Émile FABRY (Verviers, 1865 - Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, 1966)

Study for Colonial Expansion or Effort

50.5 x 82.5 cm. (19 7/8 x 32 ½ in.)

Oil on canvas, squared-off sketch

• The artist’s studio, and then by bequest;
• Belgium, Private Collection.

• GUISSET, J., Émile Fabry: Peintures et dessins. Catalogue-inventory. Miseur Collection, 2000, 234 pp. (unpublished).
• DUBUISSON, E., “L’atelier du peintre Émile Fabry: la muse d’une (belle) famille d’artistes,” Les Nouvelles du Patrimoine, 149, 2015, pp. 23-25.

(…) One is attracted and held by the mysteriousness of enigmatic figures,
So serious and withdrawn that they carry you into the troubling tragic hereafter. (1)

Originally Belgian, Emile Fabry is known as a painter, lithographer, and decorator. A child who loved drawing which he practiced regularly, Emile Fabry intended to have an artistic career from an early age. Obliged by unfortunate chance to join the army at the age of 18, assigned to the University Company in Brussels, the young man decided to pursue his vocation by registering at the same time at the Royal Academy, Brussels. There he met Jean Portaels (1818-1895), under whom he had a rigorous training working from nature until 1893. After that, he exhibited at different official events, including those organized by the For Art circle. He then continued his rise at the Rose+Cross Salons up to the 1905 World’s Fair in Liege which signaled the apogee of his career.

M. Fabry has a feeling for new allegories and penetrating symbols…
His art is an art of serious fright, of a high and vague existence; an art opening one’s sad, rigid, terrified eyes to life… (2)

Fabry was a clearly Symbolist artist, inspired by all the artistic forms which he could apply to the creative process, including poetry, especially William Blake’s writings. His works are related to allegories which let him transcribe feelings or emotions through ingenious handling of light effects. Although he lived to be a hundred years old, passing time and ideas of death seem to have haunted the artist who elaborated images symbolizing human destiny through powerful subjects such as the Ages of life, seasons, as well as the Fates, fascinating female figures from Roman Mythology (The Goddesses of Life, 1896, oil on canvas, 249 x 205.5 cm./ 8 ft. 2 5/16 in. Antwerp, Private Collection.)

In addition to his painting activity, Fabry gradually turned towards a career as a decorator. In fact, the historical context was propitious for this new exercise: during the second half of the 19th century, cities were undergoing major transformations with the emergence of new buildings such as Tribunals and City Halls whose walls were turned into vast work areas where artists could participate in the entire conception. In Belgium, this movement was supported by the appearance of salons of monumental art encouraging artists to surpass themselves, even though most of the works were only meant to last for a set time.

By collaborating with the architects, Fabry developed a certain ease in this area and conceived decorations for his friends’ villas before being called for larger projects. He executed the frescos for the Royal Theater of La Monnaie (“Money”) in Brussels, and for different official rooms in the City Halls of Saint-Gilles, Laeken, and finally Woluwe-Saint-Pierre where he lived until his death in 1966.

Our work served as preparation for a monumental work imagined for the World’s Fair in Liege in 1905. Entitled Colonial Expansion, and then renamed Effort in order to erase any political connotations when it was created, the work was acquired by the town of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre and installed in the entry way of the Fabry Gallery in the town hall. The artist produced two sketches for it between 1903 and 1904, including our work. Both were conserved in his studio until his death, and then through bequest to his heirs who kept it until the sale of the artist’s house in 2017.

Indispensable to the creative process, the sketch makes it possible to appreciate different stages of reflection. The penciled grid on the canvas results from the squaring off technique which allowed the reproduction of the final work in monumental dimensions.

In this composition which is rhythmically constructed on diagonals, the gaze wanders from left to right: from silhouettes in full physical effort to the vision of four horses whose bodies terminate in volutes. The allegorized main figure is placed in the center of the composition with arms stretching towards the horizon. As if floating above everything, it evokes the grandeur of the Belgian nation carried on this sea of athletic bodies pouring out in a torrent while pulling the chariot, thus exporting knowledge to other civilizations.

The lightness emanating from the composition makes the scene almost a dreamy poetic escape emerging from the artist’s imagination. Effort is rendered supple and delicate through the play of curves and counter-curves evoking gracefulness and floating, just the opposite of the strength implied by the subject. The enigmatic figures left in reserve are simply outlined because rather than the sitters’ identities, the artist concentrates on communicating the idea of a general dynamic. The whole group, upon which the main figure is standing, forms a powerful wave accentuated by the handling of athletic figures inspired by Greek sculpture. In the middle of these pastel colors, the clever presence of sketched roses - the artist’s favorite flowers - placed in the center of the composition is no coincidence.

Appointed Drawing Professor at age 36 at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, Emile Fabry was known both by critics and contemporaries for the Edenesque vision of the world he created in his works. The construction of his house which became his studio allowed him to fulfill the monumental commissions which flowed in until the First World War when he fled to England. In 1919, he returned to Belgium.

transl. chr

(1) “L’Art Moderne,” Brussels, November 20th, 1892
(2) “L’Art Moderne,” Bruxelles, January 28th, 1894

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