A Musical Afternoon

By Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Antwerp, 1887. A Sunday afternoon. On the left bank of the river Scheldt, next to the Café Belvédère, a group of friends have gathered. While the sun is shining and the beer is flowing freely, a musician starts playing his guitar. This is the setting of "Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke", a painting by Louis Van Engelen. The work can be seen in Museum Vleeshuis and is on loan from a private art collection. But in this virtual exhibit you have a unique opportunity to get up close with the painting. So join us for a voyage back in time, to a sunny afternoon. Garçon, two beers please!

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The sound of "Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke". This soundscape includes sounds recorded on the location depicted on the painting.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke may not be one of Louis Van Engelen's largest paintings - it measures 130 cm by 170 cm and some of his works are gigantic panoramas - but it is without any doubt one of his most atmospheric.

The work, finished in 1887, depicts a sunny afternoon near Sint-Anneke, a small hamlet opposite Antwerp, on the other side of the Scheldt. Music plays a prominent role.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The painter and his painting

Louis Van Engelen created a wonderful work. But who was he? And what inspired him?

Louis Van Engelen (1857-1940), the painter of Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke, was born in Lier (Belgium).

At the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts he was a pupil of Charles Verlat, with whom he realised a number of giant paintings. Throughout his long career, Van Engelen painted portraits, landscapes, animal pieces, genre scenes and city views. His style was academic, but he wasn't blind to recent evolutions such as Impressionism.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke is Van Engelen's only large group portrait.

Music at the Tuileries (National Gallery & Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane) (1862) by Eduard ManetMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

It is very likely that Louis Van Engelen was inspired by another, famous painting to create Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke.

La musique aux Tuileries is an 1862 painting by Édouard Manet. It is owned by the National Gallery, London and is on loan to The Hugh Lane, Dublin where it currently is on display. The painting depicts a gathering of artistic friends - writers, art critics, composers - at the weekly concerts in the Tuileries gardens in Paris.

A bourgeois theme, a depiction of artistic friends, an open-air gathering and, at its core, music: these are the characteristics Manet's and Van Engelen's paintings share.

Schuttersmaaltijd ter viering van de Vrede van Munster (1648) by Helst, Bartholomeus van derRijksmuseum

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke has a lot in common with the large Dutch, 17th-century "schuttersstukken", paintings depicting militia gatherings.

Take Bartholomeus van der Helst's Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild from the Rijksmuseum, for example.

From the nonchalantly seated officer crossing his legs and the city skyline in the background, to the glasses on the tables and the conversing small groups around those tables: there are many similarities. And in both cases, the result is a who's who of the city's bourgeoisie

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City


In 1887 Antwerp was once again becoming an important port city, with a vibrant art scene and many wonderful places to spend an afternoon.

Map of Antwerp (1897)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The city depicted by Louis Van Engelen was quickly changing. It was connected to the world thanks to the train and thanks to the ships of, among other companies, the Red Star Line. It was a city where the 16th-century ramparts had recently given way to wide boulevards and impressive municipal buildings.

Elsewhere in the city you could shop in the first department stores (and buy one of those fashionable straw hats Antwerp men liked to wear). Or listen to music in the first large concert halls. That music came from all over Europe and arrived faster than ever.

The city of Antwerp had developed on the right bank of the river Scheldt.

On the left bank a small hamlet, Sint-Anneke (Saint Anna), also called Tête de Flandre (Head of Flanders), had been built. A ferry connected both banks.

Café-Restaurant Belvédère (1884/1914)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

In 1884 Antwerp hosted a World's Fair. The Exposition Internationale d'Anvers was a celebration of commerce and colonialism, technological advances and the arts.

The fair took place on the right bank. But on the left bank smart entrepreneurs created large venues where tired tourist and inhabitants of Antwerp could repose. One of the most famous venues was the Café Belvédère, the setting of Van Engelen's painting.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Sardines, cold cuts, rôtisserie, ham: in case you are hungry, ask the waiters to serve you a snack. A large appetite? Be sure to order the mussels, a traditional dish Antverpians like to eat at Sint-Anneke.

Thirsty? The Café Belvédère has a large stock of wines and champagne, lemonades and soda. And of course beer - not just from one of the many local breweries, but pale ale from Bass Brewery (with its red triangle logo) as well.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Across the river, on the right bank, the gable and towers of the Vleeshuis can be seen.

By 1887, the Vleeshuis, the fomer hall of the butchers' guild, had been standing proudly in the historical heart of Antwerp for almost 4 centuries. By that time the buildings was in use as a warehouse.

Twelve years later, in 1899, the City of Antwerp purchased the building and a period of restoration began.

In 1913 the Vleeshuis opened as a Museum of Applied Arts. Today Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City is completely devoted to Antwerp's music life.

View of Antwerp, 2020 (2020)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

In 1914, at the start of World War I, the invading German forces bombarded Antwerp and the Café Belvédère was destroyed.

However, the view of Antwerp itself has not changed that much. From left to right you can still recognize the spire of the St. Paul's church, the Vleeshuis and the spires of the cathedral. All three are featured prominently in Louis Van Engelen's painting. On the right side of this clip Antwerp's first skyscraper, completed in 1932, can be seen.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Faces in a crowd

"Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke" is filled with Louis Van Engelen's acquaintances and friends. Let's meet some of them!

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

In his Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke Louis Van Engelen gathers a large group of friends around him in the open air.

In reality, the figures in the painting posed for Van Engelen in his studio. Among others, composer Peter Benoit and painters Charles Mertens, Frans Hens, Piet Van Engelen, Rik Schaefels and Jan Van Beers Jr. all dropped by.

It is clear that Louis Van Engelen depicted many people he knew. Apart from painters and musicians, he also portrayed Hector de Craecker, commander of the forts surrounding and protecting Antwerp.

However, it is not always clear who the subjects are. For example, who is "Miss Fauconnier" who shares a table with Louis Van Engelen? And who is “Madame Prop”, the "lady in pink" and central figure? Perhaps we'll never find out.

Jan Van Beers Jr. (1852-1927) studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. In 1879 Van Beers left for Paris where he became a popular society painter. His realistic images of living or historical figures were very popular. He painted Peter Benoit, among others, and created a popular image of Beethoven. Jan Van Beers Jr. was the son of the poet Jan Van Beers Sr.

Charles Mertens (1865-1919), here seen smoking a cigarette, was a draftsman, painter and etcher.

Mertens studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and created landscapes, portraits and genre paintings. He was part of The XIII, an association of visual artists, and he was a co-founder of the group Art of Today (1905).

In 1909 he designed the ceiling painting of the Royal Flemish Opera of Antwerp.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

A world filled with music

Antwerp has always been a musical city. And music plays a prominent role in Van Engelen's painting as well.

A music kiosk on the Groenplaats, Antwerp (1890/1900)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Most people in Antwerp had a day off on Sunday. That meant that there was time for relaxation. Cafes did good business, and in many places there was music, often played from music kiosks.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Napoléon Coste (1805-1883), Étude n°1, Opus 38. Played by Emma Wills for Museum Vleeshuis. Recorded June 2020.

It is of course not possible to deduce from the painting what music the blind guitar player performed. In the 19th century the guitar was very popular and there was a wide range of music for the instrument, from original works (such as the étude by the French composer Napoléon Coste that can be heard here) to adaptations of top hits from operas.

Romantic guitar (1820/1850) by Nicolas MarotelMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Museum Vleeshuis preserves many 19th-century guitars. Some are decorated very elaborately, but some are very simple, such as this French instrument by Marotel.

View of the reconstructed workshop of Van Engelen, Museum VleeshuisMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

There is a special connection between Louis Van Engelen and Museum Vleeshuis.

Louis Van Engelen's grandfather was François Joseph Van Engelen (1785-1853). The latter had founded a workshop for brass wind instruments in Lier, near Antwerp, in 1813. That studio would grow into perhaps the largest Belgian producer of brass wind instruments. Production continued until the 1970s.

In 1999 Museum Vleeshuis managed to save the contents of the workshops. A selection has been permanently installed in the basement of the Vleeshuis since 2007.

Inventionshorn (1845) by Frans-Jozef Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

This horn is a very fine example of the instruments made by the Van Engelen workshops.

Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke (1887) by Louis Van EngelenMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Peter Benoit, Fantaisie n°3, played by Nicolas Callot on a Gunther grand piano (Brussels, 1904; collection of Chris Maene). Live recording, Museum Vleeshuis, 2019.

Peter Benoit (1834-1901) was a mythical figure in Antwerp musical life in the late 19th century. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Antwerp Conservatoire and the Flemish Opera, and he wrote piano works, church music, grand oratorios and operas. Franz Liszt called Benoit the Rubens of music.

Peter Benoit died in 1901 in his house on the Oude Beurs, in the shadow of the Vleeshuis.

Piano (1884) by Pleyel, Wolff & CieMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Claude Debussy, Clair de lune (Suite Bergamasque), played by Thomas Boodts for Museum Vleeshuis on a Pleyel grand piano (Paris, 1890; collection Thomas Boodts). Recorded June 2020.

There is a very particular link between Peter Benoit and Museum Vleeshuis:

In the 1880's Peter Benoit purchased a Pleyel grand piano (Paris, 1884) for the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp. The instrument was used by several generations of conservatoire directors and students. By 1967 the instrument had become too "old-fashioned" and was moved to Museum Vleeshuis.

Thanks to the Peter Benoit Fund, in 2020-2021 the instrument will be restored to its original condition so it can once again be heard during concerts.

Credits: Story

This virtual exhibit was created by Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City, Antwerp. Visit us at www.museumvleeshuis.be.

A very special thanks to musicians Emma Wills, Thomas Boodts and Nicolas Callot.

We also created a playlist on Spotify inspired by Louis Van Engelen's painting. Visit hspoti.fi/3fH1wT4 to listen.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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