Ostend 1881–1946 Brussels
Léon Spilliaert was a painter of the fin de siècle Belgian avant-garde whose idiosyncratic style blends Symbolism, Expressionism and even Surrealism. Spilliaert was driven by a meditative contemplation of his subjects, be it scrutinous introspection or the avid observation of nature. Among his most famous works are a series of haunted Self-portraits and his crepuscular views of Bruges and Ostend. Like many of the Symbolists, the majority of his significant output was on paper. His work was strongly affected by the existential dread of late nineteenth-century writers, especially Edgar Allen Poe. While he was greatly appreciated by his peers, like the Austrian author Stefan Zweig, it wasn’t until the 1970s that his work became better known to a wider public.
Spilliaert was almost entirely self-taught. From 1903 to 1904 he worked in Brussels where he moved in forward-looking Belgian artistic circles which included the painters James Ensor (1860–1949) and Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921) as well as the Symbolist writers Emile Verhaeren (1855–1916) and Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949). He was closely involved with the theater and also earlier literature. One of his most striking compositions is Les Pendus, a series of works which depict the rotting corpses of hanged men suspended from a tree. If these scenes recall Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit to the modern eye, they were in fact inspired by the French poet, François Villon’s fifteenth-century ballad. During his 1904 sojourn in Paris, Spilliaert discovered the works of the progressive artists there. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and Symbolists Odilon Redon (1840–1916) and Edvard Munch (1863–1944) were particularly influential. Spilliaert’s early years were infused with anxiety, a preoccupation with death and a melancholia which led him to the brink of suicide. His angst-ridden self-portraits such as Self-Portrait in Front of a Mirror (1908) are reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream series (1893–1910). Munch’s influence is also apparent in Spilliaert’s recurring theme of solitude and lonely figures in seemingly endless landscapes, seen in works such as The Bather (1910) and Vertigo (1908). Spilliaert translated his malaise into disquieting compositions, combining abstract patterns with clearly identifiable objects. These works are almost entirely monochrome, showing the influence of Redon’s noirs. This period also saw Spilliaert’s perhaps most iconic works, the night views of Ostend, which show delicate chiaroscuro effects as in Dyke at Night (1908), strongly resonating with Whistler’s Nocturnes (1871/72).
After the First World War and the birth of his daughter, Spilliaert’s palette lightened and his works shifted away from his pre-war angst. Though based in Ostend, he continued to travel to Paris. He exhibited in Brussels with Expressionists such as Constant Permeke (1886–1952), collaborated with Belgian Surrealists and experimented with the flat colors of the post-impressionist Nabis in works such as Yellow and Mauve Seascape (1923). Spilliaert’s interest in contemplation, emptiness and abstraction persist in his later work, particularly in his representation of trees, such as his beech tree series. However, in these works Spilliaert’s anxiety gives way to tranquility. Many of Spilliaert’s late works are seascapes.
Top Auction Results for Léon Spilliaert
Self-portrait, 3 November (1908)
Sold for €741,000 ($816,438)
Lokeren, De Vuyst, 24 October 2015, Old masters, modern and contemporary art, lot 107
La buveuse d’absinthe
Sold for €483,000 ($544,593)
Paris, Sotheby’s, 3 June 2015, Art Impressionniste et Moderne, lot 23
Jeune Femme sur un tabouret
Sold for €483,000 ($539,303)
Paris, Sotheby’s, 1 June 2016, Art Impressioniste et Moderne, lot 8