In around 1850, the landscape genre underwent an important evolution. Artists stepped out into the natural world with their easels and tubes of paint and worked en plein air, in the open air. Pleinairism was chiefly practiced in France, by the Barbizon School. Between 1830 and 1860, a number of Paris-based artists settled around Barbizon and the nearby Fontainebleau forest. In Belgium, Théodore Fourmois was the first pleinairist landscape painter.
Following the example of the Barbizon School, several regional landscape schools emerged in Belgium. The most prominent of these was the Tervuren School, which included Hippolyte Boulenger, Alphonse Asselbergs and Théodore Coosemans. They focused on romantic and dramatic depictions of the natural environment.
Artists became increasingly aware of the changing aspects of nature and their technique became ever more schematic. Emile Claus garnered great success with his variation on Impressionism, Luminism, in which sunlight plays the leading role.
In line with the Barbizon painters in France, Théodore Fourmois took a distance from the idealised, academic landscape. Above all, he tried to get to grips with the spectacle of light and atmosphere. The small oil study of the watermill in Voreppe in the French region of Dauphiné was probably painted in situ. The canvas could easily be stored in a painter’s box. He completed the larger version in his studio. The landscape was gently idealised and populated with cows, a shepherdess and several other figures.
Alphonse Asselbergs painted this canvas during his stay at Barbizon. It depicts La Mare aux Fées, a pool surrounded by several trees. Located on the edge of the mythical Fontainebleau forest, the site has inspired many artists. This wistful landscape is not only a striking example of nature observation, but also an expression of the artist’s melancholy character.
In the 1870s, Coosemans travelled to the Campine region in Limburg to capture its desolate landscape on canvas. Like many Belgian Romantic Realist landscape painters, he had a predilection for gloomy weather conditions. The majority of this canvas is taken up by the threatening, stormy sky. Breaking through the grey blanket of clouds, however, we already see rays of sun which illuminate a series of small farms and a village in a swampy meadow landscape with pollard willows.
Country life beside the River Lys is the dominant theme in Emile Claus’ oeuvre. His landscapes are bathed in sunlight and are usually populated; here by a young woman and child, and a man in a boat. The figures in the foreground, are backlit, which blurs their silhouettes and renders them at one with the landscape. Claus used the wild vegetation, painted in a loose, Impressionistic style, as a repoussoir.
Colourful rural life on the banks of the River Leie, and a countryside bathed in sunlight: this is the theme adopted by the popular painter Emile Claus. Created around 1885, The River Leie at Astene is one of his early works. Claus had previously spent time in Spain and North Africa, where he was captivated by the southern light. A few years later, he would see works by the French Impressionists in Paris, including paintings by Monet. From that point onwards, Claus was influenced by their ideas about light playing the dominant role in painting.
This is also a work in which the atmosphere is determined by the light. We are in Astene, a village near Deinze, between Ghent and Kortrijk, on the banks of the River Leie. Claus had already spent several summers in the village but moved there permanently in 1886, a year after painting this work. He resided in an old country house called Villa Sunshine, which became a meeting place for artists.
Thistles grow on the banks of the Leie, and Claus uses them in the foreground of his composition. He paints them with loose brushstrokes. As is typical of his work, the landscape contains people, in this instance a young woman and a child. In the background, we see yet another figure: a man with a boat. The woman and child are lit from behind and perfectly integrated into the landscape.
Through the use of figures, Claus brings a ‘narrative’ aspect to his landscapes. This preference for story-telling and realism is a recognizable characteristic of many Belgian paintings. It is also true of Claus’ Impressionism. His own variant of this artistic movement, of which he became the most important protagonist, even has its own name: Luminism, after the Latin word for ‘light’, lumen.
From 1895 to 1898, Valerius De Saedeleer lived in Lissewege, an idyllic village near Bruges. In this impressionistic village scene, women in hooded cloaks walk beside a small canal and the typical whitewashed houses. Thanks to the vertical format, our attention is especially drawn to the blue sky with cumulus clouds and the reflection in the water.
After a Realistic debut, Emmanuel Viérin gravitated towards Luminism in around 1890. His works exude a sense of peace and quiet. Here, the medieval abbey barn of Ter Doest in Lissewege is bathed in the light of the setting sun. The subdued colour palette enhances the muted poetry of this work, in which as much attention is paid to the reflection as to the subject. A side note: the painter is the older brother of the architect of this museum, Joseph Viérin.