International Exposition of Paris 1867

Agriculture, Industry and Fine Arts

April 1, 1867 - November 3, 1867


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Fine Arts in Belgium (continued)

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FLORENT WILLEMS.
The education of Charles V, by M. Ham-man, has, as we have said, the value of an excellent page of history.

These characters, chosen and grouped with skilful art, show, to those who know how to see and recognise them, the secret springs of their character and conduct, of their present and future ambitions.

But the observer hesitates by one or two years as to the precise date when Charles V as a child received the lessons of Erasmus, and, on learning that the action takes place, as they say in the theatre, around the year 1511, in Brussels, we remembered that it was not Joanna the madwoman who presided over the education of young Charles, but rather Margaret of Austria, who was then governor of the Netherlands.

Joan had long been separated from her son.

After this necessary rectification, we shall resume our walk through the double gallery of paintings that Belgium has sent us.

In Belgium, among the painters of the new school, there is a determined taste for what I will call Parisian painting. Parisian painting, in the sense in which I understand it here, seeks out small interiors, elegant boudoirs, coquettishly decorated and furnished rooms, in order to place there pretty little mothers who smile at pretty little girls, or who gently abandon themselves to the caresses of mischievous and pink marmots, who are full of spirit for their age. It is always Venus and the Lovers. An old motif, but one that is constantly rejuvenated and never wearies us!

This, well painted and with a brush that knows the harmony of tones and shades, is therefore far from displeasing a public that feels flattered in its wishes and whims. This is why the paintings of Mr. Baugniet, of Mr. Jonghe, of Mr. Stallaert, of Mr. Alfred Stevens especially, excite, and in a way, pique a thousand highly enviable sympathies.

Sometimes these niceties lack a little firmness in execution, and it is not a very high thought that inspired them, but do we not all live, more or less, in an order of average feelings and average ideas too, where this bourgeois poetry, both distinguished and bourgeois (I maintain that the two epithets can go together very well), is more than sufficient for our appetites and our needs?

Now, M. Florent Willems, who is nonetheless of the same school, seems to me to have brought this cute painting of the little events of life to the last degree of perfection, and to have drawn from it all that it contains of delicacy and grace. On this terrain, where, all in all, the first comers will never set foot, he is truly master and lord.

Mr. Willems excels in painting women, and everything that is closely or remotely related to women, that is to say, in the first place, their lovers; then their lace and satins, then the greyhounds or spaniels that sleep near them and under their chairs; then, to a certain extent, their feeling and tenderness.

I said to a certain extent, because in Mr. Florent Willems' work the feeling and even the passion seem to be regulated in advance and remain contained, in a range where nothing stands out. No sparkle! One thinks, in front of the paintings of Mr. Willems, of the best novels of Octave Feuillet and Jules Sandeau. Literarily and morally, these three men of such fine and pure talent are alike. They understand and conduct the things of the soul and the heart in the same way.

In spite of that archaism of fantasy which shows itself in pretty details, either of the costume of his characters or of the flats in which he has placed them, in spite of such old tapestries and such Gothic woodwork, captured elsewhere and rendered with the good colour of the Flemish masters, M. Willems is entirely of our nineteenth century. The charming people of our time recognise each other and greet each other with a smile on these marvellous canvases, which remind them of the magic mirrors of fairy tales. What shall I say? There is there not only the ray and the flower of their youth, the brightness and the transparency of their beautiful flesh, there is also the white or pink satin of their skirts, and a satin so natural that it seems to undulate to the eye and bray to the ear.

- The triumph of Mr. Willems," a kind lady told me, "is the white satin.

I know that it has other qualities as well, and I think that this satin, with a truth that is almost palpable, is, in short, only the richest case for the most delicious and finest creatures that one can desire or dream of.

Look at them, blond or brunette, melancholic or laughing, and tell me if you don't agree with me!

Finally, the connoisseurs will object that this painting, so rich and at the same time so fresh, does not have the firmness of Terburg's paintings; I half agree with this, but grant me, in your turn, that it is, - in its French grace and in its meticulous Dutch perfection, - as pretty as Terburg. Nothing is missing, and the artist's brush has foreseen everything, has provided for even the smallest details, even the most imperceptible folds of the white or blue dress, even the nails of the armchair arranged with a desperate symmetry; and in the furniture, not a trifle is not chosen with an unimpeachable taste!

Such care is undoubtedly a defect, and it is not in this way, with the eye fixed on these infinitely small things, that the great Italian and Spanish masters proceeded; but the defect is redeemed by many rare qualities, and a great talent, which bends to everything with incredible fecundity, makes the most of its very weaknesses and its exaggerations.

