France, Private Collection.
“I never envisaged painting as a means to express my ideas, my feelings, my interior perceptions; it is a malleable language or dialect, in images”
Henry de Groux
Rediscovered recently as a result of the publication of his Journal in 2007 – an eighteen volume manuscript – Henry de Groux is now considered by art historians as one of the great representatives of social realism in painting. Son of the realist painter Charles Degroux, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. In 1888, at the age of twenty-two years, he painted The Mocking of Christ on a monumental scale (9 ft. 7 3/8 x 11 ft 7 in., oil on canvas, Avignon, Roure Palace) which met with resounding success when it was exhibited first in Brussels and then in Paris. Close to Belgian literary circles, friends with Symbolist painters, in 1887 de Groux was elected member of one of the most avant-garde artistic circles of the time, the Group of XX, founded by James Ensor, Fernand Knopff, and Theo Van Rysselberghe in 1884. Unfortunately, his stormy character and uncompromising opinions on certain painters, such as Paul Signac, Edouard Manet, and Vincent Van Gogh which the Group of XX admired, led to his exclusion from the circle in 1890, thus depriving him of the fame that his colleagues received at the dawn of the twentieth century. De Groux therefore moved to Paris and pursued his work marked by a realism borrowed from a powerful version of Symbolism which sometimes was on the limit of mysticism. He exhibited regularly and frequented painters, poets, and musicians such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Apollinaire, Rodin, Mallarme, Oscar Wilde, and Debussy. However his extremely close friendship with Leon Bloy, an impassioned melancholic writer, blew up right when the national debate about the Dreyfus affair surfaced. De Groux, in fact, became enthusiastic about Emile Zola’s ideas which he fervently defended.
The artist’s tortured hot temperament plunged him into a dreadful period. His tumultuous existence and work became inseparable. His disgust with the world which surrounded him was expressed through his uneasy, even violent paintings characterized by complex drawing loaded with pigment. Difficult to enter, his oeuvre nonetheless is often visionary and always unclassifiable. Although De Groux had a definite preference for Biblical and mythological subjects, his apocalyptic vision of the world and his vehement Humanism also led him to address more social dimensions. A recent exhibition at the Fenaille Museum in Rodez thus features his charcoal drawings devoted to the First World War in which the infantry became twentieth century martyrs.
After Armistice, the painter settled in Provence where he was welcomed for three years, most notably by Jeanne de Flandreysy in the Roure Palace in Avignon. He received some public commissions and participated in the decoration of the Opera stairway in Marseille. After the war trauma, his work was enlivened by the bright almost Oriental colors of the Mediterranean sun, as for example in the pastel depicting a Procession in Camargue.
Our large pastel belongs to the same period: in a whirlwind of flamboyant colors and large and fleeting brushstrokes, it depicts a group of bell ringers in a church with bluish stained glass windows. This theme is concerned with both religious feelings and social reality, as it presents an already forgotten profession which could be perceived from a purely profane point of view. In full action, the four barefoot men are engaged in a concerted effort which gives the whole composition a dramatic tension which can often be seen in De Groux’ works. The dynamism of the composition reinforced by broad streaks of bright colors recalls Delacroix, an artist whom de Groux particularly admired.
Rodolphe RAPETTI, “Un chef d’œuvre pour ces temps d’incertitude : Le Christ aux outrages d’Henry de Groux”, La revue de l’art, 1992, no 96, pp. 40-50.
Henry de Groux (1866-1930). Journal, ed. R. Rapetti et P. Wat (dir.), Paris, INHA, 2007.
Benoît DECRON, Jérôme DESCAMPS and Aurélien PIERRE, Henry de Groux, le front de l’étrange, exh. cat. Rodez, Fenaille Museum, 2015.
Jean-David JUMEAU-LAFOND, Les Peintres de l’âme. Le Symbolisme idéaliste en France, exh. cat. Brussels, Ixelles Museum, 1999, pp. 71-72.