Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Henri de Braekeleer

The Atelier (studio) of Ferdinand de Braekeleer, (the artist's father),
 1877, Henri de Braekeleer
Henri de Braekeleer,
Self-portrait, 1860s
As an artist who has sometimes struggled with all the materials and equipment which go into producing paintings, I've often wondered how painters hundreds of years ago managed to do so well with far less. Quite apart from computers, electric lighting, factory-made paints and brushes, photography, and the Internet, I simply could not paint without air-conditioning. Yet artists as recently as a hundred years ago sometimes worked in the frigid, New York lofts with little or no heat in the winter, much less cool in the summer. Of course, as my mother used to tell me, and my wife still does, it's all a matter of what you get used to. We can read about what it was like to be an artist hundreds of years ago, or far more recently than that, in fact, but, being a visually oriented creative creature, I get a much better impression in looking at pictures. And while a few artists have given us painted, behind-the-scenes peeks at their studios and their daily routines, few have done it so well as the Belgian artist, Henri de Braekeleer. (My spell-checker suggests I spell that "barkeeper".)

Chapel of  St. Jacques Church, 1864, Henri de Braekeleer
Henri de Braekeleer was never famous, nor should he have been. The list of Belgian, not to mention French, Dutch, German, English, and Scandinavian artists very much like him in both style and content is far too long for that. De Braekeleer painted mostly genre similar to his 1864 Chapel of St. Jacques Church (above). And unless an artist from the mid-19th century was very, VERY good, he was then, and would still be considered today, as a mere footnote in the history of art. Although genre artists were as well trained as any of their day, and were often more adept than those painting landscapes, still-lifes, sometimes even portraits, their work was considered by the art world as little more than a commodity or novelty, an option for those more interested in nostalgia than fine art. One might term their work as being still-lifes with people.

The Etcher, 1875, Ferdinand de Braekeleer.
De Braekeleer was born in 1840 and lived only to the age or forty-eight (another reason you've probably never heard of the man). His lifetime output was quite modest. Except for a short time in Germany and the Netherlands, de Braekeleer spent his entire life in Antwerp where he studied for seven years at the Royal Academy. However, much of his training as an artist came from his father, Ferdinand de Braekeleer, whom he depicted at work in his studio sometime around 1877 (top). Painting artists at work seems to have been a family tradition in that his father, Ferdinand, painted The Etcher around 1875 (some sources attribute this work to the son). There were other family painters as well. Henri's uncle (Ferdinand's brother) was Jan August Hendrik Leys, also a genre painter. While in the Netherlands, de Braekeleer picked up the influence of Johannes Vermeer, which can be seen in his Chapel of St. Jacques Church painted shortly before, or shorty after his return from the Netherlands.
L'Atlier, 1873, Henri de Braekeleer
Probably de Braekeleer's most intimate peek inside the 19th-century studio of a working artist is his L'Atelier (above), painted in 1873. In it he paints himself painting a female figure apparently part of a genre scene in that she appears to be looking downward at some activity on the floor, and what we can see of the image on the easel does not appear to be a portrait. Here again, we can see the influence of Vermeer in that de Braekeleer's self-portrait (if you can count the back of the artist's head as a self-portrait) is reminiscent of Vermeer's Allegory of painting from 1665-68. De Braekeleer's The Restorer (below) from 1876, is quite similar, depicting yet another type of artist at work. Interestingly, the restorer appears to be restoring one of de Braekeleer's own paintings, The Garden (seen further down).

The Restorer, 1876, Henri de Braekeleer 

The Picture Lover, 1884, Henri de Braekeleer

The Connoisseur, 1962, Norman Rockwell
Besides painting painters painting, de Braekeleer also painted art lovers loving his paintings (and those of others). His The Picture Lover (above), from 1884 is a fascinating glimpse at a segment of the art world seldom seen in painting. One has to wonder if Norman Rockwell knew of de Braekeleer's work when he painted his The Connoisseur (left) in 1962. He certainly was aware of Jackson Pollok's. As with Rockwell, de Braekeleer was nothing if not versatile. Unlike the Dutch of the 17th-century, when everyone had a specialty, by the mid-19th-century in Antwerp, genre painters very often painted a little of everything, from landscapes to still-lifes (bottom) to portraits. And though their skills in each area sometimes varied quite a lot, that doesn't seem to be the case with Braekeleer. His landscape, The Garden (below) from 1864 exhibits the same crisp precision, strong composition, and warm color sensitivities as even his best genre work.

The Garden, 1864, Henri de Braekeleer
Although every genre artist has to be adept at painting people, that does not necessarily mean they're going to be outstanding portrait artists. Yet de Braekeleer's portraits of his daughters, Helene and Elizabeth (below), while suggesting he wasn't often called upon to paint portraits for others, (notice the nearly identical poses) there's little disguising the warmth of a father's love, even though neither daughter is gifted with what you'd call radiant beauty (if only they'd had chins).

Elizabeth de Braekeleer,
Henri de Braekeleer
Helene de Braekeleer,
Henri de Braekeleer
Henri de Braekeleer might well be more unknown today except for one man. In his many letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent van Gogh often mentioned the work of de Braekeleer as being a strong influence on his own work. Van Gogh no doubt came into contact with Braekeleer's work, perhaps even the artist himself, while serving as a missionary in a coal mining region of Belgium. Whether in a museum or on the walls of those he served, van Gogh seems to have had an affinity for both the man and his art. Both artists suffered from debilitating mental illnesses. Henri de Braekeleer died totally incapacitated of a brain disease in 1888. Van Gogh died two years later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Still-life, Henri de Braekeleer--not his strongest suit.


No comments:

Post a Comment