Albert Baertsoen, 'Gent, ‘s avonds', 1903, Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

This September, the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) will open its festive year with an exhibition devoted to Albert Baertsoen (1866-1922), a leading Belgian artist of the fin de siècle. For the first time in 50 years, the museum will shine the spotlight on this acclaimed artist who was held in such high esteem both in Belgium and far beyond.

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Albert Baertsoen: the Ghent painter
This September, the MSK will kick off celebrations to mark its 225th anniversary, and to open the festive year it will stay firmly in Ghent. In collaboration with Ghent University, the MSK will be shining a light on painter, illustrator and graphic artist Albert Baertsoen (1866-1922): the son of a factory-owning family from Ghent, a semi-autodidact, and a prominent figure in the Belgian and international art scenes at the turn of the century.

Baertsoen’s career took off like a rocket when he won the gold medal at the Antwerp Salon of 1888, at the age of barely 22. In the wake of this early success he assembled an impressive network of art aficionados, collectors and fellow artists. More than any other artist in Belgium, he contributed a truly independent voice to the discussion of art in his time. And he did so not with the intention of promoting his own work, but primarily to advance the careers of the young artists whom he found promising. As a result, he was uniquely appreciated in both conservative and progressive circles.

Baertsoen’s contemporaries described him as le peintre de Gand - the Ghent painter - not only in recognition of his artistic importance, but also in reference to his deep love of his home city. He was particularly interested in the shabby, dirty, abandoned corners of the city, which he painted countless times from from the early 1890s on. Given his fascination at how modern developments were slowly changing the face of medieval cities, it is not surprising that he was also intrigued by Symbolist writers such as Georges Rodenbach - who, in turn, owned works by Baertsoen.

National and international renown
But Baertsoen did not limit himself to Ghent. Instead, he quickly became a highly acclaimed landscape painter, depicting the Schelde region, the North Sea and the countryside and, as befitted the son of a textile factory owner, industrial landscapes as well. After having a luxurious houseboat built for himself in 1897, he spent years on the interior waterways of Belgium and the Netherlands, working in his floating studio.

Foreign shores also beckoned. Like many Belgian artists, Baertsoen stayed in London during World War I, having worked there frequently from the early 1890s on. His expositions at the Venice Biennale and the Vienna Secession also helped extend his influence far outside of his native Belgium, and by the start of the 20th century his works were exhibited internationally more often than those of almost any other Belgian artist.

Baertsoen’s international success was partly thanks to his large network, his confidently expressed opinions and his impressionist style. Like similar painters in his international circle of friends - Henri Le Sidaner and Frits Thaulow among them - his perspective on the world was coloured by Intimism, melancholy, and an almost photographic approach to observation. Notably often, he presented his landscapes and cityscapes in rainy or snowy weather. Above all, he was an artist who could become obsessively attached to the themes in his work, and would present them using a range of materials, and not only in his paintings but also in drawings, pastels and etchings.