Evenepoel, the dazzling modernity of a Belgian painter with a blighted destiny
Painter, artist and engraver Henri Evenepoel (1872-1899), who died at the age of 27, left an exceptional body of work. His taste for direct, realistic observation was balanced by a keen interest in original compositions. His tenderness for people and his concern for the most fleeting aspects of life made him a spiritual brother of Bonnard and Vuillard.
Born in Nice to Belgian parents, he lost his mother at the age of two. He grew up in an affluent environment conducive to learning the arts.
The young Evenepoel attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. At the age of 20, he left for Paris and enrolled at the School of Fine Arts. A year later, he took a decisive step in his career when he became a student in the private studio of Gustave Moreau, who knew how to detect and give free rein to the specific gifts of each of his students, instead of imposing a paralysing aesthetic, the dogma of the Academy.
In 1893, he sketched the spectacle of Parisian life and the bustle of the streets. He was fascinated by the diversity of popular types, sometimes to the point of naturalism, as in Le noyé du Pont des Arts (The Drowned Man of the Pont des Arts) (1895). Evenepoel developed his favourite theme, the portrait, in which he could use his powers of observation and his acute psychological perception. The portraits of his cousin Louise, the love of his short life and mother of four children, including his own son Charles, are among the artist's best; one example is La Dînette (1897).
He spent the winter of 1897-1898 in Algeria due to his poor health. There, he was confronted with an intense, unknown light, difficult to convey without affecting the form. A series of Marché d’oranges à Blidah (Orange Market at Blida) shows his transition from an impressionist touch to a totally synthetic design in which he worked with flat tints. With this simplifying approach, he heralded the dawn of Fauvism.
Back in Paris, his last portraits were always characterised by a significant economy of resources and had an unparalleled safe style of composition; one of the most beautiful examples is Charles au jersey rayé (Charles in a Striped Jersey). He also produced large compositions, a synthesis of earlier studies, such as Promenade du dimanche à Saint-Cloud. Evenepoel earned a certain level of fame; at the end of the Ghent Salon, he had the joy of seeing L’Espagnol à Paris. Portrait du peintre Francisco Iturrino (The Spaniard in Paris. Portrait of the Painter Francisco Iturrino) (1899) enter the city's Museum of Fine Arts. His career was taking off, he was successful, and his work was recognised. That same year, he received an invitation from art critic Octave Maus to take part in the Salon de La Libre Esthétique in 1900 and was invited by the organisers of the Belgian section of the Paris Exposition.
He would not participate in either, the victim of a cruel fate; Henri Evenepoel died prematurely in Paris, carried away by typhoid fever on 27 December 1899.
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