Émile Claus (1849-1924)
Born in 1849 to a large family in Sint-Eloois-Vijve, a village on the bank of the River Lys in West Flanders, Belgium, Claus showed early enthusiasm and ability at drawing. With the support of Peter Benoît, the Director of the Conservatoire there, he gained admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1869.
He completed his studies there in 1874, collecting the second prize for excellence, and went to work in de Keyser’s studio in Antwerp (he was the Director of the Academy at the time). In 1875 two of his paintings were accepted in the Brussels Salon, he was elected to the Artistic and Literary Circle of Brussels, and he started to received commissions for work.
In 1879 he travelled to Spain and North Africa, where he painted numerous oil and watercolour studies. In 1882 his painting Cock Fight in Flanders was accepted for the Paris Salon and the Universal Exposition in Amsterdam. Later that year he fell in love with the countryside around the River Lys, and painted his first rural landscapes there.
In 1885, he developed his rural landscapes of the Lys area further, and his painting The Old Gardener was exhibited in the Antwerp Salon.
The Old Gardener was also exhibited at the Brussels Salon in 1887, together with The Picnic, set on the banks of the River Lys. His work was compared favourably with contemporaries Bastien-Lepage and van Leemputten, who also painted realist rural scenes rich in light and colour. King Léopold II purchased The Picnic.
In 1888 he moved to Paris, where he fell under the influence of the Impressionists, particularly Monet, Sisley, Renoir, and Pissarro. He also came to appreciate the work of Anders Zorn, Le Sidaner, and other painters represented by art dealer Georges Petit. As a result his style moved from meticulous realism to a gentle impressionism, with rich light and colour.
The Ice Birds was inspired by a contemporary novella, and shows the flooded swampy area near Waregem when frozen over in winter.
His most successful and productive period was between 1893 and 1900. His works during that period were well received at the Brussels and Paris Salons, La Libre Esthétique (successor to Les XX), and others. This culminated in the award of the Gold Medal of the Universal Exposition in Paris.
In 1901 he was co-founder of the Brussels Cercle Vie et Lumière, with James Ensor, Anna Boch, and others, and his light-rich style became known as ‘luminism’. His paintings were shown throughout Europe, including at the Venice Triennial, and influential critics such as Gustave Geffroy expressed favourable opinions.
His house in Belgium was known as Zonneschjin (sunshine), and was frequented by young artists seeking his guidance and help. However the outbreak of war in 1914 drove him into exile in London, where he painted impressionist views of its bridges strongly reminiscent of those of Monet just over a decade earlier.
He returned to Belgium in 1919, where he found that art had moved on to Expressionism and Cubism. With rapidly declining interest in his paintings, he toured France. He died at home in Astene, East Flanders, in 1924. His work rapidly became forgotten outside Belgium, and does not seem to have been exhibited elsewhere since his death.
Prior to 1890, Claus was one of the more successful realist painters of rural scenes, one of many in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The influence of the Impressionists led him to his distinctive ‘luminism’ and eventually, whilst in exile in London, to his own variant of impressionism. He was unfortunate that this rather conservative development was already being overtaken rapidly by other forms of post-Impressionism, then by the more major changes in the Modern Art of the new century.
In these circumstances it is tragic how quickly a popular artist can fall from favour and become all but forgotten. It is time to catch a Eurostar to visit some museums in Belgium, I think.
Lemonnier C (1908) Émile Claus, G van Oest, available from archive.org. (Free, many mono plates but only one in colour. In French.)
Ekonomidès C (2013) Émile Claus (1849-1924), Bibliothèque de l’Image. ISBN 978 2 8144 0032 0. (An excellent and very modestly priced overview of his works, which are illustrated well, in large format. In French.)