At least Mr. Willems will not be accused of leaving gaps in his work.

Can you think of anything that is truer and purer in feeling than this young widow in great mourning, who, with her eyes sadly fixed on the portrait of her husband, and the shadow of faded happiness on her forehead, regrets and remembers? A love letter is unfolded under her hand, and there is also a thought, a poor withered flower, a poor relic of days gone by. The faithful greyhound, Y friend of both, is also there, sleeping at the feet of the young widow and perhaps sharing her dream and her memory. One could not better express this silent and, to a certain extent, sweet pain.
There is no better way of expressing the silent and, to a certain extent, sweet pain that lives in us with the memory of those we have loved. A little joy is hidden in the depths of an affliction that is dear to us.

In my opinion, L'Accoucheée by Florent Willems is quite simply a small masterpiece. It is not a question here of the Caquets de l'accoucheée, as our clever Gallic fathers used to say. There is only one of the most common events in life before us, but one that art has touched and transfigured on all sides and in which poetry shines. - The woman who has given birth is a blonde child, who appears to be no more than eighteen years old. She is lying down, sleeping. Her face is still so fresh and pink that one can tell that she has come through this first ordeal without suffering too much. The beautiful ruddy infant is one of those that one can boldly exclaim:

It has hardly cost its mother any complaints!

Two friends appear, a young man and a young woman, elegant, graceful, dressed and dressed as Mr. Willems knows how to dress all his characters. They were undoubtedly anxious and concerned about the patient, but they were also curious, and this was evident from their slightly smiling and malicious faces, which were not without interest and kindness.

The mother of the woman in labour, still a young woman (one never deals with Mr. Willems except with flowers of youth and beauty), stops them at the threshold with a finger over her mouth: "Silence! "

However, the nurse, near the cradle - a real little chapel decorated with pious images - is also looking on, and is feeding the baby, while a familiar cat is happily rubbing its back against one of the bars of the chair.

The whole thing is charming, and the audience is unanimous in its approval.

It has been remarked, not without reason, that visits to Mr. Willems' house are quite ceremonial. But at least such visitors as this amiable little person with the grey hat topped with a peacock eaglet and the pretty grey embroidered mantelet, and this other lady or damsel in soft white satin, and this cavalier, who seems at once so courteously submissive and so bound, at least, I say, such visitors deserve, even if they are a little stiff and stodgy, all the mitigating circumstances.

M. Willems has, in the painting of the Intimates, placed a pink dress and a green dress in the presence of each other, and the two colours, which would clash under the brush of another artist, blend together under his own and form a true harmony, so real are the ingenious resources of his palette.

Farewell! - The door is ajar. The lover is about to leave. This is the moment when Romeo leaves Juliet for good. Here it is not a question of Shakespeare's scene, but simply of any lovers, of you or of me, at such times in life as we have all known. The dishevelled girl is in the arms of the young man. A last kiss, intermingled with tears, and both of them will be alone. That is all! Do not say that the subject is thin and common. I could name none higher, more human, more eloquent. There is a whole world of delicate and passionate thoughts and feelings in this group of two people.

Love has crept everywhere in the various compositions of Mr. Willems, and with him have come the three Graces and the nine Muses. Happy artist! Certainly, he stands more than once on the path of the precious and the cute: only a hair separates him from it. But it is quite a barrier, and the author of these admirable paintings, the author also of Y Armurier and Les Fiançailles, will not cross it. Trust in the taste of which he has given us so much proof.
I can only, within the narrow confines of my observations and criticisms, point to other works that deserve the most serious attention: the beautiful landscapes of M. Lamorinière, for example, and the Flowers and Fruits of M. Robbe, and the fruits, so transparent and so delicious to the eye, of M. Jean Robie. It is cruel not to be able to praise the Spanish, Italian or Portuguese studies of Messrs. Bossuet and Van Moër, who marvellously render the original and picturesque aspect of the cities or monuments they wanted to paint, and who have captured the very sky and the various hues of that sky, - the idea, as it were, and the soul of the buildings. I would like to recommend to you two portraits of Mrs. Frederique O'Connell, whom her stay among us and her relations have naturalized completely French, and who honors this second homeland. Belgian sculptures, though less striking and less indigenous, if one may so speak, than paintings, are not without their right to esteem and success. In short, when one leaves the French Fine Arts Exhibition, one does not go straight down to the Belgian annex. It would be difficult to say and think the same of other art exhibitions of such larger nations and more vocal peoples on earth.

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée