In focus: The Human Passions by Jef Lambeaux | MSK Gent
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In focus: The Human Passions by Jef Lambeaux

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© Archives MSK

Walking in to the MSK’s Gallery N and its massive sculptures, it’s impossible to miss this impressive work by Jef Lambeaux. Created in plaster high relief, it has occupied a prominent spot here since 1913. This plaster version is a copy of the one in marble in the Jubelpark in Brussels, which has been on display again since this spring.


Jef Lambeaux (1852-1908) grew up in Antwerp and studied at the city’s Academy for Fine Arts. He presented his work at several salons in the 1870s; following a stint in Paris and a visit to Italy, his breakthrough as an artist came in the early 1880s. Lambeaux created The Human Passions at the height of his fame; other familiar works are his sculpture The Kiss and the Brabo Fountain on Antwerp’s Grote Markt.


Lambeaux worked on The Human Passions from 1887 to 1898. Although he intended to produce it in marble, for a long time it existed only on paper and in the clay and plaster sketches that he created at his sculpting table. The work sparked heated debate as soon as it was shown in 1889, when it was presented at the Ghent Salon in the form of full-sized charcoal drawings. But despite resistance from mainly Catholic critics, the Belgian government commissioned him to make it. At the same time, a young Victor Horta was recruited to design a dedicated pavilion, or tempietto, for it in the Jubelpark. The little temple opened its doors on 1 March 1899, but only very briefly. Three days later it was closed at the request of Lambeaux himself, who felt that the lighting from the side and above did it no justice. Horta was asked to create a closed facade for the structure.

The Human Passions in the MSK

Lambeaux originally created the plaster cast that is now in the MSK so that he could take it on a European tour and, hopefully, generate new commissions. He showed it at the Ghent Salon of 1899, followed by Berlin, Munich, Scheveningen, Vienna and Paris in 1900. The Jef Lambeaux committee donated it to the MSK in 1905, a few years before Lambeaux died, and it was placed in the newly-built northern wing after the museum’s 1913 renovation.

Eros and Thanatos

In The Human Passions, Lambeaux presents human existence as a knotty tangle of Eros and Thanatos: the will to live pitched against the urge to die; lust against pain. The relief shows us scenes of violence and murder, a Bacchanalia, rape, suicide, motherhood and more. Under the compassionate gaze of Christ, positioned at the top right, humanity is dominated by Death, the central figure at the top holding a scythe.

Other works by Jef Lambeaux in the MSK

Three more works by Jef Lambeaux are exhibited in Gallery N: the bronze sculptures Ugolino and his Sons and Fatally Injured, and a plaster study of Christ's head for The Human Passions.