The Belgian Blake: Alexander Adams visits two little-known artist-museums in Brussels, the Musées Wiertz and Meunier

The house-museums of two Belgian masters of the 19th Century shed light on artistic and social concerns of the era. As case studies they exemplify dominant thematic trends in both halves of that century – Romanticism in the first half and Realism in the second.

Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865) was born to an impoverished family in Dinant, Wallonia (later Belgium). After studying at Antwerp Art Academy,

he won the
(Belgian) Prix de Rome at a second try, in


1832.  His grand manner was Romantic and painterly, derived from Rubens. His subjects anticipate those of the Symbolists. Though Wiertz made his name with historical and religious compositions, the allegories and  (often gruesome) scenes of contemporary life are his most distinctive contributions to art.

In 1850, partly in order to establish Belgian art as independent
of French influence (led by the School of David; J-L David (1714-1825) spent his last years in

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Brussels) the newly formed state agreed to build a studio and dwelling for the benefit of Wiertz, the first truly “Belgian” artist. The initial agreement was that the
artist would donate works to the state but it seems Wiertz early on had the
idea of turning the studio into a permanent museum. The

government drew the line at Wiertz’s proposal to fund the construction of a ruined temple in the studio grounds. Upon the artist’s death the combined house and studio became possessions of the
state. Both building and grounds have remained unchanged since 1868, now a fragment of a lost age lodged under /* xin2 */ the glass towers of the European Parliament.

Photographs leave one unprepared for the vast scale of the studio and its contents. The studio is 35m


long, 15m wide and 16m high, accommodating gargantuan canvases almost as tall and wide as the walls. Subjects are suitably grand: the fall of the rebel angels, Christ triumphant, Homeric scenes.
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The paintings offer a serious challenge to conservators. Aside from the technical experimentation discussed later, their size presents difficulties. google_ad_height = 90; Expanses of canvas bulge down from tilted frames, src="//"> unsupported from behind. Extensive restoration of Musée Wiertz (completed in 2009) involved reconstruction of the roof and repair of the walls, which have been returned to their original grey colour.

Wiertz: La Belle Rosine (Two Young Girls)

If you can find anything written about Wiertz, it is almost all negative. Novotny gives Wiertz three sentences in his Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1780-1880, the last being “His

wild-eyed hysteria is google_ad_width = 970; a mere caricature

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your Father? by WF Yeames in the Walker Art Gallery.)

Little work is at the level of La Belle Rosine, though there are other paintings worth attention. La Liseuse de Romans (The Novel Reader) (1853) has a recumbent female nude reading on a bed, unaware of the figure reaching towards a book beside her. The Devil’s Mirror (1856) adapts Goya’s Maja paintings, with one canvas showing a clothed woman at a mirror and the pendant with the woman unclothed, the Devil hidden behind

her mirror. A modest trompe l’oeil still-life painted when Wiertz was a student is skilfully designed and realised. There is a sensitive painting of the artist’s dog asleep on a chair.

Wiertz was a committed humanitarian and

campaigner for social reform. The Burnt Child was originally entitled If there were


Crêches and was inspired by a newspaper report of an unmarried mother who left her child by a fire to keep warm while she worked. When she returned she discovered the child burned. The Premature Burial (1854) shows a terrified man forcing open his own coffin marked “MORT DU //--> CHOLERA”. It is both a sensational scene of horror and social criticism of the not-infrequent phenomenon of premature interment of cholera victims. Doctors could be lax about distinguishing between death and coma. Some victims were regarded as hopeless cases and deliberately consigned to //--> the tomb while still alive.

The evidence of carved versions of Wiertz’s models suggests he was

an able sculptor. His Triumph of Light (1860-2) is said to have inspired Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty (1876/1886), though the resemblance seems coincidental.

To describe Wiertz as inconsistent is an understatement. His triptych of Christ in the Tomb (1839), with wing panels of female nudes, is badly misjudged. The

Suicide (1854) shows a man shooting himself in the head with a pistol. google_ad_height = 90; A praying attendant angel has closed her eyes, as well she might. There are many other pictures that prompt a
viewer to wonder “What could he have been thinking?” There
can hardly have been another artist who has failed and succeeded to such extreme degrees.

The depiction of a guillotining may have been well meant (the artist apparently attended a public execution and was appalled) but the result is incoherent and ineffective. Additionally, it is painted in Wiertz’s essence technique and has deteriorated appreciably. Noting the troublesome reflection from conventional varnished oil paintings, Wiertz devised a technique to combat sheen. He used essence, which is


oil paint with the binder largely extracted (usually done by allowing the oil medium to soak into an absorbent substance, such as blotting paper), mixing it with turpentine or a mineral thinner and applying it directly to unprimed flax. This technique effectively removed gloss but //--> over the years it has proved prone to fading. Worse still, the low proportion of binder to pigment has left the paint powdery. These src="//"> fragile paintings are not possible to frame or clean, google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; prohibitively expensive to restore and

​ now impossible to move.

Alongside criticisms of morbidity, hubris and sensationalism (all reasonable reproaches) is another charge, that of titillation. (A current guidebook mentions “saucy girls in a state of undress”.) This is more debatable. If one looks at the figures in question, there is less

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nudity than one finds in Rubens, the female anatomies are not entirely convincing and there is nothing overtly sexual in the poses, even for the period. It comes as no surprise to discover
Wiertz was homosexual


(or at least bisexual);

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an idea first publicly aired by the critic src="//"> Camille Lemonnier, who lived very close to the artist.

Drawings and small painted sketches are strongly reminiscent of Blake’s in their muscular Mannerism, though Wiertz understood anatomy google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; better. The two artists share many characteristics (ambition, stubbornness, independence, keen social conscience and admiration for Michelangelo), though at his best Wiertz is more than Blake’s

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equal in inventiveness, power and skill. On consideration, the