Developments in the 19th Century


Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map




Belgium and the Netherlands

(Between Romanticism and Expressionism)





C o n t e n t s:
The Great Upheaval
Great Britain and the United States
Belgium and the Netherlands
German - speaking Countries and Scandinavia
The Slav Countries
The Mediterranean Countries



Felicien Rops
Fernand Khnopff
Henry De Groux
Xavier Mellery
Emile Fabry
Jean Delville
Georges Minne
Degouve de Nuncques
Leon Frederic
Leon Spilliaert
Constant Montald
Jan Toorop
Johan Thorn-Prikker
Richard Roland Holst

Belgium and the Netherlands



Belgium became an independent state in 1830, and during the half-century that concerns us here was a crossroads of commerce and culture. The French language spoken in one part of the country favoured ties with France, but Belgium was also receptive to the influence of Germany and Britain. Between 1860 and 1914, the country enjoyed unprecedented industrial and economic development, significantly aided by King Leopold II's creation of a state in the Congo basin (it was founded in 1878 and remained his private property until 1У0У). This influx of wealth helps to explain the sudden development of the arts in Belgium.

Culturally and socially, the country had not followed the same path as France, its closest neighbour. Historical circumstance, notably the fifteen year period after Waterloo when it was part of the predominantly Calvinist and Dutch-speaking Netherlands, had enhanced the importance of Catholicism among all social classes. These economic and socio-cultural factors clearly affected the development of Belgian art of the period and in particular the solitary and exalted mood characteristic of Belgian Symbolism. Another factor was a wealthy and hospitable bourgeoisie, which took an active interest in literature and music. All this created an environment favourable to Symbolist art.

Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865) was an artist of uneven quality who nevertheless contrived, with the financial assistance of the Belgian government, to build himself a studio in the shape of a Greek temple; it now houses his Museum. Wiertz embodies the transition from Romanticism to Symbolism. The Beautiful Rosine (1847) is academic in technique but of a conception unusual for its time; the subject of death and the maiden had, of course, often been treated by German artists of the 16th century. It depicts a buxom nude gazing placidly at a skeleton whose skull is labelled with the work's title. The "Beautiful Rosine" is not the woman we thought she was. Wiertz's work affords amusing insights into contemporary attitudes. The devil attending The Novel Reader (1853) speeds her on the way to perdition with nothing more nefarious than the novels of Alexandre Dumas.

Somewhat surprisingly, the same subject was also dealt with by the witty and cynical Felicien Rops (1833-1898) in an 1878-1880 water-colour entitled The Librarian, though no author is singled out for election by the devil. Rops was an astonishing virtuoso graphic artist who exploited some of the commonplaces of the Symbolist repertoire with detachment and theatrical flair.

Antoine Wiertz

(see collection)

Antoine Wiertz
The Novel Reader

Antoine Wiertz
The Beautiful Rosine

Somewhat surprisingly, the same subject was also dealt with by the witty and cynical Felicien Rops (1833-1898) in an 1878-1880 water-colour entitled The Librarian, though no author is singled out for election by the devil. Rops was an astonishing virtuoso graphic artist who exploited some of the commonplaces of the Symbolist repertoire with detachment and theatrical flair.

 He began his career in quite different vein, producing caricatures and humorous drawings for d satirical weekly Uylenspiegel, which he founded in 1856. Thereaftt like a great cinéaste, he sensed the drift of the cliches of his times and played upon them in masterly fashion. One constant in his work thus Woman, Death and the Devil, a theme that he handles with exuberantly provocative irony. On occasion the theme was imposed, in his illustrations for books such as Barbey d'Aurevilly's Les Diaboliques. More often it derives from his own imagination, as in Death at the Ball (1865-1875), which he began at about the time
Gustaves  Moreau was painting his Oedipus and the Sphinx. Rops here shew grater formal inventiveness than Moreau, seven years his senior; he might be said to anticipate Expressionism. His The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Pornokrates (both 1878) are similarly original conceptions.
Discussing Pornokrates in a letter to Rops, the Brussels lawyer and novelist Edmond Picard, who owned the work, spoke of "the feminine being (I'etre feminin) who dominates our age and is so amazingly different from her ancestors..." The phrase is conventional, but the very recurrence of cliches is what makes them significant. Rops also pandered to public demand by exploiting the cliches of his day, and it is a pleasure to watch his keen wit at work. Full of derision, his work also bears the imprint of that immense facility which, by his own admission, prevented him from reaching the heights in his chosen art form.

