In the first of these two articles, I showed how the Belgian Naturalist painter Léon Frédéric (1856–1940) had depicted rural poverty in the Ardennes, largely under the influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage. During the 1890s, he turned increasingly to very different themes, still painted in his detailed realist style.
Over those years, his paintings attracted an influential admirer, Alexandre Benois, an artist and critic who became the designer for the Ballets Russes under Sergei Diaghilev. Benois promoted Frédéric’s paintings to the Russian Princess Maria Tenisheva, who purchased some for exhibition in Saint Petersburg.
His triptych Moonlight from 1898 shows a broad panorama of the countryside at harvest time, with a full moon shining above a band of clouds. From the right, this displays each stage of the harvest, from ripe heads of grain ready for cutting, through stooks standing awaiting removal, to stubble burning in the distance, and in the middle of the centre panel the field plowed ready for the cycle to start again.
The following year, Frédéric moved to Schaerbeek in Belgium, and in 1900 he was awarded a second gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Frédéric’s Allegory of the Night from about 1900 could perhaps be more properly titled a personification. A popular theme among those associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, his depiction is mysterious. A dark-haired figure, probably a mother, holds twin infants to her chest under the same starry veil in which the artist had dressed up the skeleton in his strange studio self-portrait from 1882.
His major work of 1900 was another and even grander triptych of The Golden Age, from which the left panel represents Morning. This is reminiscent of the floral excesses of Georges Rochegrosse‘s Knight of the Flowers from 1894, which is one of the Musée d’Orsay’s many surprises.
Frédéric has forgotten the rural poverty of his earlier years, and now shows an idyllic countryside. Young babies fly through the air, as if falling from heaven, only to latch on and feed at the breast. The men are leisurely tending to the livestock in eternal spring sunshine. There’s just one worrying figure: an old person with a stick at the left edge.
The centre panel shows Night. A small group of sheep and people, some bearing spears, are asleep in a heap in the middle of a pastoral valley in the hills. Fields behind contain dense flocks of sheep, but there are no visible landmarks to orientate the viewer in space or historical period.
The right panel shows Evening, in which women and children surround an elderly couple outside their cottage. A succession of young women are walking up to its door with large baskets of fruit on their heads. In the distance, the harvest has been cut and built into haystacks, and a horse is drawing a hay wagon up the hill at the left edge.
Another triptych from about 1905 is its urban equivalent: The Ages of the Worker. Set in the crowded streets of a Belgian town, the left panel shows men engaged in manual labour, including two who are moving heavy props from a mine. In the centre, a group of young boys are enjoying an improvised meal on the pavement as young couples and a miner move around them. At the right, women are feeding and caring for their infants. I suspect that Frédéric may have intended the work to be read from right to left, rather than in the usual and opposite direction.
Frédéric’s most ambitious painting, consisting of seven panels and eleven metres (over thirty feet) in length occupied him for the twenty-five year period from 1893-1918: All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love. This is now in the Ohara Museum of Art in Japan. I will look at it in three sections, from the left.
The three panels at the left represent Hell. A jumble of naked bodies are packed densely among rocks. In the distance long flames rise like ribbons towards the sky. Clearly a place of suffering, it unusually doesn’t follow the conventional model detailed by Dante. In the centre, a bearded head covers its eyes.
The centre panel is set high in the mountains, amid snowfields and towering rock walls. A white dove (conventionally a symbol of the Holy Spirit) has arrived bearing a sprig of oak. Underneath its spread wings is a tight cluster of naked mothers and children. Among them are two women dressed in priestly garments, one of whom is cradling a large sword. They look up to the dove, welcoming its arrival.
The three panels at the right represent Heaven, a pastoral landscape densely packed with a multitude of naked mothers and children. A similar pair of women in priestly clothing stand at the wings. The figure on the right is holding a stone tablet on which a single word appears: LEX (law), and near her children are playing with the scales of justice. Near the woman at the left two children are swinging censers which generate the smoke of burning incense.
Above them all are two concentric rainbows, and floating in the air the figure of Christ, his arms reaching out over still more figures of children, this time clothed in white robes.
After this extraordinary painting, Frédéric’s work then seems to vanish without trace, following the rise of Modernism in Europe. He wasn’t forgotten, though, and in 1929 was made a Baron and a Knight of the Order of Leopold by the king. He died at Schaarbeek in 1940.