Belgian artist Piet Verhaert was an accomplished painter of portraits, interiors and genre subjects. Inspired by the Dutch and Flemish masters, he’s predominantly known for tavern scenes.
In the 17th century, drinking was a pastime and numerous Dutch and Flemish artists sought to capture the heady atmosphere of rowdy hostelries for an excitable middle-class market. Around two-thirds of Dutch genre scenes involved drinking. Dishevelled gentlemen falling from chairs, pipe smokers, busty women, and raucous behaviour. Paintings of this nature are referred to as ‘Merry Company’ and it was a world Piet Verhaert would’ve thoroughly enjoyed.
Van Beers Clique
But alas, he was born in the wrong century, so had to make do with 19th-century inns and a good imagination. In homage to the past, together with fellow artists Jan van Beers, Alexander Struys and Jef Lambeaux, he was a member of the notorious "Van Beers Clique" who were known for their eccentric behaviour. Attired in period costumes, they often wandered through the old streets of Antwerp creating havoc while sampling various indulgences along the way.
Piet Verhaert, Another!
Yet, despite his fondness for a pint or two, he was an exquisite draughtsman having honed his skills at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, under Jozef Van Lerius (1823-1876). The Academy was a rigid affair with an emphasis on life drawing and copying the masters. One can imagine how he revelled in discussions concerning the past, yet rebelled against the established order.
His works are varied with many of them inspired by his love of 17th-century Flemish paintings. He’d often adopt a low-key, brownish palette to enhance an aged appearance. Flemish painter Adriaen Brower (1605-1638) seems to be an influence.
Adriaen Brower, The Smokers (1636)
As does Flemish painter Simon de Vos (1603-1676).
Simon de Vos, Merry Company (1631)
Despite being a fine draughtsman, Verhaert often preferred a rougher line to add robustness to his scenes with many feeling as rugged as a drunken Dutch peasant.
In 1873, Verhaert debuted at the prestigious Triannual Salon van Antwerpen and his career was in full swing. He later travelled to the Netherlands, Italy, Paris and then Spain where he made copies after Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). This must’ve been an interesting time as he immersed himself in works by the great Spanish master.
Upon his return, he arrived at a transformational time for Belgian art with numerous artists complaining about the direction of the Academies. Several were forming breakaway groups with ‘Les XX’ being one of the more influential. Les XX represented a circle of artists displeased with the conservative attitudes of the elite, particularly with regard to the selection policy for the official Academy Salon. If you didn’t make the list, your sales were drastically depleted.
Les XX held its own exhibitions and Verhaert became one of its members. It did particularly well with each show crammed full of interested buyers. A key part of its success was the introduction of foreign artists such as Paul Signac (1863-1935), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Walter Sickert (1860-1942), James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) among others. Vincent Van Gogh also famously sold his work, The Red Vineyard (1888), to Anna Boch, at a Les XX exhibition.
Aside from his works in oil, Verhaert was also an accomplished etcher and is particularly lauded for his album of etchings depicting the old districts of Antwerp, which were slowly disappearing. With this, he’s clinging to the past, perhaps longing for simpler times while surrounded by a rapidly evolving world.
Piet Verhaert, Self Portrait (1890)
In 1886, he returned to the Academy as a teacher, inspiring the next generation of Belgian artists in both the methods of the old masters and also the emerging ideas of the avant-garde. The Academy was beginning to change and Verhaert was a catalyst.
Piet Verhaert, The Card Players (1890). Possibly depicting his close friends in 18th-century costumes.
Regarded as a quick-tempered gentleman, in 1908 he died in tragic circumstances following a blazing argument with a neighbour over a boundary line. It’s said that he suffered ‘congestion’ during a heated debate and fell to the ground.
In a work from 1880, he’s added an inscription of: ‘Als de drank is in den man, is de wijsheid in de kan’.
When the drink is in the man
Wisdom is in the jug.
Verhaert is represented in numerous public collections including at the museums of Antwerp, Brussels, Doornik and Ghent.
Born in Antwerp, Belgium.
Studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp under Jozef Van Lerius (1823-1876).
Debuted at the Triannual Salon van Antwerpen.
Travelled to Paris.
Worked in Spain producing copies of paintings by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).
Joined Les XX.
Began teaching at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
Died in Oostduinkerke, Belgium.