Dr. Jules Destrée, Brussels;
Georges Hulin de Loo, Ghent;
Georges Frédéric, Brussels by 1948;
Professor Lucien Deloyers, Brussels
Rétrospective Léon Frédéric, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1948, no. 57.
Exhibition, Hotel communal et Maison des Arts Schaerbeck, Léon Frédéric, December 5 – January 27, 2001.
Georges Frederic, Catalogue raisonnée de l’oeuvre de Léon Frédéric , n° ?.
Leon Frédéric drew on contemporary and earlier influences as well as on his
own personal spiritual views of life and nature to evolve a unique artistic style.
Working during a period when Impressionism and its offspring Divisionism and
Post-Impressionism were the main currents of avant-garde art, Frédéric’s
idiosyncratic realism comes as a considerable surprise.
Frédéric studied briefly under Charle-Albert before attending the Académie
Royal des Beaux-arts in Brussels, where he became a pupil of Jules
Vankeirsblick (1833-96) and Ernest Slingeneyer (1820-94). He also worked in
the studio of Jean-François Portaels (1818-1895).
The tenor of Frédéric’s work was formed largely by the Italian and Flemish art
of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the poetic paintings of the English
Pre-Raphaelites. A two-year sojourn in Italy (1876-78) which included visits to
Venice, Florence, Naples and Rome, exposed Frédéric to the works of the Italian
Renaissance. This experience conveyed to the painter the profound beauty of
nature with its artistic disposition toward harmony, and the inherent nobility of
mankind. This sense of harmony was balanced by a personal artistic vision
which conveyed a truthfulness to nature which was reinforced by Flemish and
German Old Master painters who had studied directly their natural surroundings.
Both Italian and Northern Renaissance schools depicted the natural world
through clear, detailed compositions, and their influence infuses Frédéric’s work
with a lucid and unaffected honesty. In his symbolist designs, including his
various large multi-paneled Cycles of Life , Frédéric attempts to unify Christian
mysticism with the current social conditions of the working class. The
landscapes included in many of these compositions take delight in a pantheistic
communion with nature.
Following his stay in Rome, Frédéric made his debut at the Brussels Salon in
1878. He then became a member of the Brussels-based association L’Essor , a
group of young artists who wanted to paint contemporary social reality instead
of using imaginary or literary themes as their artistic starting point.
Subsequently, his work was exhibited in Ghent, Liège, Munich, Nice and Paris.
He was awarded gold medals for painting at the Exposition Universelle of 1889
and 1900, and in 1929, together with James Ensor, Frédéric was created a baron.
Many of Frédéric’s early works show poor people and peasants, especially after
1883, when the artist moved from Brussels to Nafraiture, a small village in the
Ardennes region of Belgium where he lived for several years.
The present portrait was painted in the Ardennes in 1896. As often is the case in
Frédéric’s compositions from the mid 1890’s, social realism cloaks a strong
orientation toward hidden symbolism bound to a Christian mysticism still
present in the Belgian countryside. These forces formed the basis for Frédéric’s
profound involvement with naturalism, which conformed with ideas developed
at the same moment by critics such as Camill Lemonnier (1844-1913), a
member of the Symbolist La Jeune Belgique group in Brussels, and earlier by
John Ruskin (1819-1900) in England. This naturalism brings with it a portrayal
of an austere life and the misfortunes of poverty, which were understood to be
the result of industrial modernity. In Frédéric’s work there is no sense of revolt,
but a curious resignation, where both poverty and social reform remain accepted
The present realistic portrait is a superb work by Frédéric. The young girl with
her tilted head and slightly turned face set against the rural background provides
a powerful and mysterious visual effect. Although the model has not been
identified beyond the title “La petite Ardennaise,” she bears a resemblance to
Hélène Wauters, the daughter of the painter Emile Wauters. Frédéric had
painted a portrait of her as very young girl in 1891. (fig. 1) The sitter’s pose is
also reminiscent of the young girl standing at the left, holding a dark
earthenware pitcher, in the central panel of The Ages of the Working Man (1900-
01), now at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. (fig. 2)
It is difficult to see the connection between Frédérics early naturalist works and
his later Symbolist allegories. How do we reconcile the realism of a painting
like La petite Ardennaise with the almost surreal qualities of, for example,
Summer , painted in 1894 (fig. 3), one of the four panels of the Four Seasons in
the Philadelphia Museum of Art? Its bright, almost psychedelic colors seem far
removed from the earthy tones of Frédéric’s earlier works; its idealized body
different from their realistic figures, and its lack of spatial qualities unlike their
pronounced perspective. The radical transformation of Frédéric’s style was not
an unusual phenomenon, however, among the artists of his generation.
Numerous artists born in the 1850s – Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret in France, Jan
Toorop in the Netherlands, and Edvard Munch in Scandinavia, to name only a
few, went through a similar stylistic change in the late 1880s, as they became
increasingly attracted to, and involved with, the Symbolist movement. In
Frédéric’s case however, it was the form rather than the content of his works
that changed. Themes like the cycle of life and its inherent contrasts – youth
and old age, life and death – continued to be a major inspiration throughout his