15 January 2012

Albert Baertsoen: His Lyric Pessimism

In the heart of Ghent, Albert Baertsoen painted his favorite hour: twilight.  At left is  the Maison de Bateliers, the boatmen's hiring hall.  In the background are the Church of Saint-Michael and an old hotel left over from the First Empire. We look down the canal at a red boat, possibly similar to one where the artist had sat himself down to work.

It may be that the affinity of Albert Baertsoen  (1866-1922)  for winter scenes had something to do with being born on January 9.  What is certain is that neither his travels to Paris and London nor his artistic successes  altered his love for Ghent, the city where he was born and where he died.

Belgium was  the most industrialized nations in 19th century Europe, and Ghent was a city known for its textile mills.  Baertsoen's father was a successful  miller, so the family's prosperity made art and music lessons for a talented child possible. Albert became an accomplished musician before he turned to painting.

As a child Albert walked the streets of Ghent with the artist  Gustave Den Duyts. The River Lys, seen in Thaw In Ghent was his daily companion.  Den Duyts recommended him to  Jean Delvin, who became Baertsoen's artistic mentor.. Baertsoen had his first exhibition in Paris at twenty-two.

Baertsoen's work is difficult to categorize, yet it is similar in appearance to American Luminist paintings.   A meticulous artist who made many sketches before he began each painting, Baertsoen also excelled at etching.  This meditative characteristic of his work connects it to luminism.   

His contemporaries saw in his work presentiments of the hidden lives of buildings, akin to the art of Fernand Khnopff, who was born  at nearby Dendermonde.    Although Baertsoen created no obvious personal mythology in his art, he did share Khnopff's   inclination to crop his images in unexpected ways.  Whether this owes much to photography or is evidence of the walker's perspective is a curiosity.

What keeps Baertsoen's lyricism from being too pretty  is his pessimism.  Ghent was the place by which he measured the rest of Flanders.    Although he visited Bruges,  Baertsoen's interpretation of the medieval city sees beyond the picturesque -  abandoned beguinages, convents turned into shops - to its long tradition of devotion.  He understood - in the memorable phrase of Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert  - that "the targedy of Bruges is that it has failed to detach itself from the rosary of old Flemish towns" (translation mine).  Industrialization brought new hardships along with new wealth, something the privileged Baertsoen observed in his work.

Although his artistic output was small, several works take  their vantage point from the canals of Flanders, that is from a boat.  As one example, in 1898, Baertsoen embarked on a trip down the Ghent-Ternuezen Canal from his hometown to the Dutch port city of Ternuezen.  The houseboat was both home and floating studio where Baertsoen painted tranquil scenes of the small Flemish towns along the canal, that gradually were  replaced by gritty views of working barges in the industrial north. The Little Watercourse In Flanders At Twilight is a well-known souvenir of the Baertsoen's houseboat days.

The Germans invaded neutral Belgium in the early months of World War I.   Flanders became the ground on which some of the war's most horrific fighting took place.   Baertsoen moved to London to be with his grown son. The artist was also reunited with his friend Emile Claus as the two worked in the studio of American painter John Singer Sargent.  Widespread destruction notwithstanding, Baertsoen returned home to Ghent when the war ended

1. A Ghent Evening, 1903, Musee d'Art moderne, Brussels. 
2. Thaw In Ghent, 1902, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. The Little Quai,  1902, Emporium Magazine, Volume XVI, no. 96, page 418.
4. A Square In Flanders, Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
5. Voortman House And Park In The Snow, 1900, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Ghent.
6. A Quai In Bruges, etching, 1900, Musee d'Art moderne.
7. Petite cour en Flandre au crepuscule, 1899, Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 
8. Lighters in The Snow - London , National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
9. unidentified photographer - Albert Baertsoen, c. 1910, National Library of Art & History, Brussels.
10. The Rope Layers At Nieuwpoort in The Snow, 1895,  Museum of Fine Art, Ghent.

For further reading: Albert Baertsoen by Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert, Brussels, G. Van-Orst: 1910. (in French)