Henry de Groux, the paradoxical artist
What do we know today about the artist Henry de Groux, a contemporary of Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor, and of William Degouve de Nuncques, his close friend?
In the end, very little!
We know of his lineage and relation to the painter Charles Degroux, his father, who was a prominent figure in the social realist circles of the day.
Amateurs of the nineteenth century may also remember his fiery and provocative temperament, his passion for mythology, history, and for the great figures of European culture: Dante, Beethoven, Wagner, Baudelaire….
Already during his lifetime he intrigued and fascinated people.
The brilliant lawyer and politician, Jules Destrée described him thus: "A man, as unusual as his work, and whose characteristic silhouette Brussels knows well: of medium height, rather small, always dressed in black and with a white tie, his long brown hair under a soft felt hat, the look unkempt, absorbed in his legendary distractions and whose startling features are being spoken of. De Groux walks through life like a sleepwalker, far removed from all that which constitutes normal existence, proudly withdrawn in his dream."
For Henry de Groux it all began at the Salon de l'Essor in Brussels. And then, when he turned 21, in 1887, he exhibited with the Groupe des XX, alongside James Ensor, Fernand Khnopff, Félicien Rops, Constantin Meunier, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Rodin and Georges Seurat. His success was immediate, and his dream of glory and recognition seemed to realise itself. De Groux sold his works, which entered in some of the most prestigious collections, including that of the Brussels lawyer Edmond Picard. Emile Verhaeren, another eminent art critic, singled him out and saw in him a reflection of hope for the development of Belgian painting.
But if all had started well, his conflicted relations, especially with the Groupe des XX, made his career more complex, and his fragile mental health forced him into psychiatry. A relentless worker, de Groux could not be discouraged and never stopped experimenting with different techniques: pastel, painting, lithography, book illustration and sculpture.
Unlike a James Ensor, whose aura has never faded, or a Fernand Khnopff, unjustly forgotten after his death in 1921 but brought back into the limelight at the end of the 1970s, the work of Henry de Groux - as surprising today as it ever was - remains to be rediscovered.
At the time of my research on Fernand Khnopff, which resulted in the publication of the catalogue raisonné, the enthusiasm of art historians for the work of Henry de Groux was palpable. He was the artist who had to be taken out of the shadows and into the light. Occasionally de Groux was included in collective publications on international art at the end of the nineteenth century, or in exhibitions specifically devoted to symbolism. Since then, some successful initiatives have been materialized: the publication in Paris, in 2007, of part of his journals, an interesting testimony on cultural and political life; the exhibition, the same year, devoted to his work during the first World War, organized by the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, and the more recent retrospective at the Félicien Rops Museum in Namur in 2019, to name only those presented in Belgium.
Let’s congratulate Thomas Deprez, Mathieu Néouze and Trebosc - Van Lelyveld, for this captivating tribute which, let us hope, will help to bring the work of Henry de Groux the recognition it deserves.
Catherine De Croës