Sunday, 15 January 2017


“Symbols are the imaginative signposts of life.” - Margot Asquith 

Léon Frédéric (August 26, 1856 – January 27, 1940) was a Belgian Symbolist painter. His earlier paintings embraced Christian mysticism, pantheistic, and natural themes, while his later works increasingly reflected social themes. Frédéric’s work reflects influences of fifteenth and sixteenth century Flemish, as well as Renaissance painting styles.

Frédéric attended the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels from 1871 to 1878, and was a pupil of the Neo-Classicist Jean-François Portaels. While attending the academy Frédéric made long trips to Italy from 1876 to 1878 to study with the Belgian sculptor Julien Dillens. While in Italy (Venice, Florence Naples and Rome) he studied the works of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, reinforcing his linear technique.

In 1879, on his return from Italy, he made his debut at the Brussels Salon and became a member of the artist group L’Essor (The Soaring). In 1883, he moved to Nafraiture, in the Belgian Ardennes, and traveled extensively to England, Germany and the Netherlands. He moved to his final home in Schaerbeek in 1899, and continue to travel and show his work in international exhibitions.

Despite achieving recognition and honours in Germany and the United States, as well as winning several gold and bronze medals for his work, Frédéric did not receive official approval in his native country until later in his life. He was awarded gold medals for painting at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and 1900. Between 1889 and 1900, Frédéric was awarded gold and bronze medals in the United States. In 1904, he was appointed member of the Royal Academy of Belgium. In 1891, he was awarded a gold medal in Berlin. In 1929 Frédéric was created a Baron and Knight of the order of King Leopold.

Leon Frédéric drew on contemporary and centuries-old influences as well as on his very personal spiritual views of life and nature to evolve his unique artistic style. Working during a period when Impressionism and its offspring Divisionism and Post-Impressionism were the mainstay of avant-garde art, Frédéric’s supra-realism came as a considerable and impressive surprise.

Nature is omnipresent in the work of this artist, both in his landscapes and in his social works, where he paints realistically the life of the peasants of Flanders or the Ardennes workers, as well as in his allegorical paintings. A humanitarian ideal, almost anarchic, characterises his compositions with a social message, for example “Les ages de l’ouvrier” (1895-1897, Paris, Mus. D'Orsay). From 1890, he produced a number of large-scale works, still naturalistic, but well grounded in the symbolist ideals, such as the triptych "Le ruisseau" (1890-1899, Brussels, M.R.B.A.B.).

The painting above is one of a triptych he painted of chalk workers, showing them going to work (Morning), having a meal (Midday) and returning home (Evening). This is a detail from the middle panel “The Chalk Sellers - Midday” (1882) and depicts them at their humble meal while they are on a break from their back-breaking labour. Child labour was something that was common in Frédéric’s time and his painting shows the pitiful lot of small children that have been forced by poverty to work long hours in a hard and harsh job.

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