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Grace (Benedicite)

Charles Degroux (1825-1870). Musée d’Art Moderne - Brussels. 1860.

The tones are dark and ochre. Dark as the land. Gloomy as poverty. We see misery. These pictures are hard to look at. We prefer the splendours of colour of the Italian Renaissance. We prefer to look at the happiness of a Filippo Lippi picture. Why would a painter show images that do not please our mind? Paintings should be images of beauty, and thus present agreeable scenes: nice young ladies with flowing robes of colourful shades, muscular young men, bucolic landscapes, blue skies with cotton-white clouds. This painting of Charles Degroux is so different from what we feel that beauty should be. Our reaction is not different from the reaction of art critics when this and other pictures of Degroux were first shown. The critics told his paintings came out of the workshop of Gustave Courbet and were scandalous. They did grant some qualities to the paintings such as that they represented reality in a truthful way. But the critics of the times also preferred pictures that were aesthetically more pleasing.

Yet, the picture of Charles Degroux indeed pleases the eye of experts and it intrigues. The colour shades are harmonious in the low tones and there are contrasts of colour in the picture that have meaning. There is a patch of warm green on the left and a patch of nice orange on the right. There are bright flecks as the caps of the ladies or the sleeves of the youths. The father figure is surrounded by a kind of an aura, but even this hue is not shrill but subdued, and doesn’t hurt the eye. Degroux used tones and hues as could be seen in old powerful masters like Titian.

There are no oblique lines crossing each other over the canvas that might induce nervousness and unrest in the viewer. There is symmetry in the painting: both to the left and to the right of the father there are five sitting figures. Only the father stands. The lines are horizontal, soothing, and give us an impression of rest and peace. The standing father figure forms the traditional pyramid structure of a triangle that goes from his head to the two lower corners of the frame, so Degroux linked to old structures of composition. There is order here. The horizontal directions are accentuated by the table and the bunk, by the wooden wall in the background, by the lines of the chimney. Even the textile that hangs from the chimney is horizontal. There are no curtains or other decorations indicating another direction. Life is flat; it is robust and close to the earth. It does not change. Immutability is expressed in the stiff horizontal and vertical lines.

All the figures of the painting show the same sorrow and grief, but they are individuals. Each figure tells another story; the painter has rendered each’s different character. Only two figures are with their backs to us. But they also have a story to tell in the family

The boy on the extreme left looks intelligent by his pose. His elbows rest on the table as if he were not praying but thinking. We can understand that he will become a teacher or an engineer. Next to him, half hidden, is an older brother in red cloak. This is probably the eldest son; he sits closest to the mother. He looks already as the next owner of the farm, more sure of himself and solid, also taciturn. The mother has a shawl in what might be the most joyful colours of the picture, as if to show that she might have liked to be richer. She has dressed up for dinner. Her face shows that she is not resigned. She shows anger at her fate. Her hands are very formally held together, as if she may have been once of a better-to-do family. Her eyes are closed or directed down in intense spiritual concentration. She needs the prayer that brings hope and consolation. Next to the father, on his right, sits another boy deep in prayers and lost in thoughts. Is he thinking of all the poverty and the hard labour that awaits everybody of the family? He will probably not remain on this farm: one day he will cut himself loose and run away.

The boy may be kept back from leaving by his little sister next to him. She has only recently learned to pray and has not yet found out that she can get away with some slack. She is beautiful, with nice, long, black hair. She looks somewhat as a gypsy, as a black beauty to come. Her elder sister on the far right is already a future mother. She holds the youngest baby in tenderness and protection. Another sister next to her on the left, in front of the father, is pious. She really believes that praying has the power to change fates and lives. She may enter a cloister and become a nun. The dog likes her much; he seems to revere her, as she is probably the nicest to him, so the dog points to her as the certain spiritual future for the family. This is the chosen one. Further on the left is another girl in dark red dress. This one sits upright, confronts the mother and seems to have her strength. Next to her sits another brother in a dark green shirt. This boy is the farm worker. His shirt is the colour of the meadows. He helps his father on the farm and probably feels most for the land.

Degroux made two other pictures of his ‘Benedicite’. One, an oil painting too, is in the Museum of Fine Arts of Gent in Belgium and the other, a drawing, is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. In both these pictures Degroux introduced a person more, a servant-girl that brings food on the table. And the young girl in the orange shirt looks distractedly at her dog. More than in the picture we show here, these other pictures indicate that Degroux very much followed examples of traditional images of the Last Supper. Traditional paintings of this theme also used the horizontal lines of the table and a dog is often to be found also in these images as a symbol of loyalty. But Degroux’ painting is extremely different from Paolo Veronese’s or Leonardo da Vinci’s inspiring images.

