Eugène Simonis, artist of an emerging nation
Who, resident or visitor, hasn’t seen the equestrian statue of Godfrey of Bouillon which sits on its pedestal at the Place Royale in Brussels, overlooking a splendid panorama of the sacred island, from which the tower and spire of the Town Hall arise. While the work dedicated to the leader of the first Crusade, who delivered the Tomb of Jesus and in doing so once again made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (one of the principal pilgrimages of the Middle Ages alongside those of the Camino de Santiago and Rome) possible for Christians, is well-known, its sculptor is less so. There are works in the collective memory that are directly associated with their creator, such as “Rodin’s Thinker”, but no-one mentions the “Bouillon by Simonis”. Yet, it is to this great artist, originally from Liège that we owe this famous statue and many others from the early days of Belgian independence, including the legendary figure of the freedom of religion of the Congress Column and its lions, the Harmony of Human Passions decorating the pediment of the Brussels Opera House, but also the statue of André Dumont, Place du Vingt-Août and the statues of the apostles for the St James's Church in Liège, the statue of Leopold I on Place Leopold I in Mons and the statue of Simon Stevin in Bruges to name just the most famous or most visible. At the beginning of its independence, the emerging Belgium needed to create a national mythology and find appropriate characters from the past to intensify the patriotism and pride of its citizens. The country's cities were therefore filled with statues of “outstanding Belgians”.
Eugène Simonis was one of the talented sculptors assigned to this task. Born in Liège on 11 July 1810, after studying under François-Joseph Dewandre at the Design School of Liège, at the age of 19 he left to continue his training in Italy, travelling to Florence then to Rome between 1829 and 1836. On returning to the country, he rejected the offer of a position as a professor at the Academy of Liège so that he could execute his commissioned works, mainly in Brussels. The Walloon sculptor would then lead the Brussels sculpture school, later accepting a position as the Director of the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts (1863-1877). Working with plaster, marble, bronze and French stone, Simonis did not only produce monumental works; he also created many busts, depicting relatives or famous people, or even both, with a bust of Henri-Joseph Orban, his father-in-law, who was also the father of Walthère Frère-Orban. The sculptor died in Brussels on 11 July 1882.
The square in Koekelberg, where his studio was located, was renamed Place Eugène Simonis in his honour. The metro station there has also borne his name since 1982. On this same square a sculptural composition in the shape of an “S” was unveiled in 2007 in tribute to the sculptor. A bust created by Simonis himself was added to this composition designed by Annie Jungers.