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In December 2017 I had the privilege to get a private tour of the exhibition Henry van de Velde – Drawings and Pastels (1884-1904) at the Horta Museum in Brussels. My personal guide was Benjamin Zurstrassen, who wrote his master thesis on Henry van de Velde and is currently the curator of the Museum. In other words, I had the best possible guide I could have wished for.

It was a very small exhibition and it was almost finished when I saw it, but I wish to tell you about it nonetheless. Because I believe the information that was shared, is crucial for understanding Art Nouveau. Specifically in the light of Debora Silverman’s book Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism in which she links the ‘whiplash’ in Belgian Art Nouveau to elephant tusks and lianas in the Belgian Congo.

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Henry van de Velde

Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) was born on the 3rd of April, the same day as I. That always makes me feel like we are ‘connected’. And that sensation was even stronger after I had visited the exhibition. But I’ll get to that later.

Nowadays, Van de Velde is known as an architect and designer. But in 1883 he actually graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp as a painter. So his career gradually developed from the two dimensional to the three dimensional. The exhibition explained how his two-dimensional period can be broken down into 3 phases, and how these phases inevitably guided Van de Velde towards the three dimensional work he is known for today.

  • 1883-1887 Symbolism, Barbizon, Kalmthout, Impressionism, Millet, Heymans
  • 1888-1892 Les XX, Seurat, Van Gogh, Munch, Pointillism, Neo-Impressionism
  • 1893-1904 Typographic Ornament, Wallpaper, Book Covers, Embroidery

From the period immediately after Van de Velde left the academy, the exhibition showed a few symbolist works such as his pastel ‘Portret of Max Elskamp as a Saint’.

1885 Pastel Max Elskamp by Henry van de Velde

1885, Pastel, Max Elskamp by Henry van de Velde

Henry traveled to Paris and the Barbizon, where he discovered the works of Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). Inspired, he moved to the artist’s colony Wechelderzande and devoted himself to studying peasant life. Under Adriaan Jozef Heymans (1839-1921), he worked in the style of the Kalmthoutse School. Gradually his work became more impressionistic, related to the effects of light, and characterised by diagonal parallel strokes.

Wheat sheaves in front of the church in Wechelderzande, 1887

1887, Oilpainting, Wheat sheaves in front of the church in Wechelderzande by Henry van de Velde

At the 4th Salon of Les XX (1887), Van de Velde discovered A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1859-1891) which completely changed his stilistic transformation. In his memoires, he would later write “I felt dumbfound and overwhelmed by incredible emotions. From that moment on, it was impossible for me to resist the urge to familiarize myself with the theories, rules and fundamental principles of the new style as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”

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1890, Oilpainting, Girl Darning a Stocking by Henry van de Velde

Seurat’s Neo-Impressionist masterpiece was created with the pointillist technique, in which small dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image. The technique relies on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the colour spots into a fuller range of tones. This is related to Divisionism, which refers to the method of applying individual strokes of complementary and contrasting colors, whereas pointillism is more focused on the specific style of brushwork used to apply the paint.

1890 Peasant with straw hat - Henry van der Velde

1890, Pastel, Peasant with straw hat by Henry van der Velde

From 1888 onwards, Van de Velde would focus on the colour theory and use Pointillism for his oilpaintings. At the same time, he created pastels with much longer stripes and eventually, meandering lines. The influence of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is clearly visible here. Note how his pastels are also considerably more spontaneous than his oilpaintings.

1891, Pastel, Seemstress in the Garden by Henry van de Velde

1891, Pastel, Seemstress in the Garden by Henry van de Velde

Parallel to the creative evolution in his paintings and pastels, also Van de Velde’s pencil drawings, particularly the ones he created at Knokke (a village at the sea side where he often resided), evolved from dots and staccato stripes, to meandering lines. From a few abstract-style curves to lucious undulations and arabesques. As if he first analised the landscape and broke it down in a few dots and dashes. Only to discover the powerful curves in the sand, the water and the sky and ‘channel’ his overwhelmed emotions – through his pencil – to his paper.