When you start looking at the painting, you are drawn from left to right and follow the lines of the figures, none of which really look at you. So you do not feel engaged as a viewer, you do not have to be embarrassed. Until you arrive at the father. And the father stands and looks straight at you. All figures show some form of grief. Most are not resigned. They do not seem to want to accept their fates, their poverty. The father too shows such a feeling of pride and of defiance. He seems to be saying, ‘ I control this family. We are poor, but these are mine. Compassion is mine only. Do no touch my people. We are poor, but we don’t need you. We don’t need your pity. We only need justice. We will get along and I can still feed my family.’ The large kettle is shown quite clearly as if the father has told the children to sit somewhat aside, for the viewer to remark the pot of food. There is poverty, but there is food so there is some degree of independence. No help is wanted nor needed. This is dignity.

Dignity is what people fight for. Poverty they can stand. They can stand being occupied by foreign armies and even lose liberty to some degree. But they will not stand losing dignity or justice.

The year is 1860. The scene is Belgium in Western Europe. Belgium was a new country; it received its independence only in 1830. Belgium as a state is younger than the United States of America. Industrialism soared. In Europe of the late 1800s, the metallurgic industry in particular grew massively, mainly in the carbon belts of Europe, among which Belgium. This brought new concentrations of people to the existing cities of Wallony (the French-speaking southern part of Belgium), the old towns of Lorraine in France, Saxony, the Rhineland, Poland and Czechia. The cities became black by the coal dust pollution. No bright pictures could be painted.

Western Europe knew economic crisises. In 1831 one such crisis bankrupted Charles Degroux’ father so that his family of ten children had to move from the French part of Comines, a town on the border of France and Belgium, to Brussels where Charles’ father got a job as a clerk. Degroux came from a family of ten children – one child died very young-, ten as in his painting of the Benedicite. Since the beginning of the 1840s, social critics were uttered frequently by economists, militant politicians and journalists such as Louis Blanc and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, against the appalling conditions of the working class. In 1846-1847 the economical situation in Western Europe became catastrophical. It was linked to insufficient agricultural production. Famines broke out, especially in Great Britain and Ireland. Tens of thousands immigrated to North America. Remember the ‘Last of England’ by Ford Madox Brown, painted in 1852.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels founded the Communist League in London in 1847. Its former name was the ‘League of the Just’, justice and dignity they claimed indeed. The Communist Manifesto dates from 1848. From 1848 on also, a wave of revolutions rolled over Europe: Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Venice and Milan. The French Republic was proclaimed, the president of France would be chosen by universal voting. In 1851 two workers, William Newton and William Allen, founded in Great Britain the ‘Union of Engineers’, one of the first workers’ unions to claim higher wages in an organised way. In 1853, Prussia installed a new law on children’s’ work: children workers had to be older than ten years and not work more than six hours because they had to be at least three hours at school – this either in public schools or at their working place. The Bessemer converter was invented in 1855; Friedrich Krupp of Essen in Germany applied it eagerly. Industrialism still expanded. There were constant battles between the armies of the European countries during that time. The Crimea war started in 1854. In 1857 there was a new financial and economic crisis in the United States, Great Britain and France especially. Unemployment grew. New revolutions started. Giuzeppe Garibaldi came, though by royal decree, at the head of an Italian army. He fought and defeated the Austrian army. The former French president now declared Emperor Napoleon III also declared war to Austria. Solferino, the very bloody battle at which the idea of the International Red Cross grew and was founded by Henri Dunant later in 1864, was fought in 1859. Karl Marx published ‘Das Kapital’ in 1867.

In 1848 in Belgium a small army of Belgian and French workers threatened to march against Brussels, but was defeated by the Belgian regular army. In 1849 the workers in the cotton manufactories of Gent went on a strike for two months. In ‘Das Kapital’ of 1867, Karl Marx called Belgium the paradise of continental liberalism. He noted that in the high furnace factories for every 1000 persons worked 149 women, with 98 boys and 85 girls younger than sixteen. He further told that between 1850 and 1863, Belgium had doubled its exports of carbon and iron G16 . Liberal Belgium was a powerhouse where enormous fortunes were made. Belgian centralisation of industry was an example for the world, not only because so much carbon and steel were exported, but also because of its output of machinery, locomotives, and railways. The countryside and the farmers did not participate in the wealth however; workers were exploited and lived in abject poverty.

Charles De Groux was born in 1825; he died in 1870 a mere 45 years old. His father had brought the family to Brussels and Degroux studied at the Brussels academy where one of his teachers was François-Joseph Navez. Charles Degroux did not have a good health. He had a weak hearth and would die suddenly in his workshop, leaving his wife and children without any means so that they had to sell all Degroux’ paintings and drawings at an auction G73 . His friends, all artists, paid for his tomb. Charles Degroux was very pious and seemed to have found solace in his prayers. He lived off his painting. He was not poor but certainly also not rich. Degroux has not made a great many paintings, but he painted in the new realist way that suited the industrialism and the social struggles he saw around him. He painted religious scenes also, and historical scenes hoping to earn more money. He always showed the poverty in his religious scenes and always poor people were the first subjects of his paintings. He lived through these socially troubled years not without being deeply touched.

