S ituated on the left bank of the river Scheldt, any weekend visitor to the Flemish city of Antwerp in the mid-19th century might have found themselves drawn to the charm of the Café Belvedere, a spot with views right across the city. The Café proved to be a central meeting point for the city’s beau monde and inspired Louis Van Engelen to paint this lively panoramic scene, dated 1887, depicting some of the leading cultural figures of contemporary Antwerp. Discover who’s who below.
- Louis Van Engelen
Born in 1856, Van Engelen was a proud Belgian who is best known for depicting the hustle and bustle of his native land. A pupil of the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, he was fostered and advised by Ch. Verlat who selected him to help with the panorama of the Battle of Waterloo. As well as the present picture, his other best-known work is Belgian Emigrants, 1890 depicted a heavy crowd about to board a ship at Het Eilandje as they embark on an exciting future in the new world.
- Piet Van Engelen
Fellow artist and younger brother of Louis, Piet is best known for his intimate pictures of animals, but he did also paint interiors, portraits and genre scenes. Like Louis, Piet trained at the Antwerp Academy, followed by Liege, and then a return to Antwerp where he was the winner of the first prize out of eighty competitors. He subsequently was appointed a teacher at the academy. Visitors to the Antwerp Museum today might find his large work depicting a cock-fight (1902).
- Edouard Chappel
Mainly a still-life painter and a pupil of the Fine Art Academy of Antwerp, Chappel was the co-founder, with fellow Belgian artist Henry Rul, of ‘Aze ick can’ (‘as I can’), a Belgian artistic movement. Chappel exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, Paris, in 1907 and at the Royal Academy in London between 1892 and 1933 and was a member of the International Society of Artists. His work ‘At the Fish-monger’s’ (1888) can be found in the Antwerp Museum.
- Madame Prop
Wearing an elegant pink dress, Madame Prop is wearing a costume that represents the “poetry of colours which fall from the hand of the painter” to coin a phrase from Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. By this period of the 19th century, Van Engelen would doubtless have been familiar with the developments of fashion in Paris which gave rise to ‘modernism’ as an artistic concept in the 1860s and 70s – a rejection of historical painting to focus on modern-life subjects. In addition to the Impressionists, other artists of the period followed this trend. Fellow Belgian artist Alfred Stevens exhibited paintings of single females in luxurious interiors and dress whilst French painter James Tissot often used the same costumes in different canvases throughout his career.
- Charles Mertens
Co-founder of the ‘Art Contemporain’ movement as well the ‘XIII’s’ the rival group to ‘as I can’, Mertens was one of the best portrait painters of the Antwerp School and received commissions from the likes of Jan van Ryswyck and Frans Van Leemputten. Merten also painted the ceiling of the large hall of the Royal Flemish Opera House in Antwerp. The drawings for this commission can be found in the Antwerp Museum.
- Peter Benoit
Benoit was a Flemish composer who first entered the Brussels Conservatoire in 1851, composing music to many melodramas as well as the opera Le Village dans les montagnes for the Park Theatre. In 1857, Benoit won the Belgian Prix de Rome for his cantata Le Meurtre d’Abel. He passionately pursued the founding of an entirely separate Flemish school of composers, changing his name from the French ‘Pierre’ to the Dutch equivalent ‘Peter.’ As well as a Flute Concerto, Piano Concerto and several operas, Benoit wrote a great number of essays on musical matters.
- Jan van Beers
Studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, van Beers began his career as a history painter, producing works relating to the Renaissance. After moving to Paris in 1880, van Beers altered his artistic style to produce more genre and portraiture works, painting the portraits of a number of Belgian and French celebrities, particularly high society women who he met in Paris. His work was not always well received with prominent French critic Joris-Karl Huysmans referring to his 1879 entry to the Paris Salon as having “demented colours” as well as “a hotchpotch of the ancient and modern mixed up on a single canvas.”
- The Cathedral of Our Lady
Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the iconic Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral of Antwerp contains a number of significant works by the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, as well as by local Flemish masters such as Jacob de Backer, Marten de Vos and Otto van Veen. In 1794, the French revolutionaries plundered the Cathedral but by the time Van Engelen was painting the trove of art works would have been returned to the cathedral. The church was completely restored and refurnished through the course of the 19th century.
- The Café Belvedere
In the late 19th century, the village of Sint-Anneke on the left bank of the river Scheldt was like a beach and through the trendy summer bars that opened, attracted the elite of the city. The Café Belvedere had the best location of all the venues directly opposite the towering spires of the cathedral; undoubtedly a goldmine for the owners. When the café shut its doors for good is unknown but Sint-Anneke did eventually suffer from a period of decline that started in the 1960s. As the population of Antwerp has grown in recent decades, so have the appeal of the beaches of Sint-Anneke.
- The Port of Antwerp
After 1800, as the disparity grew between rich and poor, so did the places where the citizens of Antwerp went to eat and drink. In the port area, dock workers received portions of soup in canteens whilst sailors could be found in the Schipperskwartier, the red light district of Antwerp, as steamboats came from increasingly far afield. Around the time Van Engelen painted the work in 1887, the Chinese community also started to settle in the town with Chinese lodgings and restaurants gradually being opened towards the end of the 19th century.
- A Famous Brew
Close inspection of the table reveals a bottle of Bass Brewery Beer. Recognised by the famous red triangle on the label, this was the UK’s first registered trademark, established in 1777 and still in production today. Even amongst Belgians, Antwerp is legendary for its beer history, with the working class district of Seefhoek (literally ‘seef corner’) named after the beverage. Surrounding villages such as Brasschaat, Herentals, Hoboken and Wilrijk were also great centres for local brewing. Of course, it is possible that Van Engelen is engaging with his own artistic licence. The Bass bottle can be seen in Manet’s iconic work A Bar at the Folies-Bergere which Van Engelen would doubtless have seen when the work was exhibited in the 1882 annual Fine Arts Exhibition in Paris.