Léon-Henri-Marie Frédéric (1856-1940) was born too late. Centuries too late for the 16th century Flemish school and Renaissance art of the 1400s he so admired. The mythical scenes of Botticelli with their creamy nude goddesses and floating sky babies, the richly epic, stoic biblical scenes of Domenico Ghirlandaio. These two were by far his favourite painters. Their worlds were his heartland, his spirit place.
The son of a prosperous jeweller, he served an apprenticeship under the Belgian architect, Charle-Albert. Whilst working for Charle-Albert, the young Frédéric took night classes at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. By 1874 he’d moved on from architecture and into the employ of one Jean-François Portaels, a teacher at the Académie Royale & an incredible painter of genre scenes, biblical stories, landscapes, portraits and orientalist subjects. This lasted a year. In 1875, he joined with several other art students and rented a studio where they could paint from live, nude models. Between 1876 to 1878, he entered several paintings in the Prix de Rome, but won nothing. Then, for a year between 1878-1879 his father financed a study trip to Italy. He visited Naples, Rome, Florence and Venice. He discovered Ghirlandaio and Botticelli.
He began life as a realist painter, a very good one, largely painting rural poverty in the Ardennes. Yet there sat within Frédéric a strange and fantastic mélange, coiled and brewing, awaiting release. It was the advent of Symbolism that set Frédéric’s singular strangeness free.
In 1882 Frédéric completed Studio Interior, (left) an extraordinary early symbolist painting. Studio Interior is a self-portrait. In it, the artist chooses to depict himself naked with a skeleton on his lap. The skeleton is wearing undergarments with a long starry veil over them. His palette and brushes sit in the lower right hand corner, and his clothes and a top hat are draped on chairs. This would prove to be the tip of a monumental iceberg. An tiny entrée for the sprawling feast yet to come.
Within the French newspaper Le Figaro of September 18th 1886, there appeared a supplement; The Symbolist Manifesto by Jean Moréas, a Greek poet, essayist and art critic.
Moréas articulated a new literary movement, proclaimed the name of Symbolism as not simply the name for a movement, but a principle which allowed for an imaginative mind to manage the work. Symbolism was to some extent the child of the English Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolist art in Europe blossomed. In France, Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Odile Redon were it’s leading protagonists. In Germany it was Franz Stuck and Max Klinger. In Austria, of course there was Gustav Klimt and Alfred Kubin at the very forefront of Symbolism. Fernand Khnopff and James Ensor were the leading exponents of Symbolism art in Frédéric’s homeland, Belgium.
And so, from the early 1890’s Frédéric concentrated almost exclusively on his own peculiar symbolist subject matter. A fusion of Christian mysticism, Pantheism (the belief that reality is indistinguishable from divinity) and the unique ruminations that bubbled deep in his subconscious. A complex personal world that he desperately needed to manifest. Fuelled by centuries old classicism and mixed with an idiosyncratic strain of madness both psychedelic and apocolyptic, Frédéric’’s epic strangeness was an offshoot, an outlier bastard of Symbolism. It was then, and remains now, totally impossible to ignore. Lauded by his fellow Belgian artist, Fernand Khnopff in London’s The Studio, Frédéric’s work was talked about in journals such as the seminal official magazine of the Vienna Secession the Austrian Ver Sacrum. This wide coverage, just for a while, brought Frédéric’s star high. He became internationally recognised, his work exhibited in Paris, Venice and Munich. In Paris he received a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, the event the Eiffel Tower was built for. The Russian Princess, Maria Tenisheva, an avid art collector, bought several of his paintings and showed them in St. Petersburg.
All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love.7 PANELS : 1st (HELL) SECTION.
Léon Frédéric’s Symbolist artworks were huge, mindblowing and spectacular. The Frédéric’s imagination exploded over his most ambitious painting; the monumantally epic All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love. It consisted of seven panels and was eleven metres (over thirty feet) in length.
All Things Die, But All Wil.l Be Resurrected through God’s LoveCENTRAL PANEL no. 4.
All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love.PANELS 5,6 & 7 of 7: 1st (HEAVEN) SECTION.
More of Léon Frédéric’s unique Symbolist mind dumps.
Following this extraordinary series of paintings came the rise of Modernism in Europe and Frédéric’s work seems to have dropped away, vanishing without trace. He wasn’t forgotten in Belgium however and in 1929 he was made a Baron and a Knight of the Order of Leopold by the king. He died at Schaarbeek in 1940.
Sometime around 1882, Frédéric lived in the small southern Belgium village of Nafraiture, close to the French border. Over a forty year period he returned over and over to the village, painting portraits of the inhabitants and landscapes of the outlying area. Frédéric gave his Holy Trinity Triptych (1882) to the village to be displayed in the tiny village church. The villagers, however weren’t happy, many faces in the paintings were those of local villagers, who were less than pleased with their depictions.
The paintings were initially banished, out of sight to the church rectory. Some time later Cardinal Mercier, an admirer of the works of Frédéric, brought them from the rectory, placing them on full display on the walls inside the church itself. Today they have pride of place as the centrepiece of Nafraiture’s village church.
By September 2017, time had not been kind to the triptych. It’s frames were ravaged by vermin, the yellowing canvases hung slack on their frames. In the 1950s a thick layer of varnish had been slapped over the whole work. and had to be repaired and the canvases re-stretched the three works were taken down from the walls of the church so that they could be restored. A 7 month long restoration took place. Gradually the detailed strokes of Frédérics hand emerged. In the centre of the left hand painting is a white robed girl, the “Holy Spirit”. When the varnish was removed from her downturned face, restorers were surprised to see there were tears flowing from both eyes.
She’d been crying all those years and no-one knew.