Verstraete, Theodoor (1850-1907)

Verstraete, Theodoor (1850-1907)
Verstraete, Theodoor (1850-1907)

Belgian artist Theodoor Verstraete was known in his time as the ‘poet of rural life.’ Leader of the ‘School of Brasschaat’ landscape painters, Verstraete remains greatly celebrated for his contribution to the promotion of naturalism in Belgian landscape art.

Born in Ghent, both of Verstraete’s parents had successful careers in the theatre. At first, he intended to follow in their footsteps, accompanying them on various theatre tours. However, it seems the visual arts proved a much more desirous path for Verstraete to take. In 1866 he began studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp under eminent Belgian landscape artist Jacob Jacobs (1812-1879).

During his studies, Verstraete would marry. With a young family to support, Verstraete had to make money. His past connection to the theatre would prove useful in this manner, as he was both supported financially by his mother and worked as a decorative theatre painter.

Fortunately, however, Verstraete was beginning to gain recognition and appreciation for his canvas paintings. An 1882 landscape was awarded a gold medal in Antwerp and received an honourable mention at the prestigious Paris Salon. By this time, the young family had settled in Brussels. However, Verstraete was chasing an inclination to paint views away from the city, in the heart of Belgium’s countryside. It was the Brasschaat region which proved the most alluring, and Verstraete rented a house and spent his days travelling through the countryside in a caravan.

Inspired by the French Barbizon School, these landscapes are brimming with naturalistic verve and the evocation of the artists’ connection to the natural world. As one art critic at the time wrote: ‘Verstraete tries to express the mysterious bond that exists between the silence of the countryside and the thoughts of man- that agitated being.’

Indeed, there is both a gorgeous representation of nature and an intangible passion which is elementary to his works. Verstraete’s reaction to the land is evident through his artistic representation. Glorious tones of colour capture the varying diffusion of light throughout the seasons. It tints winter skies moodily and sets grass alight with a verdant freshness. His brushstrokes are active and evident, lyrical in the placing of paint upon the canvas.

Verstraete would not only often depict nature’s beauty, but also the ways of rural life. Women pick flowers in the burgeoning garden, villagers trudge across snow, cloaks pulled tightly over hunched shoulders. His human figures are also brimming with the same character Verstraete applies to the land. That ‘bond’ is explored not only through his own reaction to the landscapes but to those who he represents existing within them. Verstraete expressed empathy for those living within the country scenes he depicted. His passion for the landscape extended to its inhabitants.

Verstraete’s landscapes would prove greatly influential to a number of artists. They would join him in the Brasschaat region, forming what would become known as the ‘Brasschaat School’ of painters, with Verstraete as their leader. This group included artists such as Frans Van Leemputten (1850-1914).

These naturalistic works took Belgium by storm. Traditionally, landscapes had been dominated by the romantic. Realistic depictions of the land had taken a backseat. Now, Verstraete and others were encouraging artists to not only look to the land but react to it in their art, putting the artistic connection to nature first and foremost.

Verstraete would also play an important role in the Belgian art scene through his involvement with various groups and associations. He was an original member of ‘The Twenty,’ who promoted progressive developments in art. He was a co-founder of the ‘Be Yourself’ group and a founding member of ‘The Thirteen,’ which sought a break from the traditional academicism in Belgian art. He was involved in these groups alongside those who he had studied at the Academy, such as Emile Claus (1849-1924).

Despite his popularity, Verstraete still struggled financially. However, after befriending Henri Van Cutsem in 1886, fortune shone on Verstraete. Van Cutsem was a wealthy patron and encouraged Verstraete to go further, both artistically and geographically. With his support, Verstraete travelled around the Netherlands, depicting scenes of the countryside in his signature style. Van Cutsem also invited Verstraete to paint at the villa he owned on the Belgian coast. The artist became fascinated by the transient quality of water.

Tragically, Verstraete suffered a stroke in 1893, which greatly impacted his eyesight and ability to speak. As a result, he could no longer work professionally as an artist. Two retrospective exhibits brought in some income, and rather touchingly, Van Cutsem continued to financially support Verstraete. He gave him a monthly allowance and would apparently regularly buy paintings from the artist, only to gift them back.

Verstraete suffered from poor physical and mental health for the rest of his life. Tragically, by the time of his death in 1907, the artist could apparently not remember the contribution which he had made to landscape painting. Nonetheless, his homeland vouched never to forget. Not only do a number of his works reside in the Royal Museums in Brussels and Antwerp, but in 1909 a statue of the artist was erected in Antwerp.

Theodoor Verstraete was one of the greatest Belgian artists of his time. His emotional landscape paintings are a love letter to nature in all its transient states. Verstraete depicted country life at a time when urbanisation was burgeoning across Europe, infusing his works with compassion and a lyrical realism. Kind friends and patrons saw that Verstraete’s contribution and significance would never be left to decline, and it seems important that this legacy should be continued.


Born in Ghent, Belgium.


Moved to Antwerp, Belgium.


Travelled to the Netherlands.


Began studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium.


Studied at the Free Studio of Jacob Jacobs.


Became a member of ‘The Twenty.’ Co-founded art group ‘Be Yourself.’


Awarded a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, France.


Co-founded ‘The Thirteen.’


Retrospective exhibition of works held at the Verlat Rooms, Antwerp, Belgium.


Awarded a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, France.


Retrospective exhibition of works held.


Died in Antwerp, Belgium. Buried in Schoonselhof Cemetery, Antwerp, Belgium.

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