Flemish artist Cornelis Cels produced a great number of history paintings and portraits during his illustrious career. He was much celebrated at his time both in his homeland and across Europe.
Cels came from a prominent family in the Lier area of Antwerp, where he was born. His father had earnt his prominence through trade, however, Cels could not find any desire within himself to be a merchant, and turned to the arts, instead. This was done much to the chagrin of his family, but through perseverance, Cels obtained training from both the sculptor Walter Pompe (1703-1777) and artist P.J. Denis.
Cels furthered his education in Brussels, studying under Andries Cornelis Lens (1739-1822). He then travelled further, to learn from fellow Flemish painter Joseph-Benoît Suvée (1743-1807) in Paris. Both Lens and Suvée were influenced by the neo-classical style which was blooming across Europe during the time. They would have a large influence on Cels’ work, as shall be seen.
Following his studies with Suvée, Cels journeyed to Italy, where he would remain for seven years. During this time, he began to attract attention. A history painting of Roman patrician Cincinnatus won an award from the Academy of Ghent. A commission to replace a work by Rubens to hang in the Pantheon was so well received that Cels was given membership to the prestigious, exclusive Academy of San Luca in Rome.
Many a commission for religious and historical paintings followed, and soon after Cels was inundated with work to replace those plundered by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte. These works he executed in the neoclassical style, as promoted by Lens and Suvée, and as was popular at the time. Figures of elegant, pristine health and humanity stand tall and suave. They are dressed in classical robes, draping in fine colours, set against a vivid, classical atmosphere.
Cels’ success over these years continued when he returned to Flanders. Working for a while in Antwerp, he moved to The Hague area of Amsterdam in 1820. Here, he was patronised by nobility and royalty alike to produce portrait paintings. These he did with a canny likeliness in a striking realism. Looking upon the sitters now, a modern viewer seems to get an idea of their personality through Cels’ emphatic depictions. Cels also captures the specificity and richness of their dress, fulfilling a need amongst these wealthy clients to appear rich and important.
Cels’ efforts awarded him the appointment as director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Tournai. This was a position he held for seven years, and he undertook his role with ‘distinction,’ elevating further the status of this institution which ‘enjoyed a lot of reputation.’ Following his tenure, he retired to Brussels, where he would remain until his death.
Cels was a prolific and celebrated Flemish artist, who spread his renown across Europe and became desirable to royalty and nobility. He remains as influential and important as the artists who taught him. His legacy was continued with his son, Jean-Michel Cels (1819-1894), who was also an artist.
Born in Lier, Antwerp, Belgium.
Studied under Adries Cornelis Lens.
Travelled to Paris, France.
Lived and worked in Rome, Italy.
Won the gold prize from the Academy of Ghent.
Travelled to Florence, Italy.
Travelled to Naples, Italy.
Lived and worked in Antwerp, Belgium.
Lived and worked in the Hague, Netherlands.
Worked as director of the Academy of Fine Arts, Tournai.
Moved to Brussels, Belgium.
Travelled to Britain.
Died in Brussels, Belgium.