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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Alfred Verwee

Young Bulls at the Watering Place, Alfred Verwee
One of the hallmarks of an outstanding portrait artist is seeing that he or she is capable of rendering a dog, or a cat, or a horse, or even a cow with the same skill and inherent dignity as in painting the portrait image of a human client. Of course portrait artists paint mainly people, so almost unavoidably that's what they become best at. Some portrait artists would hardly consider a painting of any lower lifeform as being a portrait in the first place. But the essential definition of a portrait is any one-of-a-kind figure important enough to a buyer to warrant the cost of a painted image. Notice I purposely did not limit the subject to a human figure or even to living figures. There are posthumous portraits, of course, but also portraits of classic cars, ships, homes, and any number of hobby items to which a client has an emotional attachment. I know, in some cases that definition would bleed over into the realm of the still-life, but so be it.
Barnyard portraits by Alfred Verwee, painted with dignity.
(Some distracting cracks in the paint have been digitally minimized.)
The Belgian artist, Alfred Verwee was one such outstanding portrait artist, though in fact, he seldom painted people; and when he did, it was always in conjunction with some type of animal life. But he did paint cows, also horses, sheep, chickens, and probably some other barnyard creatures with the same inherent dignity usually reserved by portrait artist for paying clients. I know, the economic factor does challenge my definition somewhat. After all, no one commissioned any of Verwee animal portraits; but they did, in fact, pay good money for them, so whether it was before or after the fact is of little consequence. By the same token, horses especially, and to a lesser extent, cows, often have names, which sort of makes them one-of-a-kind. Sheep and chickens...uhh...not so much; I'll limit possible criticism of my portrait definition to those creatures not of interest to Colonel Sanders or the nursery rhyme, "Mary."

Notice that neither of the above portrait images were painted.
Alfred Jacques Verwee was born on in the Belgian village of Sint-Joost-ten-Node (near Brussels) in 1838. His first teacher was his father, the Kortrijk (Belgium) painter Louis-Pierre Verwee, who painted romantic winter landscapes. Alfred Verwee's older brother, Louis-Charles, was also a painter specializing in domestic scenes and portraits. Alfred Verwee painted landscapes, but mostly farm animals, cattle, and horses, seen in low-lying (reclaimed) meadows using a Realist style. The artist traveled a lot with his friend, the painter Louis Dubois, often working in the area of Knokke (Belgium). Verwee was influence by Louis Robbe, Eugène Verboeckhoven, and the French painter, Constant Troyon, a supporter of the Barbizon School.

In the Meadow, Alfred Verwee
Starting in 1853, Verwee took lessons from the obscure landscape and portrait painter François Charles Deweirdt, who had been a friend and collaborator of his father. He led Alfred into the purely academic-romantic tradition. Verwee later enrolled at the Belgian Royal Academy of Fine Arts, but attended only a few classes. in 1864, while in Paris, Verwee met the animal sculptor, Antoine Baryen, who recommended that he further develop his career in Paris. During this period he also met Edouard Manet and Barbizon painter Théodore Rousseau.

Thunderstorm, Alfred Verwee
In 1857 Verwee was welcome to the French Salon. However, the works of this period are lacking his daring frankness of expression and vitality which became striking qualities of the important paintings of the best years of his career. At this point, everything was decidedly paradoxical for Verwée who, at twenty, seems to be preparing for a life without brilliance.

In the Beautiful Country of Flanders, 1884, Alfred Verwee
Then, in 1863, Verwee won a gold medal at the Brussels Salon. The following year he also won a gold medal at the Paris Salon. His brief stay in Paris was favorable to him as he courageously undertook to extract his art from the indigence technique and banality of his past. The effort was not without difficulty, nor did it go smoothly, but in the end Verwee managed to balance his intimate fervor and technique, while strengthening his drawing and ridding his palette of gray and dull tones that, at the beginning of his career, had all too often stifled him.

Foal Drinking, Alfred Verwee
Around 1880, Verwee became fascin-ated with the area surrounding Knokke, as an informal artists' colony slowly took root there. At the time, he began alternating between landscape and animal painting, doing the landscapes en plein air and posing the animals in his studio (that must have been a hoot). He is generally considered to be Belgium's first great animal painter. By 1887, Verwee saw that Knokke could become a major tourist attraction, so he joined with two local businessmen to purchase a large tract of dunes and meadows to subdivide for property developers. In 1888, Verwee built a villa, the "Fleur des Dunes" (Flower of the Dunes). Around 1892, Verwee's health began to deter-iorate. He had long suffered from rheu-matism, then was diagnosed with throat cancer. In 1895, he travelled to Southern France, Algeria, and Egypt hoping to find a warm, dry climate that would improve his health. A few weeks before his death in 1895, his friends brought him back to Knokke where he died at his home in Schaarbeek (a suburb of Brussels).

Bust of the Belgian painter Alfred Verwee by the
sculptor Léon Mignon in the front of the Neo-
Gothic town hall of Knokke-Heist (Belgium).


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