Autodidact: self-taught


Antoine Wiertz: Madness and the Maiden

by V. L. Craven

Antoine Wiertz  was a Belgian romantic painter who had a taste for the macabre. Therefore, I enjoy his work and thought you would, as well.

Antoine Wiertz Self Portrait

Antoine Wiertz Self Portrait

La jeune Sorcière , (The Young Sorceress or The Young Witch), 1857. Now witches are typically thought of as being sexy (Hermione Granger) or benevolent, wise women (Professor McGonagall), if they’re crazy evil, they’re still crazy hot (Bellatrix Lestrange). But back in the day, witches were either ugly old hags or beautiful temptresses after your manhood. They also, curiously, tended to be either single women with property men wanted or were considered to be useless to society and, therefore, a drain on resources and expendable.

During this time, witches were believed to travel to meetings with the Devil on broomsticks naked. Sometimes rubbing the broomstick with special herbs and oils to make it magical before swinging a leg over and hitching it right up there. No sexual symbolism there, though.

I couldn’t find background on this painting but I like to think the trainee witch is trying out brooms and the hag is saying, ‘Hmm. No, I don’t think this one is going to work.’

'The Young Witch' Antoine Wiertz 1857

‘The Young Witch’ Antoine Wiertz 1857

L’Inhumation précipitée, or The Premature Burial, 1854. Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon for people to be buried prematurely (how difficult wass it to take a pulse or hold a mirror under a nose, ffs?). So, you may be in the unfortunate position of waking up and realising that you are in an unfortunate position, so to speak. The fellow below was a cholera victim and I don’t know why he looks so frightened. They didn’t nail down the lid and he can easily move the casket at the other end of his. Talk about being ungrateful for small gifts. You’re still alive, man.

'The Premature Burial' Antoine Wiertz 1854

‘The Premature Burial’ Antoine Wiertz 1854

Une tête coupée , or The Guillotined Head, 1855. Wiertz also had a thing about decapitation. He lived during the time when the guillotine was becoming a popular method of execution, as it was thought to be more humane than hanging, but some believed that the brain was aware of what was happening for several seconds (some believed entire minutes) after decapitation occurred. This post by Mike Dash gives loads of information about both the beliefs about post-beheading consciousness and Wiertz’s own fascination with decapitation. Wiertz thought he could go inside the consciousness of a person being decapitated and experience his last moments. Yeah.

A Guillotined Head Antoine Wiertz 1855

A Guillotined Head Antoine Wiertz 1855

A Severed Head (I couldn’t find the French title of this and it is undated) is a quick study.The duel blood spurts sell it, I think.

A Severed Head Antoine Wiertz Undated

A Severed Head Antoine Wiertz Undated

La Belle Rosine or The Beautiful Rosina, 1847. This is one of those obligatory ‘we’re all going to die, let’s juxtapose death and beauty, decay and voluptuousness’ paintings artists did for awhile. A few things catch my eye, though. First, the skeleton has no legs or arms; I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does. Secondly, I know there were social problems at the time, but I wouldn’t mind living in an era when being pale was considered beautiful. Yes, Rosina is pale in order to contrast the darkness of the skeleton, but she’s also pale because that was considered beautiful in the 1800s. That trend can make a comeback any time now. Third, I love the expression on her face, the chin slightly down and the eyes up–the coyness. It looks like she’s hoping he’s going to ask her out for Friday night. ‘I might be free. If you manage to find some legs of some description, perhaps I’ll let you take me out.’

At least she doesn’t have to worry about him getting too handsy.

'The Beautiful Rosina' by Antoine Wiertz 1847

‘The Beautiful Rosina’ by Antoine Wiertz 1847

Faim la folie et le crime  or The Hunger, the Madness & the Crime, 1857. The title of this one explains everything you need to know and I get that the expression on the woman’s face is one of madness, but the position of her hands say, to my mind, ‘But of course! I was supposed to add the butter  before the baby legs!’ That’s right. I’ve just made a baby cannibalism joke. If I ever run for any public office ever, this is the thing that will be quoted at me, I’m sure. And my response will be, ‘Well, if you put the butter in after it makes it too greasy.’

'Faim la folie et le crime' Antoine Wiertz

‘Faim la folie et le crime’ (The Hunger, the Madness & the Crime) Antoine Wiertz 1857

If this post hasn’t put you off Wiertz entirely and you’d like to see his work in person, there’s a museum devoted to his works in Brussels. One of my favourite parts of the Wikipedia article on Wiertz are the quotes about the museum.

  • “If you’re into the shocking or nasty, it [the museum] may appeal.”
  • “In recent years the Wiertz Museum has attracted an average of just ten visitors a day … The Belgian state is legally stuck with all 220 of his [Wiertz’] works—dreadful though most of them are—and an obligation to display them forever. … [Wiertz was] perhaps the worst painter to have a government-funded museum all to himself, at least in the free world …”
Antoine Wiertz Museum

The Wiertz Museum in the Leopold section of Brussels

Now I really want to see his works in person. I want to be part of the ten percent!

Bonus info: If you’re curious about the dimensions of some of the gargantuan paintings up there, check out this more academic review of Wiertz’s work and an overview of his life by Graham Reid.

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