Belgium was very Catholic then. In 1854 Parliament adopted the Convention of Antwerp reinstating the influence of the Catholic Church on public schools. Yet, there was also quite some anti-Catholicism. A liberal anti-clerical party won the elections of 1857. In Italy, in1860, the year in which Degroux painted his ‘Grace’, Garibaldi entered the Papal States and defeated its army. But Belgium would remain stubbornly Catholic, especially in the country, in Flanders and amongst the farmers.

Degroux shows the peasant family very naturally at the moment that they are saying grace before dinner. The father also has his fingers crossed for prayer. He is resigned and respectful and forces the same on his family. Poverty is indicated by the low colour tones of the painting. There is no decoration on the walls. This class has neither the money to buy pictures and trinkets, nor the education to aspire to beauty, nor the time to look for beauty. The father is the dark force of the picture and probably the austere man who has the responsibility to protect the family and to bring the food regularly on the table. But not all is harmony in this family. There is no joy at table. There is dissent. The mother is another focal point at the table. Degroux showed that in centring on the mother and in constructing a strong triangle of shapes. This triangle is formed by her figure in brighter tones and the boy and girl symmetrically in front of her. Here is a strong triangle that confronts the father. All other figures are closely bound neither to the father figure nor to the mother triangle; they form no block together. Therefore, structural solidity and also solidity of emotions is drawn to the strong triangle of the mother.

Pictorial art of the times since 1850 changed from Neo-Classicism to Realism. Its main proponent was the Frenchman Gustave Courbet who exhibited ‘The stone breakers’ at the Brussels painting salon of 1851. His paintings caused a stir in art, but when we now look at them in retrospect, they still seem very nice, sweet, still devoted to harmony, to restraining rules of art, and not very revolutionary. Yes, the subjects had evolved from Greek and Roman mythology to everyday life, and from portraying middle-class rich people to picturing common folk and workers. But the paintings still were addressed to middle-class buyers. Just as Degroux’ picture they are not really intended to shock, only to show. They remain harmonious in lines and colours, story telling, and within the rules. Still, they were painters who did not deliberately by their subjects, their content, seek higher beauty and ideas. By showing common people the Realist painters drew the intellectualism and individualism of Classicist and even Impressionist painting back to harsh reality. Critics vehemently opposed these views. Real art was not supposed to show the hardness of life.

Some of the real horrors would be shown only much later by Belgian painters like Eugène Laermans, Constantin Meunier and Charles Hermans. The social-realism movement would lose momentum by 1880. Painters needed buyers; they frequented the middle class and were from the middle class themselves. Peasants and high-furnace workers do not usually spawn painters, and when they were, these painters quickly moved to middle-class circles, were provided for by the middle class or the very rich and moved in their circles.

Still, the painting ‘Grace’ of Charles Degroux is one of the first paintings to show the humiliation, the misery of peasants and workers. As such it is a picture that inspires respect. At the same time it is as good a masterpiece as former Romantic and Neo-Classicist pictures. ‘Grace’ is still rooted in the desire to bring beauty to the eye, emotions to the mind and it is based on very strong pictorial structures that show the skill and intelligence of the artist.

Many decades later, this also would be thrown away by the Expressionists. Degroux’ painting heralds that period. The Expressionists would use the same colours and the same robustness as used by Degroux, but harmony would be banned and the pictures would not be agreeable to the eye anymore. But we can still look long at the Degroux painting and have feelings of tenderness for the family, inspired by the warm colours and restful lines.

Degroux showed a picture of praying. Jesus emphasised many times in the New Testament the act of praying. He told to ask to the father and promised that God when asked would give. Jesus addressed the poor. He addressed the unclean, the sick and he cured lepers. Prayer was the only solace and hope of the poor. Only in prayers could one ask for a change in one’s state of poverty and hope for being given, hope for better times. Hopes were humble in the 1860’s. Hope was limited to ask for meagre daily food, for a job, in which one had to do very hard and dirty work ten hours or more all days of the week, and good health. Prayer was the only moment in life when contact with spirituality was made. This was the moment when the mind, also of the poor, lifted to the heavens and aspired for beauty and serenity. Degroux showed that moment, but of course dissent is in his picture and if the father still is in this single moment of concentration and symbiosis with God, silent accusation is in the scene. The accusation would grow. Degroux’ painting is accusation. The bourgeois critics of his time understood that very well and therefore could not give all true admiration for Degroux’ work.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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