Marcel Maeyer, Pierre Lepennec, James Ensor and Marcel De Maeyer: Portrait of the artist as an art historian, curator, connoisseur and professor

by Herwig Todts (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp)

Ivo van Hove's theatre piece, Een Klein Leven/A Little Life (after Hanya Yanagihara), portrays the life of four friends in New York. One of the four, an artist, secretly painted the portrait of the deeply tragic anti-hero Jude. On one of the walls of the stage scenery hung, recently in deSingel, the nearly photorealistic, painted image of the helpless young man, Jude, whose figure and face emerges from the canvas so to speak. I immediately thought of the paintings of Marcel Maeyer, whose works we had displayed in the permanent presentation of the museum collection of the KMSKA in 2009. We exhibited still lives, clouds, scenes in Venice and the dramatized portraits that I so vividly remember. It was the second exhibition that I organised as a museum curator and former student of Professor Emeritus Marcel De Maeyer in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp, the museum where he had been Curator from 1949 until 1960. It was also then a perfect opportunity to discuss my exhibition project, Goya, Redon, Ensor, with the Ensor expert that De Maeyer was. (I have not, however, followed the suggestion by the former professor to directly turn the eponymous exhibition catalogue into a doctoral thesis.)

Art historian

Just as with Léon Spilliaert, Marcel De Maeyer (1920-2018) grew up in a well-running hair dresser-perfumery in the Stationsstraat in Sint-Niklaas, at the time the prosperous capital of the Belgian knitting-works. De Maeyer's artistic talent was primarily developed by his mother's brother, the Late-Impressionist painter Alphonse Proost, a teacher of painting at the Antwerp Academie from 1920 until 1945.[1] Although it was once completely different, De Maeyer's assessment of his uncle's art became much milder later. "The play of light in the evening: that red-orange between the green, I had the impression that my uncle could masterly reproduce that. The intertwining usage of contrasts between warm and cold in one stroke ... the vibration. The manner in which I saw my uncle's painting I found to be brilliant. Later, one becomes critical (...)." [2]

De Maeyer's parents probably did not have much trouble with encouraging their son to ensure a solid future for himself by first earning a diploma. Undoubtedly it also did not cause much trouble for De Maeyer, who was a brilliant intellectual though who was no adventurer, to simultaneously earn a degree in History and in Art History as well Archaeology at the Rijksuniversiteit in Ghent. In 1952, he advanced to a doctorate in Art History while he had begun a solid career in the world of museums and research.

Walther Vanbeselaere, Professor of the history of Modern Art at the Rijksuniversiteit in Ghent during the Second World War, was appointed as Head Curator of the KMSKA by Minister Camille Huysmans in 1948, on the condition that he, being a Flemish Catholic, would accept the appointments of two liberal adjuncts. They were his former students Marcel De Maeyer and Roger-A. d'Hulst, who was a few years older than De Maeyer. In 1957, both would follow in the footsteps of Vanbeselaere and first become a teacher and then subsequently professor at the Rijkuniversiteit in Ghent.

"Professor De Maeyer would primarily emerge as an advocate for the art-historical research into the modern and contemporary art with the same knowledge of affairs and critical attitude with which students learned to study the Old Masters."

At the Higher Institute for Art History of the Rijksuniversiteit of Ghent, Roger-A. d'Hulst and Marcel De Maeyer represented two strongly differing art-historical worlds to a certain degree. Rubens and Jordaens expert Roger d'Hulst was the co-founder and Director of the Nationaal Centrum voor de Plastische Kunsten in de Nederlanden van de 16de en 17de eeuw (now the Rubenianum) in Antwerp. De Maeyer's dissertation about (the 17th-century governors) Albrecht and Isabella and the art of painting: contribution to the history of the 17th-century painting in the Southern Netherlands, from 1952 [3] has remained to this day a primary reference source. However, Professor De Maeyer would primarily emerge as an advocate for the art-historical research into the modern and contemporary art with the same knowledge of affairs and critical attitude with which students learned to study the Old Masters. [4]

Ensor expert

Egon Schiele expert and art dealer Jane Kallir recently sounded the alarm in The Art Newspaper. She fears that the art market shall definitively drain serious, critical and ambitious connoisseurship. The academic art researchers are handing over the classical stylistic, critical research, the reconstruction of artistic oeuvres and the writing of the history of the artistic styles to individual experts, whose work is subordinated by the agenda of the art market. According to Jane Kallir, they also entrench themselves too deeply within Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Freudian and other anti-canonical research perspectives. [5]

D'Hulst and De Maeyer were classical connoisseurs to be sure. D'Hulst published an impressive reconstruction of the drawings of Jacob Jordaens. De Maeyer's most important art-historical exploit (in addition to the archival research mentioned above) are two, fairly short articles, no longer than 44 pages, about a crucial aspect of James Ensor's creative process. As adjunct-curator, De Maeyer had assisted Vanbeselaere during the preparation of the major Ensor retrospective that the KMSKA organised in 1951 as well as prospecting for possible acquisitions that would make the Antwerp museum collection the most important Ensor collection in the world. [6] De Maeyer told me that he had access to all of the great Ensor collections of the time and methodically photographed all paintings and drawings recto and verso with great precision. Because of this, he managed the best documentation with respect to the oeuvre of James Ensor for many years.

De Maeyer discovered that a number of Ensor's most important works, paintings and drawings were the product of a transformation-process, and that the artist deliberately antedated them. The burden of proof for this is an exemplary stylistic analysis, supplemented by convincing material-technical observations and research of the available documents. De Maeyer points to the beginning of a group of oil paintings that are stylistically and iconographically inconsistent. The painting Masks Watching a Negro Minstrel (1879 and 1888 & 90 and ca. 1905?) is a prime example of this. The presentation combines diverse components: (a) a nearly naked, black man, sitting on a wooden bin, who holds in his hands the long stick that models used during posing sessions at the academy in order to be able to hold the same position for a long time; this portion of the composition is painted in light-coloured and brown tones, so that that light and shadow portray the volume and the position of the chief personage in the space; (b) on the right side, a mass of eight carnival masks emerge, some wearing headgear and appearing to have a body, and they are painted in clear and vibrant colours and stand in contrast to a waving curtain. Stylistically the main personage belongs with the model studies that Ensor painted at the academy in Brussels from 1877 until 1880. The throng of carnival masks fits in stylistically and iconographically with the masquerade scenes that Ensor would paint beginning only in 1888. The group of paintings in which Ensor transformed an existing composition through important supplementations in a comparable way consists of no more than 12 or 13 works. Ensor has dated these works 1879, 1880, 1883, 1884, 1885, 1887, 1889 (and 1896).

"De Maeyer's contribution to Ensor research is, as I have already noted, not extensive, but remains of crucial importance because his findings remain the point of departure for a stylistic-critical analysis of Ensor's work." 

De Maeyer could, again on the basis of classical stylistic research, demonstrate that a whole series of drawings were also the result of transformations from older, realistic presentations to which Ensor, most likely around 1886/90, added humorous, devilish creatures, which completely changed the meaning of the original, realistic presentations. De Maeyer's contribution to Ensor research is, as I have already noted, not extensive, but remains of crucial importance because his findings remain the point of departure for a stylistic-critical analysis of Ensor's work. Moreover, he keenly posits the question about the character of the early work, the grotesque iconography and the later work and we are compelled to ponder over the stylistic concept of the various parts of Ensor's oeuvre: are the 'bourgeois salons' realistically, impressionistically or symbolically interpreted; is the creative process associative, nearly surrealistic or rather Mannerist; and how does the work of art relate to the person behind the work ...

De Maeyer had also later indicated an entire series of copies and clean versions of early works that Ensor painted after 1900, and of which some of them were again antedated. [7] De Maeyer published his finding respectively in the Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen 'De mystieke dood van een godgeleerde van James Ensor, 1962-3 (The mystical death of a theologian by James Ensor) and in the Bulletin van de Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België 'De genese van masker-, travestie- en skeletmotieven in het oeuvre van James Ensor', 1963 (The genesis of mask, travesty and skeleton motifs in the oeuvre of James Ensor). For the Nationaal Biografisch Woordenboek (deel X) [8], De Maeyer would again write a very abbreviated, yet nuanced and informative, introduction to Ensor's life and work.

In the meantime, he was asked steadily more to speak out about the authenticity and dating of works attributed to Ensor and naturally he thus further continued to develop his expertise. In the course of the 1960s, he was in the news because he was successful in unmasking a very adept and productive falsifier of Ensor drawings-a large number of the known, fake Ensor drawings still surface at art auctions.

In 1977, De Maeyer's daughter Lies was still able to make use of the rich documentation from her father in order to write an excellent study of Ensor's early drawings. [9] De Maeyer's Ensor documentation naturally continued to increase after this date, but that this was not applied to systematically stimulate Ensor research did not bother De Maeyer in the least.

Due to the lack of just the right man or woman, museum director, curator or academic at just the right place, we have still, sadly enough, not been successful in making De Maeyer's Ensor expertise and documentation permanently available for further research. The importance of influential connoisseurs, curators and university researchers for the oeuvre of James Ensor is growing around the world. In light of this, and in light of the renewed emphasis on the creative process by way of material-technical research, it is highly regrettable that De Maeyer's documentation is not accessible.


As a professor, Marcel De Maeyer primarily invested a great deal of time and energy into the quality of his lectures. And, in 1985 when he was compelled to accept his emeritus status, that made him genuinely sad, because he wanted to give lessons with great passion both to the bachelors' students as well as to the more 'specialisation seeking' masters' students. In his valediction lecture he compared himself with the famous Charioteer of Delphi, cut off from the carriage that he wanted to spur on in order to achieve the victory. Museum directors, curators, artists, critics and academics that had played an important role in the Belgian art world during the previous forty years such as Dirk De Vos, Wim Van Mulders, Jan Hoet, Willy Vandenbussche, Lydia Schoonbaert, Lukas Vandenabeele, Robert Hoozee, Florent Bex, Bart Cassiman, Bart De Baere and Professor Emeritus Claire Van Damme, were all 'his' students.

De Maeyer was a passionate art historian and educator. However, I must confess that I have a real understanding for the many bachelor students of history, who with a mixture of disbelief and incomprehension, tried to fathom the art-historical incantation of Marcel De Maeyer.

"What I learned from De Maeyer for myself is a fundamental attention for the expressiveness of the image, and how this time and time again comes into being through the medium of a well-conceived concept and a goal-orientated realisation that can mutually nurture each other."

Often, by way of apology, it was said that De Maeyer only wanted to teach the students to look. Maybe that is perhaps a bit of a lazy and untrustworthy assessment of De Maeyer's vision of artistry and the creative process. With the seventeenth-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal, De Maeyer positioned the 'esprit de finesse' against what was, in his opinion, the completely absurd abomination of the purely rational thinking: the 'esprit de géométrie', which he viewed to be an obstacle for the artistry, for the sensibility of the artist and even of humankind itself. What I learned from De Maeyer for myself is a fundamental attention for the expressiveness of the image, and how this time and time again comes into being through the medium of a well-conceived concept and a goal-orientated realisation that can mutually nurture each other. D'Hulst had us read Walter Gibson about Bosch and Bruegel. With De Maeyer, we read Eugene Delacroix's Theory of Art by George Mras.

The art historian as artist

De Maeyer was naturally not bothered by the compulsion 'to publish or perish' at the time. That he took pleasure with the role as a passionate instructor and connoisseur is nevertheless to be ascribed to the fact that he developed his artistry as well in a very different, purely creating way. The dream to paint, to draw and to be able to devote himself with ambition to the making of art, which De Maeyer undoubtedly cultivated from a young age, came within reach when he was appointed as professor. It was in the 1960s that he did not enter into the spotlight first in Belgium, but rather in Milan and Paris with three-dimensional creations that adhere to the Nouveau Réalisme, although Maeyer's presentation of Suetonius's De Vita Duodecim Caesarum appears unexpectedly 'highbrow'. The expressive oeuvre of Maeyer naturally bore the traces of a cultivated intellect. All of Maeyer's oeuvre is also characterised by a continual shifting of style, iconography and technique, which was clearly fuelled by the artistic questions that were successively pertinent for the previous 60 years: the end of the tableau de chevalet in the 1960s, the unexpected return of the painting in a hyper-realistic form, the intriguing challenge by which photography continues to replace the art of painting, the status of the work of art and the finality of the artistry. About this he said himself, "I shall always keep searching after something new. Would rather make a mistake than to be stranded and be stagnant."

"The expressive oeuvre of Maeyer naturally bore the traces of a cultivated intellect. All of Maeyer's oeuvre is also characterised by a continual shifting of style, iconography and technique, which was clearly fuelled by the artistic questions that were successively pertinent for the previous 60 years."

