Amongst Friends:  Louis Tytgadt, Reading the Gazette van… | MSK Gent
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Amongst Friends:  Louis Tytgadt, Reading the Gazette van Gent, 1877

Tytgadt Lezers van de gazette van gent detail

There are interesting stories behind many of the artworks in the ‘Among Friends’ exhibition, some about the works themselves and others about their collectors. In a series of long reads, we focus on works and groups of works that share a special connection with each other.

We start with an intriguing painting by the Ghent painter and illustrator Louis Tytgadt (b. Lovendegem, 1841; d. Ghent, 1918). In ‘Reading the Gazette van Gent’, six rustic figures are gathered in an undefined space; a bearded man in the middle reads a popular Ghent newspaper. Standing around him are the older man on the right, leaning on a walking stick and wearing a brown coat, a working man’s cap and a striking red neckerchief, and the man smoking a pipe in the left foreground, who serves as a repoussoir. Both look at the central figure, and with their gaze averted from the paper itself it appears they are listening to him read aloud from it.

Was Tytgadt alluding to a social problem here? Statistics from 1875 indicate that illiteracy was still a widespread problem, with more than a quarter of children not attending school and one in five conscripts entirely unable to read or write (source). This wasn’t the only time that Tytgadt addressed an urgent social issue, albeit discretely. In a work in the MSK collection, for instance, a harvest scene shows two small girls in the middle of a field holding ears of corn, a clear reference to the very common occurrence of child labour both in the countryside and in cities.

‘Reading the Gazette van Gent’ also illustrates how Tytgadt, a prominent member of the Ghent Academy, adopted realism in the mid-1870s and introduced it - literally - into the salons. Clearly, it was possible for a relatively successful painter to also embrace genre painting, portraiture and historical scenes. In that same era, Tytgadt’s oeuvre gained him admittance into official art circles, which further cemented his prominent role in Ghent’s artistic milieu of the time.

A former student at the Ghent Royal Academy for Fine Arts, Tytgadt went on to study painting in the Parisian atelier of Alexandre Cabanel (b. Montpellier, 1823; d. Paris, 1889). He began teaching in 1880 and within 12 years was the director of the Academy, a position that also made him a director of the museum the Academy controlled until 1902. Even after he was succeeded by Jean Delvin (Ghent, 1853-1922) and following the formal separation of the museum and the Academy that same year, Tytgadt remained at the helm of the museum committee until his death in 1918 and was closely involved in museum policy.

In the same context as ‘Reading the Gazette van Gent, three years before his appointment to the Academy Tytgadt exhibited two other paintings at the Ghent Salon of 1877, including one entitled ‘Dernières nouvelles’ (cat. 906; referred to as ‘Het laatste nieuws’ in the Dutch-language catalogue). Art critic H. de Burny delivered a scathing review of the painting in the Journal de Bruxelles of 24 September 1877, lamenting that the artist had descended into trivialities. But in another review of the exhibition, the Ghent journalist, collector and liberal politician Willem Rogghé expressed a completely different opinion of this ‘most beautiful painting’, writing: ‘He succeeds in the difficult task of presenting six life-sized figures in a relatively small space, working men, listening to the reading of a newspaper article; something unsettling is afoot, since all seem to be anxiously waiting for the last, absolving word. In his concise painting Mr Tijdtgat [sic] represents the tense moment well, and draws in the audience; and his warm, clear and sparkling palette bring all together in pleasing harmony.’ (De Salon van Gent in 1877, Ghent 1877, pp. 19-20.) It is clear from this description by Rogghé that he is describing the same painting as the one included in ‘Among Friends’.

The painting must have had special significance for Rogghé, who was the editor-in-chief of the same Gazette van Gent from 1850 to 1865. Moreover, as a prominent member of the literary society De Fonteine, he consistently championed the use of Dutch in the City Council of Ghent, of which he was a member from 1879 to 1884. It is unclear when the painting was acquired by another liberal from Ghent, Lieven Edmond Block (1842-1909). A wealthy industrial and later mayor of Gentbrugge, Block owned several paintings by artists with links to the Ghent Salon, including Léon Herbo.

That the MSK has received this previously unknown painting on loan for ‘Among Friends’ is an exceptional stroke of luck, for several reasons. For one thing, it illustrates a style and subject chosen by an artist who was one of the museum’s administrators for decades, and whose taste helped guide its purchases in the last quarter of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th. It also illuminates a theme of social inequality, namely illiteracy in a city run by the French-speaking bourgeoisie, only a year before an upheaval known as the battle for schools, in which Tytgadt demonstratively chose the side of the popular vernacular. All of this makes the painting a completely unique historical document from the perspective of nearly 150 years later. And, not least, its subject - reading the newspaper to bystanders - is the perfect introduction to an exhibition focusing on friends and friendship.