Today I will take you to an iconic Brussels building in a legendary district. The Palais des Beaux-Arts stands proudly opposite of the Cour des Comptes (Court of Audit) on rue de la Régence. This magnificent neo-classical building was erected in 1880 by Alphonse Balat, the architect of the Royal Greenhouses in Laeken. Nowadays, the institution is known as the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. This establishment includes various Brussels buildings with diverse collections; we can count the Old Masters Museum, the Magritte Museum, the Wiertz Museum and the Fin-de-Siècle Museum. The latter is the crown jewel of the Royal Museums, encompassing the artistic heritage of most of the 19th century, which opened to the public in 2013. The time has come to open the enormous doors of one of the most emblematic places in our capital.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium offers visitors art collections from the 19th and early 20th centuries. On several levels of the building, people can immerse in the different periods that marked the history of painting in Belgium. The art world observed the emergence of various trends outside the standards of beauty and academic criteria of the time. Some painters and poets even decided to form their artistic circle. These new ‘clubs’ included writers, sculptors, thinkers, and philosophers. Along its corridors, the Musée Fin-de-Siècle takes you back to discover Impressionism, Realism, Symbolism, Idealism, and Pointillism. In addition to the many paintings on display, the museum is full of decorative objects of great artistic value, such as collections of furniture, jewelry, and vases from the Art Nouveau period from all over Europe. The lovers of this style will recognize the works of architects Horta and Majorelle and decorators Gallé, Loetz Witwe, and Van de Velde.
At a particular corner, the beauty of colors has an overwhelming effect on visitors. There is also a unique painting in the collection of the Musée Fin-de-Siècle, which seems quite magical, even at first glance. A myriad of bluish, pink, and white hues blend and long, perfect white silhouettes seem to float on the sea from afar. And yet, only a walk is represented as a scene. The enchantment of a moment in the daily life of these ladies seems complete. The painter Théo Van Rysselberghe immerses us in a moment of relaxation while holidaying in Pas-de-Calais in France. The bourgeoisie enjoyed taking a stroll along the beaches, breathing fresh coastal air, and bathing in the sea during a seemingly windy day. The painting is striking for its duality. Each figure depicts vertically, while the landscape is represented only by horizontal lines. Three women look straight ahead; they seem distant and unconcerned with the viewer.
The fourth, on the contrary, is almost facing us and is holding her hat as if to greet us. The color green combines violet tones, white with light shades of blues, and navy blue with yellows and greys. The artist does not hesitate to add colors that do not correspond to the pink tones of the skin. Touches of green and blue add to create shadows. The more famous Vincent van Gogh also used this technique of juxtaposition of colors to create his portraits. Van Rysselberghe created many masterpieces with pointillism. This early 20th-century technique encourages the painter to place different colors side by side to create shapes. It is no longer necessary to mix colors to create a pictorial representation. The image appears distantly formed and structured by the different dots placed next to each other on the canvas. The brushstroke can vary according to the artist; round beads for some and more rectilinear strokes for others. The same play of colors can be found in different painting parts. The sea is composed of dominating greens, with the addition of pale pink and blue. The sand is made of the same tones in stronger shades with dominant pink colors. This kind of color combination also forms the features of the portrayed faces. The blues and whites form their outfits. The beauty of the mastery of this technique is that with a limited range of colors, Rysselberghe gives us a painting with clean, precise lines while simultaneously creating an intimate and magical setting.
Going further and moving to different art pieces, we can spot almost a divine apparition in the middle of the Garden of Eden. One could almost believe that the theme of this painting is the presence of an ancient goddess among mortals, looking at the luminosity emanating from this woman. This is simply the portrait of Jenny Montigny by Emile Claus. After seeing the painting, Les Martin-Pêcheurs (The Kingfishers) by Claus, Jenny Montigny decided to take painting courses in his studio in Astene near Deinze. She also studied outdoors with the master and spent a year as his apprentice. Emile and Jenny began a relationship, although the painter was 26 years older than her and married. Their relationship lasted until the death of the artist in 1924.
Jenny Montigny often exhibited her paintings at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. She also exhibited at the triennial salons in Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent. Emile Claus painted in a new style for the time that had its roots in the impressionists and luminism. This term is used to refer to very different categories of painters. The emphasis is on the play of light between direct and indirect sunlight, notably reflected on water, but also by creating a softer atmosphere. The effects of shadows are more present to amplify the brilliance of the light. His contemporaries would say that Claus painted Flanders that had not yet been seen in a painting. The variation of his brushstrokes on the canvas brings life and takes us into a colorful reality. One can say that the life portrayed in the images of Emile Claus is sweet and delightful. We are bathed in sunlight. The rays illuminate the compositions, whether in summer or winter. The natural countryside and farm work inspired Claus throughout his career. In Ghent, one can also find many of his works in the MSK (Museum voor Schone Kunsten).
At the end of the 19th century, Brussels was the center of the avant-garde. Many artists, rejected at the official Paris Salon, came to exhibit in Belgium. The country was thirsty for new talent. It was in the Palais des Beaux-Arts that the Group of XX welcomed foreign artists such as Monet, Gauguin, Rodin, and van Gogh. At that time, new artists exhibit first in Belgium to evaluate the critics before going to the Parisian salons. Brussels became a significant center of the art market. The XX group sought to develop the arts. The young Belgian state was in search of a visual identity. The architects copied the old and well-known. The streets were full of neo-classical, neo-gothic, and Flemish neo-renaissance houses. This group, therefore, wanted a change. During industrialization, Belgium began experiencing unprecedented social upheaval. The search for light was important for artists such as James Ensor, Fernand Khnopff, and Théo Van Rysselberghe. The contrast with the darkness of the coal mines in the Borinage is strong. The group organized conferences, exhibitions, and concerts. Magazines were also published, expressing new thoughts. There was no hesitation in questioning the established order, criticizing society, and proposing modern and much more humane solutions. In 1893, the XX gave way to the Libre Esthétique, which paid increased attention to the decorative arts and Art Nouveau.
One can only lament the absence of any exterior signage for this museum, which is not on the street. Indeed, the Fin-de-Siècle part is almost hidden. You must go through the main entrance of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to get to the Great Exhibition Hall and then follow various staircases that lead you to the basement of the building. Only there, we almost feel like saying, “finally,” we find the wing we had been looking for: the Fin-de-Siècle Museum. Sadly, a renovation was not well orchestrated in 2013. There is little natural light due to the lack of windows, making the setting less attractive. The inner courtyard of the Palace of Charles of Lorraine had also been knocked down to accommodate the project. We can understand that the institution suffers cruelly from a lack of space. Perhaps it would have been preferable to rehabilitate the old building, which could have revitalised certain districts that were losing momentum economically and culturally. Given its size, I have always thought the Palais de Justice (Justice Court House) could also host various museums. Its large volumes would be an asset for creating new exhibition rooms. In the meantime, anyone passing through Brussels can discover the wonders of the Musée Fin-de-Siècle at 3, rue de la Régence.