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Artist jewellery in fin de siècle Belgium, the search for forgotten artists

Written by: Jakob Vandenberghe. Reviewed by: Marthe Bonnez.


Inspired by the English Arts & Crafts movement, the decorative arts also experienced a revival in Belle Époque Belgium. The 1890s up to the start of the First World War in 1914 were a golden age of economic prosperity and scientific and cultural progress. In Brussels, the artistic capital, many great artists started illustrating books, making pottery, drawing posters and sculpting all sorts of utensils. Jewellery was one of the other fields that caught their interest. Pieces by the painter and architect Henry van de Velde (1863 - 1957) and the Brussels jeweller and sculptor Philippe Wolfers (1858 - 1929) are already world famous. They translated the artistic innovations and insights of their time with great talent into their brooches, necklaces and rings. Today, these objects are considered masterpieces of Belgian Art Nouveau. Many of their colleagues and contemporaries sadly still remain shrouded in obscurity. Less well-known, but almost as important are Fernand Dubois (1861 - 1939), ae Léopold Van Strydonck (1865 - 1935) and Jeanne de Brouckère (1878 - 1945). Just last year, in 2022, the King Baudouin Foundation bought a series of buttons and a coat hook by George Morren (1868 - 1941), an artist who is otherwise mainly known as a painter. It is known that his fellow painters Théo van Rysselberghe (1862 - 1926) and George Lemmen (1865 - 1916) also made jewellery around this time. Unfortunately none of their work is known today.

Fashioning Belgium, our research project, wants to bring some of these forgotten figures back to life. After reading about well known Belgian jewellers from the period we went all the way back to the contemporary press of the 1890s and 1900s to search for other designers deserving our attention. By looking at art and design magazines, like l’Art Moderne, Revue des Arts Décorative and Durendal we could identify which artists stood out at the time and received attention from critics. At the MoMu library in Antwerp we also explored Bruxelles Féminin, a lifestyle magazine with a focus on fashion. In 1900, artists' jewels, or bijoux d'artiste, were closely followed by both the art and fashion press. Strangely enough, this does not seem to be the case for other clothing accessories, which are hardly ever discussed in contemporary art press. Perhaps this has to do with the sculptural nature of jewellery. We also explored Salon catalogues, they provide a more neutral insight by showing us who participated at the time in import exhibitions.

During this research, the names of Marie Molitor (1868-1938) and Auguste Feys caught our attention. Marie Molitor was a painter, designer and journalist who made some fascinating avant-garde jewellery around 1903. Her work is clearly influenced by that of the Belgian architect and designer Henry van de Velde and shows the strong stylized lines that typify Belgian Art Nouveau. She is a good example of a Beaux-Arts artist who immersed herself in the decorative arts around the turn of the century.

Auguste Feys has a somewhat different profile which is more in line with figures such as the well known Belgian artist jewellers Philippe Wolfers and Léopold van Strydonck. He seems to have been a jeweller by trade who was influenced by the Art Nouveau style at the end of the nineteenth century. Apart from the fact that both participate in several important exhibitions and have been picked up by both the art and fashion press, very little is currently known about them. In our further research we will try to do something about this.

George Morren, lady’s mantle hook and buttons, silver and garnets, ca. 1900, King Boudain Foundation, fund Christian Bauwens;

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