertility: Demeter.
Mary is holding a copy of the book that her husband published in 1818, the year this wedding portrait was painted: the first monograph on the German-Bruges painter Hans Memling! The Baron was also committed to the restoration of the works by Memling in the Saint John’s Hospital in Bruges. He was a true pioneer: it would be many more years before there was any serious interest in the ‘rediscovery’ of the Flemish Primitives.
This naked youth with ivory skin and blonde curls corresponds to the Neoclassical ideal of beauty. It is Narcissus from Ovid’s classical tale Metamorphoses. Tired of hunting, he rests upon the shores of a lake. In love with his own reflection, he lingers by the water while his greyhound gently licks his leg.
In this history painting, Odevaere finds his subject in the events of the day: the Greek struggle for independence against the Ottoman rulers. He portrays a contemporary hero: Lord Byron. The celebrated romantic poet and adventurer travelled to Greece as a civilian volunteer in 1823, where he died just under a year later after succumbing to a fever.
Joseph-Denis Odevaere belongs to the group of successful Bruges painters who trained at the city’s Academy. Upon graduating, they would complete an apprenticeship in Paris with the Bruges-born artist, Joseph-Benoît Suvée. Many of these artists forged international careers. Like Odevaere, they tended to specialize in two genres: portraits, for which they were well paid, and history paintings: these are works depicting historical, biblical or mythological narratives.
This canvas contains a political message. A man reclines on a day bed, the style of which appears to be ancient Greek. He wears a laurel wreath and his limp arm rests upon a lyre with broken strings. This can only be a deceased poet. An oil lamp emits a ghostly glow. At the top right, antique ruins are bathed in moonlight and, on the far right, there is a statue on a pedestal with the Greek word for Freedom: Eleutheria. A sword lies below. The dead poet is connected, therefore, to Greece, to freedom and combat.
We are looking at the British poet, Lord Byron, on his deathbed. Byron travelled to Greece in 1823 as a volunteer in support of the popular uprising against the Ottoman rulers. Barely a year later, after contracting a fever, he died in Mesolongi, the city seen in the background. Byron was only thirty-six years old. The titles of eight of his books are painted along the edge of the bed.
Joseph-Denis Odevaere created this work less than two years after Byron’s death. Over a period of five years, he painted eight canvases about the Greek struggle for independence. The cause gained political support throughout Europe, which only increased after Byron’s death.
Sylvie de la Rue, the artist’s niece, wears an opulent empire-style dress and holds her pug dog on her lap. With her flushed cheeks, she seems to be resting after a game of badminton. An unruly shuttlecock rolls across the floor. Sylvie married the painter Odevaere twelve years later, several of whose works can also be found in the Groeningemuseum collection.
Although Joseph-Denis Odevaere mainly concentrated upon history painting, he often ventured into the lucrative art of portraiture. This is evidenced by this rather informal portrait of a father and daughter. They seem to have just returned to their estate after a walk with their hunting dog. Notice the tender hand gesture between father and daughter.
Navez, who is Belgium’s most important representative of Neoclassicism, established his reputation as a portrait painter. In this work, he showcases his talent for depicting expensive dresses, costly jewellery and sophisticated hairstyles. Théodore-Joseph Jonet, a jurist and liberal politician, commissioned this family portrait just before the wedding of his eldest daughter, Juliette, who is seen wearing an engagement ring. Her sister Emilie, who is six years younger, stands behind her. Their mother, who had died in 1819, is absent from the depiction.
François-Joseph Navez is Belgium’s most important Neoclassical painter. He was apprenticed to Jacques-Louis David in Paris, the great French standard-bearer of this artistic style. This family portrait by Navez was acquired by the Groeningemuseum in 2015.
It was 1832 when the fifty-year-old jurist and liberal politician, Théodore-Joseph Jonet, decided to commission a portrait with his two daughters. It was painted just before the marriage of his eldest daughter, Juliette. She is wearing her engagement ring. Standing behind is her sister, Emilie, who was six years her junior. At the time of painting, Jonet’s wife, and the mother of the two young women, had already been dead for thirteen years.
The two women are exquisitely dressed: they wear opulent gowns and precious jewels, and their hairstyles are sophisticated. Father and daughters are depicted outdoors, in front of an indefinable landscape and, most importantly of all, a vast blue sky. Navez would often use this kind of setting in his portraits. It allowed him to use bold colour combinations.
While Navez principally earned his living from painting portraits, his preference was for history paintings that told a story. Nevertheless, he became primarily known as Belgium’s greatest portrait painter.
Calloigne, the Bruges-born sculptor and city architect, carved this Neoclassical version of Michelangelo’s Madonna in the Church of Our Lady from a single block of marble. In addition to its striking resemblance to the Renaissance sculpture, Calloigne’s version betrays a warm interaction between mother and child that is lacking in Michelangelo’s work. Calloigne is also known as the architect of the Vismarkt (Fish Market) in Bruges.
The Bruges artist and architect, Jean-Robert Calloigne, did not have to travel far to find inspiration for this Madonna in white marble, a magnificent sculpture that took him ten years to carve. For over 500 years now, Calloigne’s birthplace has been the home to the model for this and many other marble Madonnas: a sculpture by Michelangelo. The statue can be seen in the nearby Church of Our Lady. The similarities between the two works are striking.
And yet Calloigne created his own 19th-century Neoclassical version of the Madonna: cool, somewhat static and tender in equal measure. Michelangelo’s work is missing the warm interaction between mother and child. Notice how Calloigne’s Madonna inclines her head to gaze tenderly at Jesus.
Calloigne was more than just a sculptor. As the city architect for Bruges, he was also able to build in the Neoclassical style. Calloigne designed, among other things, the nearby Fish Market.