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The seer Leon Spilliaert

De ziener Leon Spilliaert - Lyklema Fine Art

Léon Spilliaert (Ostend 1881 – 1946 Brussels) was one of the leading Belgian painters of the first half of the twentieth century. In his early days he was one of the founders of literary symbolism with a idiosyncratic interpretation of the world. But Spilliaert is not a purely symbolist artist. His work is too realistic for that. His best period was before 1914 as an eccentric seer of a strange reality. Spilliaert's realism is not far from abstraction. Whether he painted a street or beach scene, a still life or a fisherwoman, you can sense that the artist looked and captured with melancholy and even gloom.

Spillaert-De Restaurant
The restaurant-1904 

The young Spilliaert had a natural artistic talent. Even as a teenager he was attracted by the 'paper world' and read to exhaustion. Inspired by literature and philosophy, he makes many drawings. He enrolled at the Bruges Academy but did not complete it. He rejected the contemporary classical art directions that strove for an idealized image representation. He preferred spontaneous work based on his idiosyncratic self-image and his introverted, melancholic disposition.

Vrouw op Dijk-1907

In 1900 he visited the World Exhibition in Paris with his father and discovered the contemporary art of Jan Toorop, Giovanni Segantini, Ferdinand Hodler, Gustav Klimt, and others. Spilliaert admired Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he also depicted on canvas a number of times. Here Spilliaert already showed his deep, visionary originality, expressed with Indian ink and black chalk.

Around 1903 he was employed by the then well-known Brussels publisher Edmond Deman and he came into contact with Emile Verhaeren, James Ensor, Georges Lemmen, Fernand Khnopff and Théo van Rysselberghe. At that time he made dreamy watercolors of landscapes and figures. He also provided illustrations for books and collections of poems, including those by Verhaeren.

De Slaapkamer-1908


In 1905 Spilliaert was still an unknown artist to the general public. In 1907 there was a group exhibition by Le Center d'Art, including works by Van Gogh and Odilon Redon. Introduced by Verhaeren, Spilliaert was also able to participate.

The years 1907 and 1908 were his artistic miracle years. He then drew numerous still lifes of the interior of his back room in the parental home, but also many marines and dike views. The connected series of approximately twenty self-portraits are the most striking; Like a civilian in a dark suit with a shirt with a starched collar underneath, he looks at us with hollow or black-rimmed eyes. It is a play of light and shadow, with a power that leaves a deep, oppressive impression.

De Baadster-1909

De Baadster-1909

In 1908 he became friends with his younger colleague Constant Permeke, with whom he shared a studio on the quay for over a year. The painter Gustaaf De Smet also sometimes passed by. Permeke's expressionist efforts influenced Spilliaert and can be seen in his works from 1908 onwards.


Spilliaert mainly created his best works at night. Because he was an indigestion and a bad sleeper, he took night walks in the city and along the sea. That inspired him to do dark, elusive, enigmatic work with slightly fading artificial light on wet streets.

After the end of the First World War, Spilliaert resumed his travels to the art dealers in Paris. One of the greatest collectors in Paris bought all the works he brought with him. Much to his pleasure and in contrast to the hurtful criticism he sometimes received in Belgium.

During the first half of the 1920s, Spilliaert turned to a new technique: mixing casein with opaque gouache. This allowed him to further abstract his works with bright contrasts and brilliant colors. The many navies have a strong stripe pattern and intense cloud wisps in bright colors or dull blue tones, tending towards the abstract. He produced approximately 55 oil paintings only early in his career, peaking in the years 1920 to 1926.


In 1937 he joined Les Compagnons de l'Art. Luc and Paul Haesaerts were the driving forces behind it. Constant Permeke, Hippolyte Daeye, Edgard Tytgat, Jean Brusselmans, Paul Delvaux and Oscar Jespers were also among these unbound artists.

Léon Spilliaert lived the last ten years of his life in Brussels, where he died on November 23, 1946. Many of his 4,500 works were still unsold at the time. The real appreciation for Spillaert only came when Symbolism and Art Nouveau received new attention. He is now considered one of the great Belgian artists of the first half of the twentieth century. The Mu.ZEE in Ostend has the largest collection of this artist in the world, namely more than 120 works.

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