Felicien Rops
(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born July 7, 1833, Namur, Belg. died Aug. 22, 1898, Essonnes, France

Belgian painter and graphic artist remembered primarily for his prints.
Rops attended the University of Brussels. His early work on student periodicals attracted the attention of publishers, and he began to produce illustrations, contributing some of his finest lithographs to the satirical journal Uylenspiegel in 1859–60. About 1860 he went to Paris, where he worked in the studio of Henri-Alfred Jacquemart. Returning to Brussels, he founded the short-lived International Society of Etchers. In 1865 he produced his famous “Absinthe Drinker” and in 1871 “Lady with the Puppet.”
After 1874 Rops lived in Paris, where he became a friend of the poet Charles Baudelaire. Devoting himself principally to illustrating books, he also published Cent croquis pour réjouir les honnêtes gens (“One Hundred Sketches to DelightSolid Citizens”). Among his notable book illustrations are those for Légendes flamandes (“Flemish Legends”), by C. de Coster; Jeune France (“Young France”), by Théophile Gautier; Les Diaboliques (Weird Women), by Barbey d'Aurevilly; Zadig, by Voltaire; and the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé. He joined the revolutionary art society of Les Vingt formed at Brussels in 1884.
Many of Rops's etchings are erotic or pornographic in tone and depict an imaginary underworld or subjects of social decadence. Despite his peculiarities, Rops was a printmaker of brilliant technique and original content whose handling of dry point (etching directly on the plate) marks him as one of the masters of the medium. He was also one of the first modern etchers to revive the neglected medium of soft-ground etching, in which the etching ground is melted into and mixed with tallow, producing the effect of lines drawn with a soft pencil or chalk.

Felicien Rops "Pornocratie"

(see collection)


"My Pornocratie is complete. This drawing delights me. I would like to show you this beautiful naked girl, clad only in black shoes and gloves in silk, leather and velvet, her hair styled. Wearing a blindfold she walks on a marble stage, guided by a pig with a "golden tail" across a blue sky. Three loves - ancient loves - vanish in tears. I did this in four days in a room of blue satin, in an overheated apartment, full of different smells, where the opopanax and cyclamen gave me a slight fever conducive towards production or even towards reproduction".
"Each time autumn arrives with its austere intoxications, I suffer as if every hope that I carry within me and which are the same as those that illuminated my twentieth year were going to expire forever along with the dead leaves. I am afraid of being old and of no longer being able to inspire love in a woman, which is a true death for a man of my nature and with my needs for madness of mind and body."

                                                                                         Felicien Rops




Felicien Rops
The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Pornokrates

Felicien Rops



The father of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) was an Austrian aristocrat who chose to reside in Belgium and was appointed Deputy Prosecutor of Bruges. As a result, Khnopff spent the first seven years of his life in that sublime but stagnant city; it appears in transfigured form in a number of his works. Khnopff carefully moulded his public persona, becoming a prize specimen of the dandy. He was not without wit and simultaneously pursued the profession of society portraitist. Around 1900, like des Esseintes, he drew up plans for a villa of geometrical lines and had it built for himself. Unfortunately, it has not survived. His motto, "on n'a que soi" ("one has only oneself"), made a principle of his overt narcissism. Khnopff showed his work at the Rose+Croix Salon at the invitation of Sar Peladan but his greatest triumph came when he exhibited at the Vienna Secession in 1898. Reacting to one such exhibition, the critic Felix Feneon singled him out for criticism: "M. Fernand Khnopff and a good number of his fellow exhibitors cannot be made to grasp the fact that a painting should first and foremost seduce by its rhythms, that a painter shows excessive humility in choosing subjects rich in literary meaning, that three pears on a table cloth by Paul Cezanne are moving and sometimes mystical, and that, when they paint it, the Wagnerian Valhalla is no more interesting than the House of Representatives." The parallel with Odilon Redon's self-imposed strictures is clear.



