Eugeen Van Mieghem and the Port of Antwerp

Cassel, Musée de Flandre, from 24 March to 24 June 2012

Far from the sight of waves splashing and sailboats bobbing in a marina, Eugeen Van Mieghem was fascinated rather by the activity in the industrial port of Antwerp. He spent his life trying to set down with brush and pencil what Emile Verhaeren expressed with his pen : "Its port is tormented with shocks and clashes/ And hammers sending their din into the air(...) Its port is laden with smells of oil and coal/ Which spread out, along the wharf into the alleyways." [1].

1. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
Steamer and Three-masted Ship at Dock, around 1912
Anvers, Cabinet municipal des estampes
Photo : Anvers, Musée Plantin-Moretus
Unesco, Patrimoine mondial

2. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
Ode to the Port of Antwerp, c.1925
Oil on Canvas - 160 x 250 cm
Anvers, PSA HNN
Photo : Fondation Eugeen Van Mieghem

The artist is currently featured in an exhibition at the Musée de Flandre, assembling about sixty works - many of them from private collections, others on loan from the Musée van Mieghem - organized around three themes : the industrial port, the people of the port, the portraits of Antwerp society as it changed. The publication offered for the occasion is not directly connected to the exhibition as it appeared in 2009 ; thus, it is not, alas, a catalogue with entries and commentaries for each work and the lack of index complicates searches. Despite all of this, it places the painter’s production in the economic and social context as well as treating certain aspects not shown in Cassel, such as the Calvary series or the representation of the many migrants who left for America through Antwerp between 1873 and 1934.

3. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
Boat in Dry Dock, c.1924
Oil on Paper - 50 x 44 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

Eugeen Van Mieghem came from a modest background, growing up in the bar run by his mother in the port. He studied at the Antwerp Academy from 1892 till 1896, before being thrown out by Eugeen Siberd, the same professor who had dismissed Van Gogh. During that period, he discovered the works of Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec, during the exhibitions at the Association pour l’Art, then participated in the Salon de la Libre esthétique in Brussels where he ran into Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne... An industrialist and art patron, François Franck was another major figure in Antwerp’s cultural life, founding the association of The Art contemporain in 1905, where Eugeen Van Mieghem presented about twenty works in the first show.

Like Constantin Meunier who was fascinated by the coal mining region, Van Mieghem discovered his passion for a port beset by the Industrial Revolution where three-masted ships docked alongside steamers (ill. 1). "Its port is crowded with black steamers smoking./ And bellowing, in the late night, without anyone seeing." [2]. The artist himself worked there in a freighting company in 1899. The rhythm of his compositions is established by the vertical lines of the cranes and masts, creak with their metallic colors and allow glimpses of monumental vessels which invade the spectator’s space through black fog (ill. 2) or remain imprisoned in dry dock (ill. 3). This is far indeed from the port of Saint Tropez painted by Signac in 1895 or the cliffs at Etretat observed by Monet. Even Pissarro’s Le Havre, around 1903, corresponds to a different process because the artist adopted the same viewpoint from his hotel window, unlike Eugeen Van Mieghem who changed the settings and devoted not just one year but his whole life to only one city. In the same way, Marquet painted the ports of Rotterdam in 1914 and Hamburg in 1901 but offering overall, colored views where human figures are just simplified silhouettes.

4. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
Stevedore, c.1905
Chalk - 18.3 x 13 cm
Anvers, Cabinet municipal des estampes
Photo : Cabinet municipal des estampes

5. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
Sack Mender in front of the Dock, c.1925
Oil on Canvas - 50.5 x 61.5 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Fondation Eugeen Van Mieghem

