11453 TWO WATERCOLOR AND GOUACHE TROMPE L’OEIL PAINTINGS SIMULATING ‘GRAND ANTIQUE’ MARBLE AND BRECCIA DI SETTEBASI FROM THE VAN DER KELEN WORKSHOP Brussels. Circa 1920. Measurements: Grand Antique marble: Sight Size: Height: 58 1/2″ (148.5 cm); Width: 39 1/4″ (99.5 cm) With frame: Height: 65″ (165 cm); Width: 45 1/2″ (115 cm); Depth: 1 3/4″ […]

Of gouache on paper.

From the family of Alfred van der Kelen, Director of the Institut Superieur de Peinture de Bruxelles, by descent.

Imitation of natural materials in decorative painting has been practiced from antiquity. In ancient Egypt, rare and foreign wood grains were mimicked on sarcophagi. The ancient Greeks and Romans followed, decorating their villas with impressive trompe l’oeil architectural masterpieces, such as the faux marble panels employed at the Villa Arianna, Stabiae circa 80 BC (figure 1).

It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that a formal study of the genre was developed. In France, groups of decorative painters collaborated to produce the Journal de Peintres en Bâtimens [sic] in 1834. Painted examples of wood and marble were reproduced in their publications, as were designs illustrating how these faux finishes could be used in interior and exterior schemes (figure 2). Techniques that evolved concurrently in France and England, soon spread throughout Europe; further guides for decorative painting appeared toward the end of the 19th century and included new methods for graining and marbling, sign and letter painting, and perspective. Two plates in Manuel de peinture pour l’imitation des bois et des marbres (1890) illustrates the various brushes, knives, combs, and sponges required to achieve the various marble and wood grain effects (figure 3).

The first school in Brussels dedicated to the teaching of decorative painting was founded by Pierre Logelain in 1882, and followed an oil-based style of painting. A decade later, Alfred Van der Kelen opened a second school, the Institut Superieur de Peinture Van der Kelen. Here traditional water-based techniques for imitating wood, marble, and other decorative finishes were imparted through six-month courses of “intense technical and practical training whilst developing the sense of observation and a good command of movement.”1 The imitation of each type of stone required different tools, materials, color palettes, and application techniques, all of which were outlined by the Institute. A photograph from 1896 shows Van der Kelen in the midst of a lesson on the imitation of Grand Antique marble (figure 4). The Logelain and Van der Kelen schools were united in 1951 when Alfred’s son, Clément Van der Kelen, merged the two institutions as the The Van der Kelen-Logelain Institute.

Van der Kelen’s Institute was housed in the former studio of the wrought iron craftsman Prosper Schryvers. It was designed in 1881 in the Flemish neo-renaissance style, and featured a large workshop with a glass roof, “in order to benefit from the best daylight.”2 In figure 5, two photographs show classes of students in 1921 and a course in marbles in the studio workshop surrounded by examples of trompe l’oeil marble paintings.

The present paintings represent two types of classical marbles. The example in black and white simulates bianco e nero marble, also known as ‘Grand Antique,’ which came from the Pyrenees region of France. This distinctive marble was originally quarried by the Romans, and reached the height of its popularity around the beginning of the 6th century AD, when the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius favored it for his projects, and his successor Justinian used the marble in his renovation of the Haggia Sophia.3 After that time, however, the Aquitaine quarries seem to have been forgotten for well over a thousand years, until they were rediscovered in the late 18th century.4

The other marble represented, of pale beige, gray and pink tones, is that called Breccia di Settebasi which was quarried on the island of Skyros in Greece. This ancient stone had previously been used extensively in and around Rome in the 1st and 2nd century A.D. However, it too became obsolete and it was not until the 19th century that its origins were uncovered.

The paintings previously belonged to the family of Alfred van der Kelen, by descent. Coupled with the superior rendering of the marbles, it is very possible they were done by the master himself.



1. Van der Kelen Logelain: The school and its history. http://vanderkelen.com/gb/history/
2. Ibid.
3. Laiou, Angeliki, Ed. The Economic History of Byzantium. Washington, D.C.: Dumburton Oaks, 2002. 137.
4. Gnoli, Raniero. Marmora Romana. Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 1988. 196-199.



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