1889-90, Pencil, Sea and Sky by Henry van de Velde

1888-89, Pencil, Sea and Sky by Henry van de Velde (Rhythmic Synthesis)

1892-93, Pencil, Dunes and Village by Henry van de Velde

1892-93, Pencil, Dunes and Village by Henry van de Velde

And this is why I said earlier that I felt a strong connection with Van de Velde. Because of these particular drawings. I too am fascinated by the patterns in the sand. For years I have been photographing sand and I have gathered dozens of different patterns. While I was walking around at the exhibition, I could ‘feel’ his urge to document each new pattern of lines…

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The exhibition unveiled how Van de Velde’s artistic transformation – first his fascination with the colour theory and then with these line patterns – made him move to the decorative arts in 1893. First two-dimensional, and eventually three-dimensional.

The first pieces of decorative art contributed by Henry van de Velde are typographic ornaments and (designs for) embroidered wallhangings.

1892-93 Pencil, Dunes and Sea by Henry van de Velde

1892-93 Pencil, Dunes and Sea by Henry van de Velde with colour annotations (gold, silver, violet, green and cold blue)

1892, Pastel, Sea and Dunes (Reflection of the Sun) by Henry van de Velde

1892, Pastel, Sea and Dunes (Reflection of the Sun) by Henry van de Velde

1892-93, Embroided Wallhanging, The Angel´s Watch, Henry van de Velde

1892-93, Embroidered Wallhanging, The Angel´s Watch by Henry van de Velde

All the influences that shaped Van de Velde’s transformation seem to have come together in this wallhanging: the colour theory, Divisionism, Cloisonnism, Japonism and Symbolism. And, not unimportantly, the theories of Charles Henry which he studied, about the abstract value and expressive qualities of the line.

After 1892, Henry van de Velde would give up painting and move more and more towards the decorative arts. He was convinced that art belonged to everyone and all people should be able to surround themselves with beauty. And with his decorative art he would be more of a benefit to society than with his paintings. With fabulous designs for wallpaper, book covers, fabric design, advertising posters etc. as a result! “His strength as a theorist and his ardent campaign to create a new basis for applied art can hardly be overestimated” wrote Tschudi Madsen in Sources of Art Nouveau.

Now that I have seen this exhibition with numerous drawings of patterns in the sand, and now that I have read several books about the artistic developments of Henry van de Velde, I believe it is fairly safe to say that his powerful lines are merely a logical outcome of his stylistic transformation. They are the result of his experiments with different styles and theories, as well as his fascination with the patterns in the sand. There is – in my opinion – no need at all to drag the Congo in when explaining Van de Velde’s whiplashes.

Henry van de Velde – Drawings and Pastels (1884-1904)
Exposition 13 October 2017 – 7 January 2018


There’s a small book about the exhibition at the Horta museum, but I don’t know if you can buy that anywhere online, outside the Horta museum.

In 2013 though, a much larger catalogue was published about Van de Velde’s work. And this catalogue includes a whole chapter about the same subject.

You can order the catalogue from Bol.com.

Continue Reading:
Henry van de Velde – facts & figures
Henry van de Velde’s 150th Birthday
Henry van de Velde, Art Nouveau and Intellectual Anarchism
Henry Van de Velde en de art-nouveauboekband in België (1893-1900)
De (her)ontdekking van negentiende- en vroegtwintigste-eeuwse kleurtheorie
Horta Museum, Brussels
The Symbolist Landscapes of Henry van de Velde – Susan M. Canning
Henry van de Velde, Volume II, Textiles
Press release Henry van de Velde, Drawings and Pastels (1884-1904) EN
Persbericht Henry van de Velde, Tekeningen en Pastels (1884–1904) NL

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