In the 1920s Baron Evence Coppée III assembled a remarkable collection of almost exclusively Flemish 16th and 17th Century paintings, with an emphasis on the works of Pieter Brueghel the Younger and the Brueghel family. The collection was almost complete by the time he moved into the house that he conceived and had built on the Avenue des Nations (now Avenue Franklin Roosevelt) in Brussels in 1930, and very few paintings were acquired subsequently.1
Evence Coppée III was born in 1882 into a family of Belgian industrialists. His grandfather had invented a revolutionary coke-producing furnace, and his father had expanded the coke manufacturing and carbo-chemical businesses, building factories as far afield as Donetsk in Russia, where the young Nikita Khruschev worked in one of them. Evence Coppée III continued the expansion of Evence Coppée et Cie, acquiring Société métallurgique d’Espérance-Longdoz, subsequently the largest Belgian producer of sheet metal, in 1920.2 He also diversified the family’s interests to include, inter alia, banking, chemicals and power generation. In the aftermath of the 1st World War he worked to return to cultivation areas devastated during the Battle of the Somme, and after the 2nd World War he was a member of the Commission for Relief in Belgium under Herbert Hoover.
It was Evence Coppée III’s marriage in 1919 to Marguerite de Woot de Trixhe, perhaps combined with the return of Europe to peace following the First World War, that seems to have been the catalyst that triggered his collecting fervour. Certainly, the ending of a war that was for Belgium particularly devastating brought about a resumption of the interest in ancient Flemish art that had characterized the years around 1900, and was allied with a revived sense of nationhood. Baron Coppée collected works by the Primitifs Flamands, but also, and in particular, works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and his family, who had been overlooked by previous generations of scholars and collectors. His most fertile years as a collector coincided with the first serious studies of the works of the sons of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, culminating with the exhibition mounted by Peter de Boer in Amsterdam of De Helsche en Fluwelen Brueghel in 1935, to which he was a generous lender. From the outset Evence Coppée III bought paintings directly at auction, but he also acquired many works from Galerie De Heuvel in Brussels, and it seems likely that Arthur de Heuvel, one of the first dealers to specialise in works by the Brueghel family, was a mentor.
Of the seven paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger that Evence Coppée III collected and are now thought to be autograph, three of the best are included here. Pieter Brueghel the Younger occupied a special place in his heart. As his son Evence Coppée IV observed in the introduction to the 1991 catalogue of the collection, in Brueghel his father discovered the forceful contrast between the often cruel “Establishment” – the judges of the Crucifixion, the man who, unseen in his house, pulls the string that traps the birds on a freezing winter day, the soldiers massacring the Innocents – and the down-to-earth Flemish peasantry, full of joie de vivre and good humour.3 The collector was thus the observer who stands beside the artist, observing with the same humanism the same subject matter: human frailty, suffering and, sometimes, nobility of spirit.
Since Evence Coppée III visited Japan in 1909, and his marriage ten years later to the sister of the Belgium ambassadress to Japan, the family maintained their connections with Japan during peacetime. The house that Evence Coppée built in Avenue Franklin Roosevelt eventually became the residence of Japanese Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium in the 1990s, and the long-standing ties led in 1995 to an exhibition of the entire collection in the Tobu Museum, Tokyo.
1. Only one of the works in the present catalogue was acquired after 1930.
2. The company was sold by Evence Coppée et Cie in 1970 and is now part of Arcelor Mittal.
3. E. Coppée, in S. Leclercq et al., La Collection Coppée, Brussels 1991, p. V: “En lui il découvre le contraste puissant entre l’«establishment» parfois cruel (les juges de la crucifixion, l’homme qui, de la maison, manoeuvre la trappe aux oiseaux; les soldats du massacre des innocents…) et le people parfois terre à terre et trivial, mais plein de joie et de santé.”