19th Century Painting

Emile Wauters (1846-1933): Belgian Late Romantic


Wauters: Madness of
Hugo van der Goes,
1872


Wauters: Madness of
Hugo van der Goes,
1872

Emile Wauters: The Madness of Hugo van der Goes, 1872. Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.

The artistic heritage of Belgium was a key factor in any sense of a unified national past. A number of artists turned to the lives of past artists for their subjects. Emile Wauters (1846-1933) combined the Romantic interest in psychology and the role of insanity in artistic creativity in his haunting vision of The Madness of Hugo van der Goes (1872); Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels). Hugo van der Goes (d. 1482) was a very gifted painter who retired from the world in 1475 and entered a monastery in search of a cure for his mental illness. He was stricken while returning from a trip to Rome, according to an account written by Gaspar de Ofhuys, the infirmarius of the Roode Clooster, a monastery near Brussels which sheltered van der Goes.

The author of this report had been a young novitiate at the time of van der Goes' illness. He speculated that the illness may have been sent by Divine Providence, or may have stemmed from natural causes, such as "the malignity of corrupt humors that predominate in the human body." Ofhuys noted that van der Goes was "deeply troubled by the thought of how he could ever finish the works of art he wanted to paint," and also perhaps drank too much wine. Wauters' brother A.J. Wauters, was a noted art historian who had written a biography of Hugo van der Goes in 1864; he undoubtedly brought the chronicles of the artist's madness to the attention of his brother.

Emile Wauters portrayed van der Goes in the monastery, in the grip of his melancholic depression, while young boys sing to ease his spirits. This picture, with its subject of artistic madness, has fascinated many later observers intrigued by the relationship between artistic creation and insanity. Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1888:

-- Jeffery Howe

Photos by Jeffery Howe