Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was born on July 28, 1881 in Ostend. As a student he read a great deal and developed a deep interest in the writings of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. As a young man, driven by insomnia brought on by illness, he walked the streets of his home town at night depicting the buildings, the promenade, the beach and the sea in adventurous ways with dramatic viewpoints.
Spilliaert’s early works are often dark and mysterious, reflecting his own emotional state. They are close in atmospheric expression to the works of the Belgian symbolists. When he was 21, he went to work in Brussels for Edmond Deman, publisher of the works of symbolist writers, who introduced him to the Belgian and Parisian art scene. Through Deman, Spilliaert also came into contact with the literature of amongst others Emile Verhaeren, Maurice Maeterlinck and Edgar Allan Poe.
Over the years, however, and noticeably after his marriage with Rachel Vergison in 1916, more color appeared in compositions experimenting with watercolour, gouache and oil. His works become more traditional and narrative in topic. In 1917, the couple moved to Brussels and had their only child, a daughter named Madeleine. Inspired by long walks in the Brussels parks and in the Sonian Forest, the artist started to depict trees in his work. A topic that would remain important in the artist’s oeuvre.
In Brussels, Spilliaert made contact with the important galleries of the time: Séléction, Le Centaure and Galerie Giroux. Although the Spilliaert family moved back to Ostend between 1922 and 1935, he had relative success with several solo exhibitions in Brussels and Antwerp. In 1936 and in 1944, Spilliaert received large retrospective exhibitions in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussel (today’s Bozar). Spilliaert survived World War II surrounded by his daughter and grandchildren but died shortly afterwards due to a heart failure on November 23rd, 1946.
The presented works in the current exhibition come from several private collections and span a large part of Spilliaert's career. Most of the works date from 1900-1915, before Spilliaert’s marriage to Rachel Vergison and illustrative of his dark period. It is interesting, however, to compare works of the same topic but from a different period, such as the marines or the trees. The self-portraits looking over the skyline of the city of Antwerp date from 1906 and 1927: a young confident Spilliaert and one of last known self-portraits of the artist.
The work of Léon Spilliaert is represented in museum collections worldwide, including the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Mu.Zee in Ostend, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Himeji Museum in Japan and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the last couple of years considerable international attention has been given to the oeuvre of Spilliaert with retrospective exhibitions in the Royal Academy in London and in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.