Marguerite Yourcenar and Flemish Painting

Cassel, Musée départemental de Flandre, from 13 october 2012 to 27 january 2013.

1. Richard Estes
(born in 1932)
Marguerite Yourcenar
Oil on Canvas
Centre National des Arts Plastiques
Photo : DR/CNAP

On the 25th anniversary of Marguerite Yourcenar’s death, two neigboring institutions, the Musée départemental de Flandre, in Cassel, and the Villa départemental Marguerite Yourcenar in Saint Jans Cappel, near Bailleul, are collaborating in the presentation of the exhibition "Marguerite Yourcenar et la peinture flamande". In a very pertinent approach of the museum’s exhibitions policy, the show highlights the many ties between Yourcenar’s texts and, essentially, 15th and 16th century Flemish art. The support selected by the organizers, L’Œuvre au noir, a novel published in 1968 with 16th century Bruges as the background setting, provides a perfect prism for this study as well as being particularly emblematic of Marguerite Yourcenar’s creative process. We allude here to the stated purpose outlined by the curators, Sandrine Vézillier and Achmy Halley, and in fact, the very intelligent choices behind this exhibition. The pictorial references are not considered essential for a reading of the novel but are seen as a major element in the writer’s inspiration and method. The visit in fourteen small sections therefore does not attempt to illustrate in a systematic way extracts from the book via a selection of Flemish works, but establishes rather a thematic approach to about thirty art pieces, showing correspondences between Marguerite Yourcenar and renaissance Flemish painting. These close ties, which we will see are both biographical and intellectual, appear throughout the rooms set up in a labyrinthine itinerary, reflecting the writing method of the writer who instinctively, but also pertinently, compiled her pictorial references in an "iconographic puzzle" [1] rather than in a logically organized manner.

2. After Quentin Metsys
Presumed Portrait of Doctor
Paracelsus (1493-1541)

Oil on Panel
Paris, musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN/Hervé Lewandowski

3. Bernard van Orley
Portrait of Margaret of Austria
Oil on Panel
Bourg-en-Bresse, musée du
Monastère royal de Brou
Photo : Hugo Maertens

4. Pieter Bruegel II
The Wedding Dance
Oil on Panel
Quimper, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : musée des
Beaux-arts de Quimper

Marguerite Yourcenar’s very personal "iconothèque" appears already at the start of the show with the room entitled "Le labyrinthe de la création" which in fact summarizes the entire exhibition. The oil on canvas - we could swear it is a photograph - by the contemporary artist Richard Este representing Marguerite Yourcenar at her desk (ill. 1) welcomes us head on as we enter, a picture within a picture of the experience awaiting us inside. We are initiated into the creative process itself, the painted details - the notes and files lying on her desk and the reproductions on view behind her - will take their place in the display cases, on the walls and the numbered exhibits. These are immediately followed by the Notes de composition de L’Oeuvre au Noir - a preparatory work for the novel [2] - and the postcard albums, attesting to the indepth research into Flemish painting carried out by Marguerite Yourcenar who traveled extensively for ten years throughout Europe and the United States visiting museums where she conscientiously acquired catalogues raisonnés and monographs devoted to Flemish art [3] but even more, postcards of the works which most struck her, masterpieces as well as small or anonymous masters which she compiled into three albums [4] entitled "Peinture flamande 1", "Bosh et Brueghel" and "Peinture flamande 2" [5]. The first, highlighted in the fourth section, concerns the Flemish Primitives ; the second, illustrated in the fifth section, covers the 16th century while the third mixes painters from the 16th and great masters of the 17th century, including Rubens. Three major genres stand out in a logical choice : the portrait serves to present the novel’s characters (ill. 2 and 3), religious painting outlines the very unstable political and religious context of the 16th century while the landscape sets the décor for the wanderings of Zénon, the hero. They do not provide an exhaustive repertory and it is obvious that there were other correspondences and inspirations beyond those presented in the albums, some of which were not set down while others are mentioned in Notes de composition. In these, the author reveals some of the art works selected in putting together the novel and an explanation of the manner in which she proceeded, of integrating the works into her text, of "looking at the images until they moved" [6], of continuously reconstructing, assembling and reinterpreting them. The fifth essay in the catalogue [7] written by Agnès Fayet, the author of the thesis "Marguerite Yourcenar et l’image" [8] is very interesting in this respect. It mentions several ways in which the pictorial references were integrated into the text, from the rare "referential image" when the reference is clearly staged, almost quoted - this is the case for "the angels’ bath" which refers directly to Bosch’s Garden of Delights - to the less obvious use of typically Flemish details and scenes such as the open window in the background, the mirror, the kermesses (ill. 4) as well as the carnivals.

5. Roelandt Savery
Orpheus, Charming the Animals
Oil on Canvas
Joigny, Collections municipales
Photo : Collections municipales,
ville de Joigny

6. After Jérôme Bosch
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Oil on Panel
Lièges, BAL – musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Lièges, BAL – musée des Beaux-Arts

7. Pieter Bruegel II
Winter Landscape with Bird Trap
Oil on Panel
Antwerp, Mayer van den Bergh Museum
Photo : Bart Huysmans
et Michel Wuyts

This initial section which also summarizes the show is followed by two sequences forming the biographical introduction. With "Ses racines flamandes, source d’inspiration" [Her Flemish roots, a source of inspiration] then "Rubens, un ancêtre rêvé !" [Rubens, an ideal ancestor], the curators recall Marguerite Yourcenar’s Flemish origins which no doubt stirred her curiosity in Flemish art. Portraits of her ancestors, a family tree - contributing names to some of the characters in L’Oeuvre au Noir -, photographs of the Mont Noir - the château where she spent her childhood, sold in 1913 then destroyed in WWI and today the site of the Villa Yourcenar - and extracts from her autobiographical trilogy Le Labyrinthe du Monde appear in succession. Thus, Marguerite Yourcenar was born Cleenwerck de Crayencour (Yourcenar is an anagram) in Brussels before being raised in French-speaking Flanders where "the first rooms of her imaginary museum" [9] took shape around the gallery of ancestral portraits and small canvases in the family château. The move to Paris and then London with her father in 1913-1914 confirmed the young girl’s attraction to art, with frequent visits to the museums and monuments of both capitals. The same reflex would kick in when traveling to Madrid, Vienna, Leningrad, Geneva, Washington, Florence and Brussels, instilling a sure eye for painting in general, Flemish art in particular. However, the writer Marguerite Yourcenar who drew her resources from Flemish paintings for her literary production was soon overtaken by the art historian [10] who saw not just a novelistic interest in the works- taking them apart to compose her own - but also a conceptual one. The novelist and the Flemish renaissance artists came together to create a private operational and intellectual mode availing themselves of the same procedure, one which rarely makes the foreground the subject being treated. The exhibition evokes in successive sequences varying topics favored by both the writer and the painters. From animal representation (ill. 5) to apocalyptic scenes (ill. 6), including winter landscapes (ill. 7), the theme of alchimy or the parable of the prodigal son, they all go beyond the narrative level to transform the novel or painting into an opening, reaching outside of its confines, rather than a mere end in itself. The next section, "Delvaux et Yourcenar, des mots à l’image"[from words to images] closes the visit and, after exploring the process leading from images to words, the focus returns from words to images. When in 1982, the novelist accepted the synopsis for the film adaptation of her novel by the Belgian director, Andre Delvaux, initiating a long correspondance between them, she confirms the indications outlined earlier concerning her creative process, her wish to transcend the images so as not to fall into the trap of simply recreating the work. None of the erudition of Flemish painting acquired by Marguerite Yourcenar is intended for historical reconstruction, "the idea is not to prove that we are indeed in 16th century Bruges but to enter a universe which corresponds to the conscious and unconscious image we have of this Bruges" [11]. Delvaux thus adopts a method which is very close to that of Marguerite Yourcenar, shooting very little in Bruges as she does not describe its sites or monuments in her pages, avoiding a "historical film", just like the references to Flemish art in the novel are made thanks to settings and light rather than a specific narrative.

