Sunday, October 5, 2014

Emile Claus

Flaxweeding in Flanders (Vlaswieden in Vlaanderen)
oil on canvas
128 × 198 cm
Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium

Emile Claus (1848-1924), Belgian painter, is recognized as the leader of the Luminist movement in Belgium. As such, he was at the forefront of the group Vie et Lumiere along with James Ensor. He was to have one of the longest standing influences on Modern Belgian art, reaching younger generations of artists.

He was born in Sint-Eloois-Vijve, a village in West-Flanders, at the banks of the river Lys. He was the twelfth child in a family of thirteen. His father was a grocer-publican and for some time town councillor. He graduated from the Academy of Waregem (the neighbouring town) with a gold medal. His father sent him as a baker’s apprentice to Lille (France). He learned French there but the job of a baker clearly did not appeal to him. He also worked for some time with the Belgian Railways and as a representative in the flax trade. He wrote a letter for help to the famous composer and musician, Peter Benoit, who was an occasional visitor of the family. Encouraged by Peter Benoit, from 1869 to 1874, he trained at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts. During his training, he attracted the attention of and found favour with the local upper middle class. After graduating, he stayed to live in Antwerp. In his years in Antwerp, he mainly painted portraits and realistic, anecdotal genre pieces.

Artistically, he soon prospered. He travelled around the world to attend exhibitions of his work. As a celebrity, he became a friend of the family with amongst others the French sculptor Auguste Rodin and the naturalist Emile Zola, and with the Belgian novelists and poets. The major turning point in his carrier occurred after 1889, when he rented a studio in Paris. He was introduced to Claude Monet, who inspired his conversion towards a new art of spontaneity, light and pure colours. Under the influence of Monet, he gradually shifted from naturalistic realism to a very personal style of impressionism that has been characterized as luminism. In 1904, he started the artist group Vie et Lumiere ('Life and Light').

In 1883 he moved to cottage Zonneschijn ('Sunshine') in Astene, near Deinze (East-Flanders, Belgium), where he stayed until his death. From his living room, he enjoyed a beautiful view across the river Lys. The space and light of the country house clearly inspired him. He spent the years of the First World War in exile in London where he found a house and workshop at the banks of the river Thames. He returned in 1918. The day before his death, he had painted a pastel of a bouquet of flowers, sent to him by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. He is buried in his own garden in Astene and a street is named after him in Brussels. His last words were: “Bloemen, bloemen, bloemen …” (‘Flowers, flowers, flowers’).