Fernand Khnopff
Study of Woman

Fernand Khnopff
Study of Woman
All these women - like the panther-woman of The Caresses - share a characteristic of Khnopff's art: a heavy and rather masculine jaw. This is one aspect of a tendency in Symbolist art to blur the differences between the sexes and create a universal androgyny.



 Fernand Khnopff (with Josephin Paladan)

Fernand Khnopff
The Secret

Photograph of Marguerite Khnopff, the model for The Secret.


Fernand Khnopff

(see collection)


Fernand Khnopff


Though Khnopff indulged in the academic cliches of the age, in certain works he transcended them and showed real formal invention. One such work is Memories, a large pastel dating from 1889. Khnopff's superlative technique is central to the ambiguous charm of this painting. The model for all seven figure was Marguerite Khnopff, the artist's sister. Photographs often served Khnopff as studies for his paintings; Memories shows almost photographic precision of technique. Anticipating certain of today's mixed-media trends, Khnopff also retouched his own photos.


These photos, which formed the basis for Memories, were taken by Khnopff himself with a technically sophisticated camera containing a
lens by Steinhel of Munich. Khnopff was in love with his sister and attached great importance to the fabrics (often embellished with gold)
in which he dressed her for photo sessions in which he himself determined her poses.

It has been said that he was in love with his sister; she perhaps became a second self within the hermetic bubble of his narcissism. This identification might also account for the androgynous ambiguity of a number of the women he painted; these are generally endowed with too large a chin to seem entirely feminine. Such is the case with the painting known variously as Art, or The Sphinx, or The Caresses (1896)


Fernand Khnopff
The Abandoned Town

We are set before a scenic square in Bruges; no sign of life is apparent. Even the statue has been removed from the pedestal. Under a pale brown sky, the rising waters of the sea seep relentlessly across the square, covering the cobblestones with their serene invasion. The spectator thus becomes the sole witness of the "end of the world". Bruges stands for the decadence of a modern society which, at the height of its economic power, was destined for military and cultural disaster.
The two faces revealed by the artist's meticulously academic technique, the panther with a woman's head and the youth leaning on his winged stick, his gaze lost in the distance, are typical of the way the artist handles features and expressions. One is initially struck by the portentous tone of the work, but it is the rapt absorption of the two faces placed cheek-to-cheek that continues to haunt the eye.
The title of I Lock my Door upon Myself (1891) is a quotation from a poem by Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's sister; the painting expresses an indulgent pleasure in solitude, visible in the dreamy self-absorption of the woman and the labyrinthine setting over which presides a bust of Hypnos, the god of sleep. The composition, with its arrangement of horizontal and diagonal lines carefully centered around the pale gaze of the young woman, is a perfect embodiment of the claustrophobic mood typical of much Symbolist work.
Another painting by Khnopff anticipates the kind of world's end fantasy that the cinema so readily exploits. In The Abandoned Town (1904), the effect is the more telling because the scene is silent and contemplative. We are set before a scenic square in Bruges; no sign of life is apparent. Even the statue has been removed from the pedestal. Under a pale brown sky, the rising waters of the sea seep relentlessly across the square, covering the cobblestones with their serene invasion. The spectator thus becomes the sole witness of the "end of the world". Bruges here assumes symbolic status. The city that had died to trade at the end of the 16th century under the joint effect of a hostile political power and the silting up of the River Zwyn now stands for the decadence of a modern society which, at the height of its economic power, was indeed destined for military and cultural disaster.



James Ensor

(see collection)


James Ensor
Christ's Entry into Brussels

This huge canvas is one Ensor's masterpieces. The artist identifies with Christ,
who is here given a rowdy triumph utterrly at odds with all that he represents.


 James Ensor (1860-1949) is too potent and fertile an artist to fit the categories available to theory. He clearly belongs among the Symbolists, but rather after the fashion of the poet Jules Laforgue. Both Ensor and Laforgue use their powers of derision to unmask and disintegrate the threadbare, skeletal shibboleths revered by their more solemn and blinkered colleagues.
Born in Ostend, the son of an English father and a Belgian mother,
James Ensor received a hostile reception not only from the critics but also from his own supposedly avant-garde colleagues. He escaped expulsion from the Salon des XX in 1889 by a single vote - his own. It was around 1900, when he was past forty, that Ensor finally won the recognition until then denied him. He was awarded the title of Baron, but his belated success had an unexpected consequence: Ensor's inspiration ran dry and the man survived the artist.
By a strange coincidence,
Ensor had the same childhood experience as Leonardo da Vinci: a large black bird flew in through the window and settled on the crib of the terrified child.