The artist depicted the lowly people who busy themselves on the wharf. "Its port is teeming and muscular with arms/ Lost in a laberynthine tangle of moorings." [3]. He chose the swift qualities of pencil to capture the dockers and tugboats hard at work (ill. 4), while he has the women pose in more accomplished paintings ; notably the menders, with their red and white polka dot scarves, are recurring figures (ill. 5), shown in the universe of a port without a trace of sentimental pity, on the contrary, the painter endows them with the same dignity as Millet’s peasant women. A beautiful red chalk illustrating Two Sack Menders in the Port of Antwerp has in fact been donated to the Musée de Flandre by the Fondation Eugeen Van Mieghem on this occasion (ill. 6). In pencil, charcoal, pastel or chalk, his drawings are distinct works, as unique as the paintings. Alas, this artist who participated in the Association De Kapel, read Gorki and listened to Elisée Reclus, painted the lower classes at a time when the great bourgeoisie, potential patrons, rarely appreciated this type of subject or genre. It was only in 1920 that he was able to start selling his works on a regular basis.

6. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
Two Sack Menders in the Port of Antwerp, c.1923
Cassel, Musée départemental de Flandre
Photo : Fondation Eugeen Van Mieghem
Musée de Flandre

7. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
Three Port Urchins, 1919
Watercolor - 78 x 72 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Fondation Eugeen Van Mieghem

The third and last room of the exhibition presents the contrasting portraits of a changing society. The artist sketched the boys in the port, young ragamuffins represented notably in a large format which was acclaimed at the Salon des aquarellistes belges of 1919 (ill. 7). Musicians also, accordeon players or organ grinders hang here alongside canvases showing elegant hatted women, including the artist’s wife, Augustine (ill. 8). She posed often for her husband but fell sick from tuberculosis in 1904 ; the artist drew her during her long ailment, until her death in 1905. A touching drawing shows her dressed in an ample coat wearing a feathered hat, her cheeks sunken, her eyes devoid of expression, her complexion gray and lifeless. We might see here of course the influence of Munch who represented his sick sister in a famous series. After Augustine’s death, Eugeen stopped exhibiting until 1910.

8. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
Elegant Ladies (with Augustine), c.1902
Oil on Panel - 34 x 29 cm
London, Private Collection
Photo : Fondation Eugeen Van Mieghem

9. Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930)
En Promenade, c.1927
Oil on Canvas - 47 x 38 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Fondation Eugeen Van Mieghem

He experienced his first individual exhibition in 1912 ; during these pre-war years he was part of the Antwerp artistic circles, setting down the city’s night life in its cafés, representing more or less distinguished women and couples in brothels ; a production recalling that of Toulouse-Lautrec. After the war, he became a member of the Société royale des Beaux-Arts as well as a professor at the Antwerp Academy. We would point out, from this period, the magnificent Promenade which finally affords us a blue sky and sea (ill. 9). The thematic selection of this exhibition reveals Eugeen Van Mieghem’s loyalty to a style and place whose rough beauty he captured tirelessly until the end. "Its port is rainy and seeps through the fog,/ Where the sun like a red and colossal eye weeps." [4].

Curators : Erwin Joos, Sandrine Vézilier

Erwin Joos, Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930). Antwerp, BAI, 2009 ? 35€, 272 p. ISBN : 9789085864738.

Visitor information : Musée départemental de Flandre, 26 Grand Place, 59650 Cassel. Tel : +33 (0)3 59 73 45 60. Open every day except Monday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday ; from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday from 1st May to 30 September and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday from 1st October to 30 April. Admission : 5€ (reduced : 3€).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, vendredi 6 avril 2012


[1] "Son port est tourmenté de chocs et de fracas/ Et de marteaux tournant dans l’air leurs tintamarres. (...) Sont port est lourd d’odeurs de naphte et de carbone/ Qui s’épandent, au long des quais, par des ruelles.", Emile Verhaeren, Le Port, 1895, recueil des Villes tentaculaires.

[2] "Son port est ameuté de steamers noirs qui fument./ Et mugissent, au fond du soir, sans qu’on les voie.", op. cit.

[3] "Son port est fourmillant et musculeux de bras/ Perdus en un fouillis dédalien d’amarres." op. cit.

[4] "Son port est pluvieux et suie à travers brumes,. Où le soleil comme un oeil rouge et colossal larmoie." op. cit.

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