Willems, Florent (1823-1905)

Willems, Florent (1823-1905)
Willems, Florent (1823-1905)

Florent Willems was a Belgian artist predominantly known for his exquisite genre scenes featuring sumptuous interiors, lavish furnishings and decadent ladies. His approach was heavily influenced by his adoration for the Dutch and Flemish masters of the 17th century, hence his nickname of the 'modern Ter Borch'. His attention to detail was quite extraordinary and led to a keen following during his lifetime. At just 19, King Leopold I of Belgium had acquired his ‘The Music Lesson’ and at 21 he’d been awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon.

Willems studied at the Academy of Mechelen and exhibited regularly at the salons of Brussels and Paris. He’s represented at numerous museums including the British Museum, the Musée d'Orsay, and Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.


Brussels Salon, Paris Salon.

Public Collections

British Museum, The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Brooklyn Museum, Musée d'Orsay, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Amsterdam Museum, Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Moravian Gallery in Brno, National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, New-York Historical Society.



Born in Liège, Belgium. The son of Martin Adrien Willems, a teacher.

Moved to Mechelen.

Studied at the Academy of Mechelen.

Moved to Brussels.

Began working for art dealer, Héris, as an art restorer. He also produced copies of older works.

C. 1841

Commissioned by Sir Hamilton Seymour, English ambassador to the King of Belgium, to paint a family portrait.


Debuted at the Brussels Salon with ‘The Guardroom’ and ‘The Music Lesson’. King Leopold I of Belgium acquired the latter.

Began to exhibit regularly at the salons of Brussels and Paris.


Awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon.

Moved to Paris.


His friend and fellow artist, Alfred Stevens, joined him in Paris and worked in his studio. It’s said that Willems’ choice of subject matter influenced Stevens.


Awarded the Chevalier Cross in the Order of Leopold of Belgium for a work exhibited at the Brussels Salon.


Awarded the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour for three works exhibited at the Paris Salon.


Two of three works exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition were acquired by Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.

Awarded the rank of officer in the Order of Leopold of Belgium.


Thirteen works shown at the Universal Exhibition in Paris.


Died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

Les Artistes Modernes v. 1, 1882, by Eugène Montrosier.

“Wanting to write a book devoted to modern art, we do not mind, quite the contrary, to include some of these foreign artists who their stay among us and their very personal talent have made ours. From the Belgian school, we will borrow three names: Florent Willems, Alfred Stevens, Clays. Each one loaded with honours, they found, each in different ways, the path to success. To take only Mr. Florent Willems, he is a member of four academies and commander of the Legion of Honor, of Franz Joseph of Austria and of the royal order of Belgium. Although young, we can say that he earned all his grades with the tip of his brush by painting charming scenes, interesting subjects, characters that one would believe to see descending from the frame of some Terburg or some Metzu returned among us.

Mr. Florent Willems was born in Liège in 1824, but it was in Mechelen that his artistic education took place, to which his father contributed to a large extent. Not that this father, superiorly gifted, attempted to exercise embarrassing guardianship over his son, but simply by letting the germs he had discovered flourish freely under the bright sun. It was thus that, without a cantankerous tutor, the child grew up, developed his gifts, immediately achieved a result since at the age of thirteen he won the figure prize according to the antique. From there, he approached the nude, this supreme test of the painter, and he emerged seasoned from this struggle with nature. He was fourteen!

What should we do at this age when we have no wealth and when precocity is like a new pitfall to the development of a temperament? This was the problem facing the young neophyte. He resolved to break his hand by copying the old masters in the same way as a writer would do who reread the prose writers of the great literary centuries, the classics of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The kind of habit that this immediate contact with the geniuses who attracted him gave him put him in a position to engage in intelligent and fruitful restorations. He thus acquired a celebrity. It was then that the idea came to him to work from his thoughts, to give substance to the themes that attracted him, to create in his turn. At sixteen, he sold one of his first paintings for two hundred and fifty francs: a fortune!

Lord Hamilton Seymour, the English ambassador in Brussels, was of great help to young Willems. Not only did he buy a painting from him, but he also presented it to the king of the Belgians, who, charmed by the abilities of one of his subjects, also placed orders with him. Torn by cruel vicissitudes, Mr. Florent Willems fought with the energy of elite souls that nothing can stop. He simultaneously led the restoration which gave him independence and the creations which paved the way for his notoriety. But Belgium seemed cold to him, the horizon limited, the sky always foggy; so he came to plant his easel in Paris and his flag in the middle of the Salon. However, it was not until 1853 that he was crowned an artist by the public and, what is better, by his colleagues in France. La Veuve, which appeared at the Salon, achieved immense success; This painting is part of the Van Praet collection, which, even for something of lesser importance, would be enough to classify it.

From 1853, Mr. Willems automatically became a French citizen. We saw him little at annual exhibitions, but his work was nevertheless increased by a quantity of overpriced canvases in genre painting with retrospective purposes. After the Terburgs, the Meizus, the Pieter de Hooch, whose names we mentioned earlier, a place apart in the vast field of art. The past attracts him while the present leaves him indifferent. This refined man from the good old days, this lover of furniture, this restorer of rich fabrics, of hangings with solemn folds, rhythmic costumes in their cut and ingenious assembly of the colours which form them, finds our time gloomy, our furniture inharmonious, the fit of our women eccentric or unsightly given the setting in which it appears. However, how many pages eloquent he could have written with the Parisienne, been composite, charming and demon, sphinx and beauty!

