Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Leys, Hendrik

  • Visual artsBelgianFlemish
  • Author:
    Baetens, Jan Dirk
  • Pupil of:
    Braekeleer, Ferdinand deBree, Matthijs van
  • Trained at:
    Antwerp, Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen
  • Title:
    Leys, Hendrik
  • Text:

    Hednrik (Henri) Leys (Antwerp 1815 – Antwerp 1869) was a Belgian history and historical genre painter. He started his career in the early 1830s in the circle of the great Belgian Romantic Gustave Wappers and specialised in historical battle scenes. In the late 1830s, he developed a successful line of pastiches of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish genre painters such as David Teniers the Younger. During a trip in 1852 to Germany, however, Leys came under the spell of 15th- and 16th-century artists like Hans Holbein the Younger, and he subsequently changed his style again, turning to 15th- and 16th-century scenes painted in an appropriate historical setting an in archaizing style derived from these older masters. This led to his international breakthrough. He was awarded one of the nine grand medals of honour at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855 and received similar distinctions at the International Exhibition in London in 1862 and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 under the critical acclaim of leading art critics like Théophile Thoré and William Michael Rossetti.

    Leys’s work was often read in political terms. The pastiches of the late 1830s and 1840s, for instance, could be seen as celebrating the persistent Belgian (or Flemish) spirit that was discerned in the work of Teniers and his contemporaries. The more ambitious works of the 1850s and 1860s, frequently depicting scenes from the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, evoked the struggle against a foreign (Spanish) oppressor and thus celebrated, not only the imagined roots of Belgian independence, but also liberal values (freedom of conscience and religion) which dominated the country at the time. Himself a Liberal member of the Antwerp city council from 1848 to 1862, and a protégé of Charles Rogier, Belgium’s Liberal prime minister in several cabinets, Leys was ennobled in 1862. In 1861, Rogier secured for Leys a commission for mural decorations of the Antwerp City Hall. At a time of growing anti-centralist feelings in Antwerp, partially fed by the rise of the Flemish movement, Leys’s murals propagated ideals of loyalty to the nation and to the monarch, all in 16th-century historicist guise. When Leys died in 1869, he left a “school” of epigons behind who continued his historicist project but, ironically, often reoriented it towards a Flemish identity and the particularist Flemish cause.

    Word Count: 374

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  • DOI:
  • Baetens, Jan Dirk (2012). “Voor vorst en vaderland: Een nieuwe lezing van de muurschilderingen van Henri Leys in het Antwerpse stadhuis”, Belgisch tijdschrift voor filologie en geschiedenis/Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, 90 .2: 513-539 [For king and fatherland: A new view on the murals of H.L. in the Antwerp city hall]

    Baetens, Jan Dirk (2013). “Form, reform and Reformation: The politics of pre-rubenism”, in Hanson, Ingrid; Rhoden, Wilfred Jack; Snyder, E.E. (eds.) (2013). Poetry, politics and pictures: Culture and identity in Europe, 1840-1914 (Oxford: Peter Lang), 19-44

    Cleaver, Dale G. (1955). Henri Leys, nineteenth-century Belgian painter (doctoral thesis; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago)

    Vanzype, Gustave (1934). Henri Leys (Brussels: Nouvelle société d’editions)

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Baetens, Jan Dirk, 2020. "Leys, Hendrik", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 16-07-2020, consulted 08-03-2021.