Museum curator finds home for Antwerp’s forgotten artist


A former economist has almost single-handedly restored Eugeen Van Mieghem’s rightful place in history as one of Flanders’ most intriguing modern artists

Of the people

It took Erwin Joos decades to piece together the story.

Following Eugeen Van Mieghem’s death in 1930, virtually no records of the artist existed, aside from the signatures on his paintings. Eventually, Joos would give up his job as an economist and found the Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum in Antwerp.

The journey brought the illustrious and stubborn “artist of the people” back into the limelight from almost total obscurity. “I thought it was such an injustice,” says Joos. “It quickly became clear to me that this was an artist with an incredible talent. It was really upsetting and unfair that the man was being forgotten.”

In 1982, Joos came across his first painting by Van Mieghem, “Op Wandeling” (On a Walk). He was instantly struck by the beauty and serenity of the scene featuring three solemn figures standing in front of Antwerp’s harbour.

“It’s a feeling that is hard to express in words,” Joos says. “It was the combination of realism and impressionism that caught me. That painting changed my life; it was the beginning of a passion.”

A few months after purchasing the work, he launched the Eugeen Van Mieghem Foundation. His goal was to find out everything he could about this elusive artist. “I figured I could not do this alone, and I had no financial means. People thought I was a little mad,” he admits. “It is really thanks to that one painting that we started to dig into the past.”

Living colours

Today, the situation is very different, with Joos running both the Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum, with a collection of 200 works, and the foundation, with over 950 members. “We’re one of the biggest independent cultural organisations in Flanders.”

In the museum, I join one of Joos’ daily group tours. The first part takes us through the stunning 19th-century Redershuis building, where the museum moved to in 2010. In a deal with the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association, which owns the building, Joos is allowed to exhibit the works rent-free for 20 years. And it is here, during the second part of the tour, that the curator really comes alive.

For Van Mieghem, drawing was like smoking a cigarette or breathing. The man had to do it, it was part of him

- Museum curator Erwin Joos

The main part of the museum consists of one large room. From floor to ceiling, the walls are covered with paintings, pastels and sketches, arranged by time and subject.

First, Joos shows us Van Mieghem’s early works. “Look at the colours, the red and the green,” he says, pointing to a self-portrait. “It is 1894, Van Mieghem is 19 years old.”

From a drawer, he pulls out the palette that is depicted in the painting. It still has the specks of colour on it, the same red and green used in the portrait and the still life hanging next to it.

Joos has more surprises in store. Some of Van Mieghem’s most cherished subjects were seamstresses and harbour workers. “Antwerp harbour was unique for having women work there,” says the curator. “There was such a demand for labour that there weren’t enough men to fulfil it. And it was these women in particular that Van Mieghem depicts with so much respect.”

Everyday inspirations

Joos holds up one of Van Mieghem’s many harbour pastels. The artist steered clear of painting magnificent skies or impressive ships, opting instead for a more human approach, depicting the everyday lives of the harbour workers, the immigrants and the poor.

With little income of his own, this is the group he clearly felt closest to, says Joos. “He would stick to this idealism until the end of his life. He was the artist of the people.”

The curator turns the pastel around to reveal another painting. “As always with Van Mieghem, you find a second work on the back,” says Joos. Neither of them was sold.”

We move on to another of Van Mieghem’s beloved subjects – his wife Augustine Pautre. Shortly after their marriage in 1902, Pautre fell ill. In countless sketches, Van Mieghem captured her slow demise, until her death from tuberculosis in 1905.

Fame at last

“Even when he was living in the greatest misery, he would draw,” says Joos. “For him, it was like smoking a cigarette or breathing. The man had to draw, it was part of him. And from this stems his creative genius.”

To this day, Van Mieghem’s story continues to unravel. Joos’ tenacity leads him to new discoveries every year. “This morning I discovered a painting in Germany,” he says. “It is being auctioned, and I recognised it from a black-and-white photo from the 1930 World Exposition in Liège.”

Even if we stopped today, Van Mieghem will never be forgotten again

- Erwin Joos

Contemplating whether to attend the auction or not, he says the painting might be too expensive for him to buy. Pastels by Van Mieghem easily sell for €40,000, and, as he is becoming increasingly famous, prices are only expected to rise.

“It is a vicious circle,” says Joos. “It’s only when an artist is expensive that he becomes famous. Otherwise people won’t pay attention.”

While telling personal anecdotes about his detective work, Joos continues his tour of the museum. One of his current projects, he says, is to get Van Mieghem – whose work also included paintings of European emigrants leaving Antwerp harbour for the United States –  into that country's major museums of Jewish history. He says there is already interest from New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. “If that happens, we’ll really be famous.”

As I say goodbye, Joos insists that I take a copy of his latest book. It’s already been reprinted five times and another 3,000 copies are on the way to satisfy demand. “We’ve sold 120,000 copies,” he says. “So even if we stopped today, Van Mieghem will never be forgotten again.”

Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum, Ernest van Dijckkaai 9, Antwerp

Photo courtesy Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum