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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Emile Claus

The Beet Harvest, 1890, Emile Claus
(Unlike most of his others, this one was quite massive in size.)
Emile Claus, Self-portrait, 1873
There is today the misconception among many painters that in order to gain notice and be successful they need to create grand paintings on a grand scale. There's nothing really new about this, artists have been doing it since Michelangelo first climbed up the scaffolding in Julius II's private chapel. Of course, it worked for Michelangelo, and I suppose, there was a time for a few centuries thereafter when there may have been an element of truth in such an assumption. Today, such egomaniacal scale simply isn't necessary nor necessarily desirable. Just look at what had happened to the size and scope of museums of contemporary art. Today, if an artist painted a 747, they could probably find room for it. That might be a slight exaggeration but in visiting a contemporary art wing of LACMA in Los Angeles, I stepped onto a passenger elevator big enough to hoist a car. An artist such as Emile Claus probably wouldn't get very far today.
Poverty, (no date), Emil Claus--something he knew well and strove to avoid.

The Cockfight, 1890, Emile Claus
Emile Claus did not paint many gigantic museum pieces. Most were modest sized canvases most of us could find a place for on our living room walls. Likewise, his content was not in any way controversial nor high minded, but simple portraits, genre, and landscapes. There were no religious pieces, no Greek mythology, no indecipherable allegories. He was, in every way, a pretty down-to-earth fellow. Like many young men of his day (he was born in 1849) he had to struggle to become an artist. His father, a grocer, was more than willing to pay for drawing lessons for his young son at the local art school. And even though he graduated with a gold medal, the elder Claus balked at any thought that his teenage son should attend the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts in his native Belgium. Instead, he insisted the boy train as a baker, and later, as the boy rebelled, as a railway clerk.
On the Way to School, Emile Claus. The artist claimed to have walked
three kilometers to school each day (probably up hill both ways).
Claus in his studio (after 1900).
Young Claus was nothing if not persistent (stubborn?). He enlisted the aid of a professional artist friend of the family, Peter Benoit, to help his persuade his father to allow him to further his studies in art. With no small amount of reluctance, his father agreed, provided the boy pay his own way. Whether he thought that would deter his son or not, it didn't. He learned to paint, graduated, then set up his studio in Antwerp, apparently doing quite well for himself. By the time he was thirty-four, he could afford to buy a house on the coast where he lived, worked, and spent the rest of his life, dying there in 1924 at the age of seventy-five.

Ice Birds, 1890, Emile Claus (my favorite of all his paintings).
Lady in the Garden, 1924,
one of Claus' final paintings.
Every major artist creates during his lifetime one or two works deemed by art historians to be critical masterpieces. Claus' came in 1890, his The Beet Harvest (top). It's important in that it provides a starting point from which we can watch as the man's style and content evolved in the ensuing years. It is unabashedly an example of academic Realism. All his painting above were from this period. Although not what we'd today consider wealthy, Claus was sufficiently well-off as a result of his portraits and teaching to allow him to travel broadly all over Europe wherever his paintings were being exhibited. It was also sufficient to attract the attention and life-long devotion of an attractive female student, Jenny Montigny, who was twenty-six years younger than he. Claus' success and travels allowed him to meet and learn from French artists such as Auguste Rodin, Emile Zola, and Claude Monet. Primarily he was influenced by Monet to the point he took up Impressionism (long after it was fashionable to do so), even going so far as to imitate his new-found idol almost to the point that his work might easily be mistaken for Monet's.

Haystacks in the Snow, (after 1900), Emile Claus--Monet-ish.

Waterloo Bridge, 1918, Emile Claus
Then, in 1914, amid his international success, the war came and Claus and his young artist companion fled to London where he took to painting the city impressionistically just as Monet had done in 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War came to his doorstep. Here we can see Claus' evolution, his versatility, or some my say his inconsistency of style. His paintings of London's Waterloo Bridge (below) vary a great deal from only slightly impressionist to near abstraction. His Waterloo Bridge in the Sun (below) from around 1917 appears more like the work of the English painter, John Constable, than that of Claude Monet. However his Waterloo Bridge (right), dating from 1918, is pure Monet, perhaps even beyond Impressionism to a James McNeill Whistler type bridge.

Waterloo Bridge in the Sun, ca. 1917, Emile Claus
Water Lily, Emile Claus.
After the war, Claus returned home to his house by the sea in Belgium only to realize what many artists have discovered after a few years of absence, that fame is fleeting. The era of Modern Art had begun in earnest. His signature Luminism style was all but forgotten. Picasso was "in." Claude Monet was "out." Impressionism was seen as old fashioned, and the Surrealism of his fellow young countryman, Rene Magritte left him totally mystified. After a 1921 "last hurrah" show in Brussels, Claus died at his home in Astene, muttering the words, “Bloemen, bloemen, bloemen…” (flowers, flowers, flowers.)

Cows crossing the Leie, 1899, Emile Claus
--a riot of color and activity flirting with Impressionism. 


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