In the 1970s Maeyer enjoyed great critical and commercial success with his version of hyperrealism, and this time indeed in Belgium. However, it would not be proper to neglect his later, less well-known and somewhat more tenacious oeuvre. During long vacations in Bretagne the idea arose to create the oeuvre of an imaginary amateur painter: Pierre Lepennec 1952-1991, Peintre et Gardien de Phare Breton. He produced a Lepennec File with documents, letters and commentary, and exposed the fresh, little paintings of the painting lighthouse attendant in 1992 in Kassel at the Documenta IX, which Jan Hoet, Denys Zacharopoulos and Pier Luigi Tazzi organised. Van Gogh and Gauguin and De Maeyer's own aunt Léonie would provide material for the related projects. All of Maeyer's oeuvre, up to the paintings that he painted in the last 20 years of his life, invariably display a mixture of melancholy, curiosity, irony and an invitation for reflection, for which he always has gone in search after the most appropriate technique, even if he often had to start over from scratch.

As a professor, De Maeyer was spared the dilemma of the nineteenth-century painter who primarily had to paint 'pour la soupe' and only be able to work a few times 'pour la glorie'. For his whole life, 'the professor' had indeed known that some were asking themselves whether a creating artist could truly be a serious professor, while others were again questioning the integrity of his artistry.

Gorgés de printemps

Shortly after his 98th birthday, Marcel De Maeyer, in his little church of Sint-Martens-Latem, at the end of his bidding farewell to his wife, Gabriele - Bieke - De Beule, spoke and recited in a poignant way, "Egidius, where have you gone?/I miss you, my companion./You chose for death, you left me to live!//That was friendship, fine and true/..." Those present, family and former students that had meanwhile become friends knew how true those words were. De Maeyer's wife was indeed his life-long, sharp-minded companion. They shared the love and the sorrow that had not escaped them, the art-historical trade, the love for art, yet just as much the art of living. Early in the 1960s, De Maeyer built a simple, yet cosy home in a small, deciduous wood that crops up in the last remaining, undivided marshy grasslands close to the Leie in Latem. He called it the 'finis terrae'. Every summer, an inevitably dwindling crowd of friends found their way to De Maeyer's garden paradise in order to celebrate the 'professor's' birthday with him. Charles Aznavour, who this year also exchanged the temporary realm for the eternal, aptly sings: "Nous avons eu de bons moments, nous avons eu de grands moments, ... des crépuscules clairs ... des aubes grises ... gorgés de printemps". The lust for life that characterised De Maeyer as a professor, artist and human being has indeed remained as fresh as spring.


[1] Claire Van Damme, (in collaboration with Herwig Todts), Marcel Maeyer, Antwerp: Royal Museum of Fine Arts, 1986, is a thorough introduction to the personality, career path and art of Marcel (De) Maeyer.

[2] Patricia Maes, Gespreken met Marcel Maeyer, Ludion 2000, p. 13.

[3] Published: Brussels: Flemish Royal Academy for the Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium, 1955.

[4] Claire Van Damme & Paul Van Calster (ed.), De Wagenmenner en andere Verhalen. Album Discipulorum Prof. Dr. M. De Maeyer, Rijksuniversiteit Gent: Seminarie voor Plastische Kunsten in Europa, 1986, collected short studies of students who ventured under the guidance of Marcel De Maeyer into the terrain of modern and contemporary art, from François Navez to Philippe Vandenberg.

[5] consulted on 15-10-2018.

[6] Herwig Todts, 'Vanbeselaere: een museumdirecteur en de canon van de moderne kunst in België, Walther Vanbeselaere, Verzamelaar voor de staat 1948 - 1973, Deurle Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens 2017, p. 116ff.

[7] For a summary and supplement of De Maeyer's findings, see Herwig Todts, Ensor, Occasional Modernist. Ensor's Artistic and Social Ideas and the Interpretation of his Art, Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2018 (forthcoming), p. 23, 237ff, 274. - Jean F. Buyck, Conversation with Marcel Maeyer about James Ensor, Museummagazine, 3-4 (1885), p. 42.

[8] Brussels: Royal Academies of Belgium, 1964, col. 470ff. The two previously published studies were still only issued in Dutch, French and English in exhibition catalogues. De Maeyer himself provided the text for the Ensor edition of I Maestri del Colore nr. 169, Milan: Fratelli Fabbri editore, 1966.

[9] James Ensor, tekeningen en akwarellen, 1873-1885 (1977, RU Ghent), unpublished undergraduate thesis under the sponsorship of Prof. D'Hulst. See also: Lies De Maeyer, Modernistische aspecten van James Ensorssilhouettekeningen en aquarellen van 1880 tot 82, Museummagazine, 3-4, (1885), p. 55ff.

Herwig Todts