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  • Writer's pictureFernanda Matsuoka

An Intro to the Artistic Movements in Belgium

The Ghent Altarpiece, in St. Bavo's Cathedral (Copyright: Corlazzzoli)

Belgium, a land renowned for its rich tapestry of history, culture, and art, offers an unparalleled journey through time for art enthusiasts. From the opulence of the Northern Renaissance to the whimsical world of comics, Belgium's artistic heritage is a testament to its enduring creative spirit.

We have curated the quick timeline with the main artistic movements that are key to understanding Belgium and its history. Each art movement and its artists serve as canvases that vividly illustrate the cultural and societal contexts of their respective periods. Here, we delve into these transformative movements that have shaped Belgium's cultural landscape, providing a foundational understanding for travellers seeking to immerse themselves in the country's artistic treasures.

Northern Renaissance (15th - 16th Century): The Dawn of Flemish Art

The Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, by Van Eyck, in1434, National Gallery, London.

The Northern Renaissance, spanning the 15th and 16th centuries, marked a golden age for Flemish art. This period was characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, vibrant colors, and a profound sense of realism. The Flemish Primitives, as they are often called, led this movement with illustrious figures such as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Portrait" and the Ghent Altarpiece are seminal works that exemplify the era's artistic achievements. Pieter Brueghel the Elder also made significant contributions with his detailed landscapes and peasant scenes, most notably in "The Hunters in the Snow" and "The Peasant Wedding."

Baroque (Late 16th - 17th Century): Brilliance of Rubens and Van Dyck

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, from Saint Walburga, 1610 (now in Antwerp Cathedral)

As the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque period in the late 16th century, Peter Paul Rubens emerged as a towering figure in Belgian art. Rubens' dynamic compositions, dramatic use of light and shadow, and exuberant energy are hallmarks of Baroque art. His works, such as "The Descent from the Cross" and "The Garden of Love," are celebrated for their emotional intensity and grandeur. Anthony van Dyck, Rubens' most famous pupil, also made significant contributions with his elegant portraits, which influenced European portraiture for generations.

Art Nouveau (Late 19th - Early 20th Century): Aesthetic Revolution

Solvay House, in Brussels (Credits:

The turn of the 20th century saw Belgium at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement, which emphasized organic forms, intricate designs, and a departure from traditional artistic norms. Victor Horta, a pioneer of this style, revolutionized architecture with his innovative designs. Horta's Hôtel Tassel in Brussels is a quintessential example of Art Nouveau architecture, featuring sinuous lines and elaborate ornamentation. Another notable figure, Henry van de Velde, contributed significantly to both architecture and design, further cementing Belgium's role in this avant-garde movement.

Surrealism (1920s - 1960s): Magritte & DELVAUX

René Magritte, Le fils de l’homme, 1964; private collection; © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Banque d’Images, ADAGP / Art Resource, NY René Magritte, Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952; collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis; © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York René Magritte, Le domaine enchanté I (The Enchanted Domain I), 1953; Würth Collection, Künzelsau, Germany; © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Banque d’Images, ADAGP / Art Resource, NY René Magritte, L’empire des lumières (The Dominion of Light), 1954; Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York René Magritte, L’heureux donateur (The Happy Donor), 1966; Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels; ©© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: © Community Museum of Ixelles René Magritte, Le monde invisible (The Invisible World), 1954; The Menil Collection, Houston; ©© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston René Magritte, La courbure de l’univers (The Curvature of the Universe), 1950; the Menil Collection, Houston; ©© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Paul Hester René Magritte, La préméditation (Forethought), 1943; Koons Collection; © ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York René Magritte, Le tombeau des lutteurs (The Tomb of the Wrestlers), 1960; © Charly Herscovici

In the realm of surrealism, René Magritte stands out as a key figure whose work continues to captivate audiences worldwide. Magritte's paintings, characterized by their witty and thought-provoking imagery, challenge perceptions of reality. Iconic works such as "The Son of Man" and "The Treachery of Images" ("This is not a pipe") invite viewers to question the nature of representation and reality. Another significant surrealist, Paul Delvaux, is known for his dreamlike scenes and haunting nudes, with "The Sleeping Venus" being one of his most famous works.

Expressionism (Late 19th): James Ensor

The Intrigue, by James Ensor (1890). Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

James Ensor, a precursor to expressionism, is celebrated for his macabre and satirical works. His painting "The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889" is a prime example of his unique style, blending carnival imagery with biting social commentary. Ensor's influence on Belgian art cannot be overstated, as he paved the way for future generations of artists exploring the depths of human emotion and societal critique.

Modernism (Early 20th Century - Present): Innovations and Beyond

Panamerenko in front of his Aeromodeller (Credit: Michiel Hendryckx)

Moving into the realm of modernism, artists like Panamarenko have made substantial contributions. Panamarenko's whimsical sculptures, such as "The Aeromodeller," blend art and engineering in imaginative ways that challenge traditional notions of art and society. Belgium's contemporary art scene remains vibrant and dynamic, with artists like Luc Tuymans and Michaël Borremans gaining international acclaim. Tuymans is known for his understated yet powerful paintings that often explore historical and political themes, with "Gas Chamber" being particularly noteworthy. Borremans' enigmatic works, such as "The Pupils," characterized by their surreal and sometimes unsettling imagery, continue to push the boundaries of contemporary art.

The Comic Strip (20th Century - Present): Belgium’s Graphic Legacy

The Smurfs Street Art in Brussels. Credit: Eric Danhier

Belgium's artistic innovation extends to the realm of comic strips, where it has established a significant legacy. Hergé, the creator of "The Adventures of Tintin," is perhaps the most famous Belgian comic artist. Tintin's adventures have delighted readers around the globe, showcasing Hergé's meticulous style and storytelling prowess. Another prominent figure is Peyo, the creator of "The Smurfs," whose charming blue characters have become cultural icons.


Curate Your Artistic Journey with Sapiens

Belgium's rich artistic heritage offers a fascinating journey through time, from the intricate realism of the Northern Renaissance to the bold innovations of contemporary art. Each movement and artist has left an indelible mark on the country's cultural landscape, providing travelers with a deeper understanding of Belgium's historical and artistic evolution. At Sapiens Travel DMC, we invite you to explore these artistic treasures and immerse yourself in the stories and legacies that have shaped Belgium's unique identity. Whether strolling through a Baroque cathedral, marveling at an Art Nouveau masterpiece, or pondering the surreal world of Magritte, your journey through Belgian art will be one of discovery and inspiration.


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