8. Peter Paul Rubens
The Three Graces
Oil on Panel
Firenze, Galleria Palatina
Appartamenti Reali
Palazzo Pitti
Photo : Galleria Palatina

While the museological choices do an excellent job of remaining understated and do not eclipse the subject of the exhibition - the relationship between painting and writing - by eliminating any explanatory panels, and offering instead a short booklet - they do not help to really understand it. The catalogue, which does not reproduce the sections, and does not offer any entries nor list of the works on view, is not of much help either, as the exhibition and accompanying catalogue seem to function independently. It would be impossible obviously to assemble all the works which Marguerite Yourcenar alludes to but we find it unfortunate that the booklet and the catalogue do nothing to dispel the confusion surrounding the works reproduced in order to illustrate the essays and those presented in the show. Visitors will therefore retain the beautiful loans, the winter landscapes by Pieter Brueghel II (ill. 7) and Grimmer which come respectively from the Musée Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or the very beautiful grisaille by Rubens from the Galleria Palatina in Florence (ill. 8), which might or not be found in the catalogue. However, the excellent essays are a very welcome addition to current bibliography. This is because while "each of Yourcenar’s works seems to draw its source in a painting, engraving, statue or monument" [12], though she herself often evoked her relationship to images throughout her work - in her novels, essays and letters - and while several studies have been undertaken on the subject, very few have been actually published and an exhibition had never before been organized. The project planned by the Villa Yourcenar and the Musée archéologique du Nord for an exhibition sometime by 2016 at the latest, focusing this time on the novelist’s relationship to art from Antiquity, based on Les Mémoires d’Hadrien, should further our knowledge of this fascinating subject and the coincidences between Yourcenar’s writing and art.

Curators : Sandrine Vézillier and Achmy Halley.

Under the supervision of Sandrine Vézillier and Achmy Halley, Marguerite Yourcenar et la peinture flamande, Editions Snoeck, 2012, 120 p., 22 euros. ISBN : 9789461610515

Visitor information : Musée departemental de Flandre, 26 Grand Place, 59670 Cassel. Tel : +33(0)3 59 73 45 59. Open every day, from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 12.30 and from 2 pm to 6 pm ; Sundays from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission : 5 euros (reduced : 3 euros). Internet Website

Version française

Julie Demarle, jeudi 20 décembre 2012


[1] Sandrine Vézillier-Dussart, "Marguerite Yourcenar et la peinture flamande : un puzzle iconographique", pp. 35-45.

[2] Written by Marguerite Yourcenar between 1956 and 1959 and published in 1968 (Cambridge, Houghton Library).

[3] Note 29, p. 29.

[4] These are now at Petite plaisance, her last residence in the state of Maine, in the United States, among thirty others containing reproductions of Italian, French and Spanish painting, sculpture, etc.

[5] The appendices to the catalogue, pp. 114-117, list all of the postcards contained in each of the three albums.

[6] cf. in Notes de composition de L’oeuvre au Noir, quoted by C. Golieth, "La peinture dans l’écriture de Marguerite Yourcenar et d’Honoré de Balzac", Proceedings from the colloquium Marguerite Yourcenar écrivain du XIXe siècle ?, Clermont-Ferrand, Publications de la SIEY, 2004, p. 219.

[7] Agnès Fayet, "L’image déconstruite, reconstruite et inventée dans L’oeuvre au Noir de Marguerite Yourcenar", pp. 61-73.

[8] Defended in 2007 at the Université de Saint Etienne.

[9] Achmy Halley, p. 23.

[10] The essay by Didier Martens, "Marguerite Yourcenar, historienne de l’art des anciens Pays-Bas méridionaux et de la Principauté de Liège", pp. 75-95, sheds an interesting light on the subject and strives to prove, with five examples taken from the novelist’s overall writings, that she was a veritable and methodic but above all, visionary art historian.

[11] Sandrine Veziller, p. 35.

[12] Jean-Marie Le Sidaner, "Le musée imaginaire en matrice d’oeuvres"in Le Magazine Littéraire, special issue n. 16 "La beauté", February-March 2009, p. 28.

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