Perhaps Mr. Florent Willems passed next to his true kingdom, the one he would have created for himself in full modernization, in full humanity. We know well that on this account he does not would not have given so many exquisite chapters detached from the history of yesterday and who have a supreme stew. The painter excels at these restitutions all gallantly packed and in which fantasy willingly crumples the collar of truth. It matters little to us, after all, if the lords who bow before pretty women sin by an excess of archaism, if these enchantresses are not put in the vintage of the year in which they breathe, where they live, where they love. Fantasy, from which they emerge with the air of goddesses descended from Olympus, is painted under hates; it forms like one of those settings where Watteau liked to make circulate the Games, the Laughs, the Loves, the fantastic escapes of its infantes towards the ideal.

The great little master of the 18th century painted the Embarkation for Cythera while Fragonard was painting his gallant and spiritual pages (we do not say spiritualists) of a brush both provocative and victorious. It seems that some spicy heroines of Mr. Florent Willems get off the boat flowery where Watteau brought up an entire era, and where others watered from the Fountain of love towards which run, thirsty, the passionate dreams of Fragonard. Mr. Florent Willems is a real artist whose sincerity and mastery have placed him at the forefront. They are carved out a domain in the past while Alfred Stevens walked throughout his time. The two painters complete one side of art.”

Art and Artists of Our Time, by Clarence Cook, 1888

“Florent Willems, the painter of ‘The Betrothal Ring,’ was born at Liège in 1824. He studied his art at the Academy of Malines or Mechlin, the picturesque old Flemish town equally famous for its beautiful lace and for its cathedral with its grand but unfinished tower. It was fortunate for Willems that he had no master, but was left free to develop his natural taste from the study of nature, and from such works of the older masters as the town afforded-among others: the Van Dyck, ‘A Crucifixion,’ in the cathedral, and the Rubens in the church of St. Jean, one of the best works of the master.

He had been apprenticed when quite young to a picture-cleaner in Malines, and no doubt many a good old picture passed through his hands and gave him a better opportunity for studying its beauties than if it had been hung up in a museum. Small as were his advantages, Willems knew how to improve them; he worked with diligence, and already in 1840, when only seventeen, he had painted pictures that attracted the attention of the public, and had secured from an English gentleman, Sir Hamilton Seymour, a commission to paint portraits of his wife and children.

In 1842 he sent to the exhibition at Brussels two pictures, ‘The Guardroom’ and ‘The Music Lesson,’ for which he received a medal, and the latter picture was purchased by the king. Considering how few his opportunities had been and how little he owed to anything but his own zeal and industry, his early career is interesting. He carried off medals from one exhibition after another. In 1855 he sent to the Paris Exposition ‘The Interior of a Silk-mercer's Shop in the Seventeenth Century’ and ‘Coquetry;’ Napoleon III bought one of these pictures and Eugénie the other.

In 1864 he sent to the Salon ‘The Visit to the First-born’ and ‘Going for a Walk,’ and while both pictures were warmly welcomed by the public, the ‘Going for a Walk’ excited a genuine enthusiasm. Edmond About in his ‘Review of the Salon’ for that year, expressed both his regret for the mannerism into which he and others had felt that Willems was in danger of falling, and his pleasure that the artist had escaped the threatened danger. In reality, if it were a danger, it cannot be said-or so we think that Willems did escape it. All his life he painted but one subject, however varied in the details; his scenes were always drawn from the social life of the rich burghers of Flanders in the seventeenth century, when the fashions that prevailed in dress, in furniture, and in manners were those of the France of Louis XIII. His models were, no doubt, the ‘interiors’ and the people, of Terburg, Mieris, and Netscher, but his pictures are in no sense imitations; he struck out a new path and looked at things with his own eyes.

The furniture of his interiors, the dresses of his women and his men, have a certain stately elegance that is distinctly rather Flemish than French, but the people themselves are French and all of one time. The two pictures exhibited in the Salon of 1864, and praised so highly by About, were brought to this country the next year by Mr. Knoedler-to whom we owe the sight of so many interesting pictures—and though we have not seen them since, we believe they are owned by some of our fortunate amateurs.

These pictures were so much admired here that many more followed in their train; and Willems's satin dresses, soberly handsome tables and cabinets, his leather-covered chairs - certainly not designed for a self-indulgent owner! A certain mirror in a black frame set easel-fashion on my lady's table, with her velvet pincushion in its mounting of filigree silver: all this externality, evidently studied from the real, and beautifully painted- ‘He has a faire miraculeux,’ says About,-gave a new sense of pleasure to many of us who were not above taking pleasure in these mundane elegancies. They even set a fashion, and as our furniture at that time was in a bad way aesthetically, and good models not to be had, the things Willems painted were, in several cases, taken as models. It may be noted, too, as one of the freaks of fashion, that even the costumes he painted, in part at least, are just now seen again, and it might happen today that the owner of ‘The Music-lesson,’ ‘The Bride,’ ‘The Toilet,’ or ‘Going for a Walk’ might see his wife or daughter standing before it, and reflected in it as in a small mirror!

In saying, that Willems paints always the same subject, we mean no derogation. He is no more to be criticised for confining himself to one period, than Meissonier, or Gérôme, or Alma Tadema, who seldom stray beyond the very narrow bounds which they have set themselves. Willems does not attempt a high flight. The sentiment that he mingles with his subjects is not deep, nor is its flavour of the romantic sort; it is distinctly worldly and aristocratic-never, perhaps, reaching a higher flight than in ‘The Betrothal Ring,’ but naturally expressed, and sincere as far as it goes.”

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