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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Jan van Beers

The Funeral of Charles the Good, 1876, Jan van Beers.                              
(Parts of the painting are missing on each end.)                            
Jan van Beers ca. 1880s.
Yesterday I wrote regarding the "weird" 16th-Century Italian painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (the item directly below). Today, I'm here to point out that the 16-century by no means had a monopoly on weird artists or their weird art. I suppose it wouldn't be going too far astray to suggests that nearly all artists are weird in some respects. I know I am. I don't like to sweat. I'm adverse to physical labor. I'm getting so I don't paint much unless I can add a weird, Postmodern twist to what I do. I do my best work when I get up early and go to bed late (it's the time in between when I'm not so sharp). I'm also addicted to my computer (otherwise you'd not be reading this). Today we don't use the word "weird" so much as the term "idiosyncrasies." That makes us seem more normal. After all, everyone has idiosyncrasies, right? Artists just have weird idiosyncrasies. Jan van Beers had weird idiosyncrasies, to put it kindly.
Granvelle and the Witch, 1877, Jan van Beers.
Jan van Beers posing as
Sir Anthony van Dyck.
Perhaps his weirdest, van Beers and his artist friends like to dress up like famous people out of history and parade around Antwerp (he was Belgian) in costume (left). Van Beers and his friends also liked to dress up like figures from their paintings...even if they were women. Later in life, van Beers designed and had built a new home in Paris in which each room was of a different style decor. For this he was considered a madman. Born in 1852, and striving since childhood to become famous as a history painter, in 1876, van Beers' first came to notice in Paris with what was then (and perhaps still remains) the widest painting (horizontally) ever created, The Funeral of Charles the Good (top), which today hangs in Paris' Petit Palais, displayed in a hallway making it impossible to photograph except obliquely (even if photos were allowed, which they're not). I'm guessing, but it appears to be more than forty feet wide. It was the first painting ;van Beers ever sold and it brought a good price, 12,000 francs, yet the artist claimed that amount barely covered his expenses. The painting is a solid mass of portrait-grade, life-size faces and figures numbering in the high hundreds. He also rendered a similar effort on a slightly smaller scale, Granvelle and the Witch (directly above). Painted a year later, it generated a similar "ho-hum" reaction among jaded Parisian art critics. Of course by that time, history painting was waning in importance and van Beers was seen as something of a foreign interloper, more interested in becoming rich and famous than in creating great art. Harsh as that may sound, the French critics had him well pegged.

Elegant Lady, 1880s, Jan van Beers, typical of his society portraits and illustrations.
Bacchus Seated on a Barrel, 1886,
Jan van Beers, not the type
of work befitting a "serious" artist.
It wasn't easy standing apart from the enormous crowd of Parisian painters during the latter years of the 19th-century. Paris was the art capital of the world. Students and opportunists alike (such as van Beers) flocked there from all over the world in an attempt to make a name for themselves. Moreover, van Beers was nothing if not ambitious and persistent. He had the skills. He had few restraints. He would accept commissions for virtually any type of work (right) including illustrations and even advertisements. (Paris held the high ground in both these areas.) Art in Paris was serious business, the competition for commissions and critical acclaim cutthroat. French critics faulted van Beers for not taking art seriously. His efforts were seen as little more than publicity stunts. Once more, they were right.

Van Beers controversial 1881 painting. The real "sirene" is on the steps, not in the water.
Boy with a Humming Bird,
(before 1900), Jan van Beers
However, in 1881, having had little success at history painting on a grandiose scale, van Beers turned the tables on his critics,. He submitting to the Brussels Salon that year two very small, postcard-size paintings. One, titled La Yacht Sirene was painted in sepia tones utilizing exquisite, hyper-realistic detail. It depicted a young lady being escorted down the steps of a quay to a waiting boat to be ferried out to a yacht waiting in the middle ground of the scene. Almost immediately the Salon judges and critics accused van Beers of "photo-peinture", not just painting from a photo but having painted on a photo. The ever feisty van Beers challenged his detractors to prove their allegations by scratching off the paint in search of a photo. He offered a "bet" of one-thousand pounds if such evidence were found. In return, they were to be donate the same amount " my pet Home for Incurable Idiots" if no such photo was found.

An 1888 print of van Beers' commercial art.
When the Stars Set, (before 1900),
Jan van Beers.
The salon officials declined the bet, but van Beers later found that the image (the lady's face) had, in fact, been "defaced" in search for technical clues as to the amazing, nearly microscopic verisimilitude he'd rendered. One periodical defended van Beers, accusing his accusers of being "jealous of his commercial success" (above). Van Beers started legal proceedings to clear his name with the resulting scandal making headlines all over Europe. An informal investigation eventually deemed van Beers an "honest man." Indeed, the free publicity greatly increased the prices for van Beers' work. He died in 1927, a very rich "honest man."

Portrait of a Man, (date unknown), Jan van Beers. A self-portrait? There is a resemblence
to the photo (top, left). But even if it's not, the attitude seems appropriate.


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