Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (completed in 1432) is possibly the greatest of all artworks in Belgium, one that has inspired pilgrimages to the Flemish city by generations of visitors, among them aspiring artists. To grow up surrounded by the glorious works created during the days when the Burgundian royal court sat in Flanders and not be affected by them would be surprising. What originated as a painterly arrangement of the metaphysical world became an organizing principle in the portraits of Fernand Khnopff.
Roughly contemporary, the artist Georges le Brun (1873-1914) felt the pull of the Flemish primitive painters, too."I remain convinced that being able to draw consists not so much in making no mistakes; but rather in revealing the individual psychological character of people and things by a judicious accentuation of every typical irregularity. There is more art, more feeling and more poetry in one realist work done in the style of the primitive or one of the minor Dutch artists than in the stuffy compositions of the great masters."
There are other similarities, too. Le Brun used the combination of charcoals and pastel to create a personal symbolism. Although Le Brun traveled, spending three months in Italy in 1900, the landscape he became attached to emotionally was the high fens (Haut Fanges) of the Ardennes in eastern Belgium. During his times in Brussels, the lawyer/collector Octave Maus helped to advance the young artist's career, commissioning articles from Le Brun for his magazine L'Art Moderne. And Le Brun, as much as Khnopff, was a master of ambiguity.
Although Le Brun's symbolism never quite gives up its meaning, it is of the everyday world. The reading woman in The Vestibule reminds me of Seuart's charcoal drawing of a floating woman (Art Institute of Chicago), found at last. Le Brun had married Nathalie de Rossart of Brussels in 1904. The couple bought a house in Theux, a small town in the Ardennes, where they had two children: Andre, born 1905 and Joan, born 1907. In Le Brun's interiors, even empty rooms suggest domestic life in progress, if only by the sight of a coffee pot warming on a stove.
The elaborate geometry of the vestibule is suggestive of some greater significance than its emptiness as is the wash of light where we might expect shadows.
A similar image whose title gives a different emphasis, The Man Who Passes directs us to regard its human as its subject. Technically, what makes these images appear odd is that the artist placed his focal point in the center of the image, violating a basic precept of composition. As a result, the viewer's expectations are upended. A scene that appears at first ordinary may be the artist's intimation of time and space stretching and curving before our eyes.
The symbolic import of these images is underlined by the severely limited palette Le Brun works with. Compared to them, the mural (at top) La ferme de la Haase uses the same media to more realistic ends; we can imagine ourselves looking out a window at the fen lands.
While on combat duty with the Belgian Army, Georges le Brun disappeared near the Ysaer on October 28, 1914. His body was never found. The Intimist painters of Belgium lost a kindred spirit in Georges Le Brun, an artist who welcomed all types of avant-garde experiments. His friend and fellow artist Maurice Pirenne organized a retrospective of Le Brun's work in 1920.
1. La ferme de la Haase, 1913, water and pastel, private collection, Belgium\
2. The Vestibule, c.1909, charcoal and pastel, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. The Man Who Passes, 1900, pastel and charcoal, Musee Communale de Verviers.