Ensor's shopkeeping parents sold toys, articles for the beach, souvenirs and carnival masks. It is these masks, along with sardonic and insolent skeletons, that provide the dominant theme of Ensor's work. The ferocious sarcasm of his paintings, drawings and prints is, however, balanced by the pathos of his tragic representations of a Christ who figures as the artist's alter ego.
This identification, also to be found in the work of
Paul Gauguin and Henry de Groux, may appear excessive if not indeed blasphemous. It is no doubt meant to assert the artist's singularity. But it also touches upon a rather less obvious psychological process. It is something of a commonplace to note that the ego is not fully formed at birth. It takes shape throughout childhood, moulded by the sometimes painful conflict between the anarchy of the drives on the one hand and the sometimes intolerable demands of the cultural ideal on the other. An ego that struggles to conform to accepted norms and is thus led, as artists often are, to take some other, less familiar route, may be tempted to regard itself as both hero and victim. This is why Christ's final triumph, the triumph of the "stone rejected by the builders and which is become the corner stone," stands as the model of a victory accomplished by sacrifice and voluntary suffering.

Ensor's paintings, Christ's persecutors wear the features of the critics who attacked his work - names saved from oblivion only by the artist's resentment. But even the ultimate triumph of the painter-as-Christ, Ensor's colossal Christ's Entry into Brussels, is a hollow one. His diminutive, mild-featured Christ seems frail and isolated, overborne by a tide of brutal masks and rampant vulgarity. This may, in part, explain Ensor's reaction to his eventual success. He had sought the kind of sensitive acknowledgement that his work commands today, and received in its stead formal honours and unthinking accolades.
Ensor's startling palette and formal invention combine with his irony to remove him from the scope of contemporary stereotypes. No reproduction can do his colours justice, and the reader leafing through this book should bear in mind that Ensor's work needs more than most to be encountered face to face.

The work of Xavier Mellery (1845-1921) divides into two categories: a delicate, domestic world of some charm, and mural art of predictable allegorical content. Fernand Khnopff
chose Mellery as his teacher, and The Abandoned Town might be considered a dreamlike transposition of the silent, shadowy scenes that feature in the best of Mellery's work.
The aspirations and ima
ginative powers of Henry de Groux (1867-1930) were clearly greater than his technical ability. He was a notably difficult character, a fact he despairingly acknowledged in his diary: "It is my destiny to compromise everything." His art nevertheless elicited a favourable reaction from Guillaume Apollinaire and an enthusiastic one from Léon Bloy.

The latter hailed him as a prophet after seeing the Mocking of Christ (1887), which de Groux had painted at the age of twenty-one. The painting is comparable in its overblown rhetoric to the films of Abel Gance: a convulsive mass of human bodies engulfs the figure of Christ - whose appearance is modelled on that of the artist himself. The prophetic nature of his Great Upheaval has already been discussed; it does indeed convey in naive form, the sense of "world's end" that is more articulately set forth in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.


Xavier Mellery

(see collection)

Xavier Mellery
The Hours, or ternity and Death


Xavier Mellery

De Groux

(b St-Josse-ten-Noode, nr Brussels, 16 Nov 1866; d Marseille, 12 Jan 1930).

Painter, pastellist and lithographer, son of Charles De Groux. He studied under Jean-François Portaels from the age of 11 and at the Académie de Bruxelles (1882–3). Until 1890 he participated in exhibitions organized by the avant-garde circles La Chrysalide, L’Essor and Les XX, of which he was a member. He was a close friend of William Degouve de Nuncques, in whose studio he executed the frieze Procession of Archers (pastel, 1886–90; Belgium, priv. col.), first exhibited at Les XX in 1887 and 1889, and the Mocking of Christ (1889; Avignon, Pal. Roure), to which he gave his friend’s features. Masses of tangled bodies with crazed expressions haunt his considerable oeuvre, marked by literary symbolism and by a tendency towards depicting such renowned figures as Christ, Napoleon and Wagner.


Henry de Groux

Henry de Groux
Great Upheaval


Henry de Groux
The Death of Siegfried


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