Universal and International Exhibition of Paris 1900

The balance sheet of a century

April 15, 1900-November 12, 1900

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Belgium at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1900

Architect(s) : Acker et Mankels

In the sixteenth century, after having driven out their lords, the burghers of Flanders hastened to build in each of their towns, which had become so many independent republics, vast common houses where the citizens met to discuss affairs of state and whose proud belfry rose high above the city as an emblem of the freedom they had won. It was intended that these palaces of the people should, by their grandeur and magnificence, erase those of the defeated tyrants, and architects, sculptors, decorators and painters were invited to compete in artistic research in the erection of these buildings. This resulted in the admirable monuments that are the pride of Belgium today. The Belgian General Commission was therefore well inspired to choose a model for its palace in the Rue des Nations.
The commissioners chose the town hall of Oudenaarde, built in 1530 by the famous Brussels architect Van Pede, and of which the central pavilion had been reconstructed at the Quai d'Orsay with scrupulous accuracy, by means of carefully executed mouldings of the original sculptures and statues, removing the less interesting side parts. As it was presented to us, it was a building of admirable elegance, both in its simplicity of order, where everything was symmetrically balanced, and in the richness of its ornamentation, whose lightness and delicacy made the whole a jewel chiselled in stone.
The main façade extended over the wide esplanade that separated this palace from that of Great Britain. It had a projecting portico with seven arches supporting a wide balcony, above which were two storeys pierced by ogival mullioned windows and crowned by a cornice with a cut-out in the middle, each pilaster bearing a statue of a medieval warrior. Above the central arcade of the portico, the belfry protruded from the façade, square up to the cornice, then opening out above it into an octagonal bell tower, a real stone lace whose crown with openwork volutes bears the golden effigy of a Flemish warrior armed from head to toe, 40 metres above the ground. The roof of the building, very high and steeply sloping, was decorated with two large skylights adorned with bells, sculptures and statues.
The other façades of the palace were simpler, but belonged to the same order. On the quay, a pretty perron profiled its high balustrade crowned with heraldic lions, while towards the Rue des Nations, a large terrace protruded where visitors could taste the products of a Belgian brasserie.
The interior of the building was, like the exterior, a reproduction of the town hall of Oudenaarde. The ground floor, a sort of hall with a low ribbed vault supported by numerous pillars, was divided into three large rooms. Two were reserved for the exhibition of Belgian cities. They were decorated with canvases fixed to the walls and representing the main cities of Belgium. They showed Dinant with its most famous sights; the Han cave, and the castle of Walsin, on the Lesse; the town of Oudenaarde, with its town hall; Brussels, with Sainte-Gudule and the town hall; Namur, with the valley of the Meuse; Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Spa, the latter with a delightful site in the vicinity of the fountain of Pouhon. On the tables, books and photo albums completed this overview of the curiosities of Belgium.
The third room on the ground floor, to the left of the central passage, was used for the press. It was decorated with superb paintings by the most renowned masters of the Flemish school.
A monumental staircase led to the first floor where the main room, occupying the entire width of the façade, reproduced the great hall of the town hall of Oudenaarde with its high fireplace with a polychrome mantle decorated with sculptures and Gothic statuettes. There the walls were decorated with paintings representing the coats of arms of the various trades. Some of the walls were covered with magnificent and very old Flemish tapestries, which the well-known Belgian collector, M. de Somzée, had lent for the duration of the Exhibition. Among these tapestries, of incomparable value, the most beautiful were those representing the life of Roland and the glorification of God and the Church. In the centre of the room, some works of art were displayed in glass cases, including a beautiful shrine of St Anthony of Padua and St Nicholas with fine paintings depicting scenes from the lives of these two saints.
The adjoining room on the quay was an alderman's room in the Oudenaarde town hall. It was also decorated with very old Flemish tapestries from the Somzée collection, including a beautiful Ascension and Christ on Golgotha, and various paintings, including portraits of King Leopold II by the painter Leempoels and of Prince Albert, heir to the throne, by the painter Mast. There were also busts of the King and Queen of Belgium by the sculptor Vincotte.
The upper floor of the palace was reserved for the General Commissariat and the Belgian Chambers of Commerce.
In short, this immense building was somewhat empty, and disappointed the visitors who had just come from the British and Hungarian pavilions to contemplate so many accumulated wonders. It was regrettable that Belgium, so rich in art collections, did not imitate these two countries and take advantage of the vast dimensions of its official pavilion to present a more complete retrospective exhibition.

©Louis Rousselet - L'Exposition Universelle de 1900