Antoine Joseph Wiertz (22
February 1806 – 18 June 1865) was a Belgian romantic painter
Born in Dinant from a relatively poor family, he entered the
Antwerp art academy in 1820. Thanks to his protector
Pierre-Joseph de Paul de Maibe, a member of the Second
Chamber of the States-General, king William I of the
Netherlands awarded an annual stipend to Wiertz from 1821
onwards. Between November 1829 and May 1832, he stayed in
Paris, where he studied the old masters at the Louvre.
In 1828, Wiertz came out
second in the competition for the prestigious Prix de Rome
which he attained on his second attempt in 1832; it enabled
him to go to the French Academy at Rome, where he resided
from May 1834 until February 1837. Upon his return, he
established himself in Liège with his mother.
During his stay in Rome,
Wiertz worked on his first great work, Les Grecs et les
Troyens se disputant le corps de Patrocle ("Greeks and
Trojans fighting for the body of Patroclus", finished in
1836), on a subject borrowed from book XVII of Homer's
Iliad. It was exhibited in Antwerp in 1837, where it met
with some success. Wiertz submitted the work for the Paris
Salon of 1838, but it arrived too late and was refused.
At the Paris Salon of 1839, Wiertz showed not only his
Patrocles, but also three other works: Madame Laetitia
Bonaparte sur son lit de mort ("Madame Laetitia Bonaparte on
her deathbed"), La Fable des trois souhaits—Insatiabilité
humaine ("The fable of the three wishes—Human
insatiability") and Le Christ au tombeau ("Christ
entombed"). Badly hung and lit, his entry elicited
indifference on the part of the public, and provoked sarcasm
among the critics. This second humiliation led to a profound
rancour against art critics and against Paris, as expressed
in his virulent pamphlet Bruxelles capitale, Paris province.
In 1844, Wiertz painted a
second version of his Patrocles on an even bigger scale than
the first (the 1836 version measures 3.85m by 7.03m; the
1844 version 5.20m by 8.52). The Rome version is now in the
Museum of Walloon Art in Liège, the 1844 in the Wiertz
Museum in Brussels.
After the Paris disaster,
Wiertz veered more and more to the excessive. A fine example
is the monumental La Chute des Anges rebelles ("The Fall of
the rebellious Angels", 1841), on an arched canvas of 11.53m
The death of his mother in
1844 was a terrible blow to the artist. He left Liège in
1845 to settle in Brussels for good. During this period he
painted a confrontation of Beauty and Death, Deux jeunes
filles—La Belle Rosine (1847), which remains perhaps his
most famous work.
Dissatisfied with the shiny effect of oil painting, he
developed a new technique combining the smoothness of oil
painting with the speed of execution and the dullness of
painting in fresco. This technique of mat painting entailed
the use of a mixture of colours, turpentine and petrol on
holland. La Lutte homérique ("The Homeric struggle", 1853)
was the first big-scale painting executed in this technique.
However, the components used in this technique are
responsible for the slow decay of the works produced with
Many of his works from the
1850s have a social of philosophical message, often
translated in delirious imagery, like Faim, Folie et Crime
("Hunger, Madness and Crime", 1853), La Liseuse de Romans
("The Reader of Novels", 1853), Le Suicide ("The Suicide",
1854), L'Inhumation précipitée ("The premature burial",
1854), Le Dernier Canon ("The last gun", 1855).
Wiertz was also a fine
portrait painter, who made self-portraits at various ages.
As a sculptor, he produced his most important project
towards the end of his life: a series of plasters
representing Les Quatre Âges de l'Humanité ("The Four Ages
of Humanity", 1860–1862), reproduced in marble for the
Wiertz museum by Auguste Franck.
Influenced mainly by Rubens
and the late Michelangelo, Wiertz' monumental painting often
moves between classical academism and lurid romanticism,
between the grandiose and the ridiculous. Although his work
was often derided as art pompier, his pictorial language
nevertheless preannounced symbolism and a certain kind of
surrealism, two currents that would be very strong in
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