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New acquisition: The Family in the Garden, by Gustave Van de Woestyne

The Family in the Garden
Gustave Van de Woestyne, 'The Family in the Garden', ca. 1919, MSK Ghent

Following the MSK’s major retrospective exhibition of works by Gustave Van de Woestyne (1881-1949) in 2010, the multi-faceted presentation of the collection in 2020, and the publication of an annotated edition of his memento Karel en ik (Karel and I), our abiding interest in the life and work of Van de Woestyne is reflected again in the aquisition of his painting The Family in the Garden.

I met Gustave van de Woestijne in Waregem; he lived in the Rozenhuis. He was in the midst of his mystical period then. We became very good friends, even though Gustave was not an easygoing fellow. For instance, I never saw him at work, because you were simply not allowed in. When he saw someone approaching the house, he would quickly get dressed, walk out the door, say he just happened to be leaving, and take the visitor away with him. It’s odd when you consider that he had a beautiful fresco at the entrance to his house, in the corridor, that depicted hospitality: Gustave van de Woestijne welcoming a beggar inside. But not a single person entered, since he also had a big dog to keep people out, and a big lock on the gate. He was a curious fellow.

Jules De Sutter, 1967 [1]

Ten years after the MSK’s major retrospective exhibition of works by Gustave Van de Woestyne (1881-1949) in 2010, the museum organised a multi-faced presentation of the collection in 2020, with paintings, prints, drawings and manuscripts on display. Accompanying this exhibition was an annotated edition of his book Karel en ik, a memento recalling his brother Karel Van de Woestijne (1878-1929), written around 1934. The original manuscript of the book had been preserved by the museum, and the 2020 edition was the work of museum curator Johan De Smet, along with Leo Janssen, Peter Theunynck and Hans Vandevoorde.[2] The museum’s ongoing interest in and admiration for Van de Woestyne’s work was also behind its recent purchase of his painting The Family in the Garden.

The painting, which is possibly unfinished, dates from shortly after Van de Woestyne returned from England in the summer of 1919. Like many Belgian artists, he had fled to Britain five years earlier to escape the war at home, settling first in Wales and later in London and Sussex. This period abroad revealed a great eagerness to learn. While landscapes and human figures remained dominant in his work, his style shifted away from the detailed realism of the pre-war era. He developed the more powerful, sketch-like stroke that he used in the large-scale compositions that foreshadowed his later interest in monumental paintings and frescos.

On their return to Belgium, Van de Woestyne and his family moved into the Rozenhuis - Maison Rose (in French). This small villa was built in Waregem in 1909 by textile baron Charles De Zutter (1863-1928) and his wife Marguerite Taelman (1875-1937), who lived in the neighbouring house known as Ter Elst. As art lovers, the couple had conceived the Rozenhuis as a temporary haven for artists and intellectuals. It had already been occupied by Modest Huys (1874-1932), Ramah (the name adopted by artist Henri-François Raemaeker, 1887-1947) and Jules De Sutter (1895-1970) before Van de Woestyne stayed there from 1919 to 1925. The De Zutter and Van de Woestyne families had been friends since before the war, and the catalogue of Woestyne’s 1929 Brussels exhibition reveals that the De Zutters were also his patrons, with their names appearing alongside 18 of his works.

The Family in the Garden is one of Van de Woestyne’s first post-war paintings, and serves as a family record of sorts. We see the artist with his wife, Prudence De Schepper (1882-1974), and between them their son David (1915-1979), who had been born in Wales; to the left are their oldest daughter Maria (1910-1991) and Maxime (1911-2000). The twins Béatrice (1913-1992) and Elisabeth (1913-1994) walk hand in hand between the two groups. The subject matter was not new for Van de Woestyne; he had always enjoyed painting what was close to him, and that often included his wife and children and his brother, Karel. Whether The Family in the Garden is an accurate representation of the Rozenhuis and its surroundings is unclear. But this is undoubtedly a picture of the house in Waregem: various sources mention its pink walls, and the Belgian flag we see waving is both a patriotic reference and an explicit sign that the scene takes place in his home country. In terms of style, the painting’s bright colours and explicitly naive execution recall works by the French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Correspondence reveals that Van de Woestyne admired him particularly at that time.

Today, the refreshing simplicity of The Family in the Garden signals the dawn of a new phase of creativity in inspiring surroundings. And in a sense, the painting represents an unfinished transition to a new era in Gustave Van de Woestyne’s art. Both in and from Waregem, the period from 1919 to 1925 saw him gradually finding his way in a world of modern art that was dominated by expressionism. For a long time this resulted in a preponderance of constructive expressionism, a synthesis of expressionism and cubism. But his paintings always kept their meditative mood, symbolism and even, sometimes, mystery. Van de Woestyne produced some of his most exceptional works during this period, including The Blind Violinist (1920; in the collection of La Boverie in Luik), Christ Showing His Wounds (1921, Royal Museum of Fine Art, Antwerp), Gaston and his Sister (1923, Royal Museum of Fine Art, Antwerp) and Fugue.

Having already been interested in frescoes, Van de Woestyne began to paint them himself in these years. He created a number of them on the walls of homes on the De Zutter estate on themes inspired by Christianity. One of them was Gastvrijheid voor vreemdelingen (Generosity to Strangers), which he added to the Rozenhuis in 1920. In this fresco, the artist himself welcomes a stranger into his home, a reference to the works of charity described in the Gospel of Matthew. The style recalls that of the Flemish Primitives and the Italian Quattrocento. Having originally been painted outdoors, the work has been in the MSK’s collection since 1969 when, at the request of Marie-Jeanne Vanderlinden (1910-1997), the widow of Charles De Zutter’s son Victor (1900-1967), it was removed from the wall, affixed to a polyester base and donated to the museum.

In The Family in the Garden, the MSK has acquired another tangible link to Gustave Van de Woestyne’s productive years in the Rozenhuis in Waregem. These were years in which he continued his artistic development on his way to becoming one of the most original artists working before, during and after World War I, and one who would exert a lasting impact on the development of internationally oriented modern art in Belgium.

[1] FLORQUIN, Joos, ‘Jules de Sutter. Oudburchtweg 27, 9830 Sint-Martens-Latem (1967)’, Ten huize van… (reeks 15), Leuven, Davidsfonds, 1979, p. 233.

[2] VAN DE WOESTYNE, Gustave, Karel en ik. Memento, Antwerp, Davidsfonds, 2020.