As a writer and art lover, I often find inspiration in the artwork of the general period in which I am writing. 18th and 19th century paintings, especially, can evoke a particular thought or feeling that is helpful to me in my creative process. Perhaps an expression in a portrait triggers an idea for a trait in one of my heroines. Or perhaps a landscape inspires me to set a scene in a park. Often, inspiration is triggered by nothing more than a particular color – a red scarf or a pair of blue shoes.
Paintings, in their most basic role, can help us to visualize settings, fashions, the texture of fabrics, and even, if the artist is good enough, the emotional complexity of relationships between the artists’ subjects. Sometimes, however, there is no naming what it is about a painting that strikes a spark of inspiration in us. Is it the colors? The textures? The shadows and light?
Recently, while researching an article, I came across some extraordinary paintings by 19th century artists Alfred Stevens, Auguste Toulmouche, and Gustave Léonard de Jonghe. These paintings were so stunning and so filled with luminous fabrics, rich colors, and fashionably elegant ladies surrounded by lush interiors, that I had to share a few of them with you here. I will be posting an article on each artist eventually, but for today I hope you will enjoy the following selection of Gustave de Jonghe’s work along with a brief, biographical sketch. Perhaps, if you are a bit like me, you might even glean a bit of inspiration for your writing!
Gustave Léonard de Jonghe was born in the Belgian city of Courtray (Kortrijk) in 1829. He was the son of renowned modern landscape painter Jan Baptiste de Jonghe and received his first art lessons from his father. In 1844, he went on to study at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. There, he was taught by Belgian neo-classical painter François-Joseph Navez.
In 1855, de Jonghe relocated to Paris. He became a popular painter, his work well-received by both the public and the art critics. An 1866 article in The Art Journal of London predicted a favorable future for him, stating:
“M. de Jonghe possesses a valuable quality, one which the schools of Antwerp and Brussels have sometimes too much sacrificed to the seductions of effect; we mean the quality of sentiment, without which Art is nothing more than a carcass grandly adorned.”
Over the next 30 years, de Jonghe’s works were frequently exhibited at the Salon of French Artists. Though his early paintings tended more toward religious themes, the bulk of his career was devoted to portraits or depictions of families, with luxurious interiors often forming the background setting. This style was similar to that of Belgian painter Alfred Stevens and, upon Stevens’ death, de Jonghe was considered by many to be his successor.
Gustave de Jonghe is often referred to as a genre painter. In Philip Hamerton’s 1895 essay Painting in France after the Decline of Neoclassicism, he describes the style of de Jonghe’s paintings as follows:
“The ‘historical painters,’ as they called themselves, evolved antique life in a great measure out of their own imaginations, but the painters of genre have set it before us with wonderful vividness and truth, so that, although they do not call themselves historical painters, they paint more historically than those who prided themselves upon that title. Even the pictures of modern life which seem to us, what they really are, mere elegant trifles, will in future ages be trifles of remarkable interest and people will go to Toulmouche and De Jonghe to peep inside a lady’s boudoir of this nineteenth century and see the lady there taking off her glove, or putting it on, or looking at herself in the glass, or ringing the bell, – in short doing one of those unimportant little actions which afford pretexts for pictures.”
Hamerton describes de Jonghe’s paintings as being “sincere” and “in perfect taste.” He also praises de Jonghe’s work for its “perfect avoidance of vulgarity.” This was a huge compliment when it is considered that many other 19th century artists who portrayed similar scenes, tended to be categorized by critics as bourgeois or vulgar. As Hamerton writes:
“Very many painters attempt little scenes of this kind, and fall into the bathos of bourgeois sentiment and Philistinism, — the very conditions of intellect and feeling that are most hostile and dangerous to fine art.”
Gustave Léonard de Jonghe died in Antwerp in 1893. Those paintings of his that are not now in private collections can be found hanging in some of the finest museums in the world, including The Musée d’Orsay in Paris, The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
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