Monday, October 22, 2007

A lifelong grudge

Georges van Houten, Moulin Rouge

The name Georges van Houten crops up in the Bidding Prayer of Oxford University, as one of the University’s benefactors. I don’t expect many people pause to wonder who he was.

Georges van Houten was born in 1888, in Antwerp, to Dutch parents. After studying under the Belgian post-Impressionist Jacob Smith, who mediated the influence of Vincent van Gogh and J.-F. Millet in van Houten’s work, in 1905 van Houten went to Paris to study art. By 1910 Georges van Houten was a member of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, and exhibited five paintings in their Salon. Georges van Houten had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Eugène Blot in Paris in 1913, and a second at the same venue the following year. At this exhibition his work caught the eye of the critic and connoisseur Théodore Duret, the great expert on the Impressionists, and he was commissioned to paint Duret’s portrait. This portrait was completed the following year, but as van Houten spent the war years in the Belgian army, it was not exhibited until after the war, in the 1919 Salon d’Automne, where it was warmly received. That same year, Georges van Houten had an exhibition at the Galerie Sauvage.

Georges van Houten, Quadrilleuses

It seemed as if van Houten was set fair to become one of the great names of twentieth century art. But a seemingly trivial setback soured his attitude to the art world. In 1920, Georges van Houten was rejected in his application for membership of the Société du Salon d’Automne. Although all the foreign applicants were rejected that year, presumably as a result of reactionary post-war pressures, van Houten took it as a personal slight, attributing it to the malign influence of his contemporary rivals, particularly Matisse and Braque. He harboured a grudge about this incident to the end of his life. Georges van Houten did in fact exhibit a canvas, “Boulevard” at that year’s Salon d’Automne, but subsequently he retreated to the Salon des Indépendants, where he exhibited regularly until 1932.

The following year van Houten inherited a fortune, and although he continued to paint, stopped exhibiting or selling his work. What Georges van Houten prized above everything in art was fluidity of line, writing, “I would like one day to execute my line with a single stroke, as easily as I move my arm, to draw with no more effort than I write a letter.”

My suite of lithographs by Georges van Houten depicting performers and customers in the louche atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge in the Roaring Twenties show how nearly he attained that dream. He described them to a friend as “illustrations de notre pauvre humanité d’après guerre”, illustrations of our poor post-war humanity.

Georges van Houten, La tentation du poète

After van Houten’s death in 1964, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford held a retrospective exhibition, Georges van Houten 1888-1964, with a catalogue by Andrew Wilton (Ashmolean Museum, 1965). Georges van Houten left his art collection and some 300 of his own paintings to the Ashmolean; hence his unlikely appearance in the Bidding Prayer. Their collection includes at least two paintings closely related to the Moulin Rouge lithographs, “Moulin Rouge” (1922) and “Bar at the Moulin Rouge” (1924). The Moulin Rouge lithographs were published in 1925; an earlier portfolio, Arlequinades (1919) tackled another favourite Montmartre motif, the circus. In both, the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec overrides that of van Gogh, whose influence is more pronounced in van Houten’s oil paintings.

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