“You can’t make head or tail of it”, stated the critic Henry Houssaye, clearly expressing the public’s incomprehension at the Salon of 1877, faced with this procession taken straight out of the 12th century.

The scene depicts, over a length of almost 6 metres but in great detail, the funeral for the Count of Flanders, Charles Le Bon (1083-1127). Count Charles was assassinated in a church by the men of his Chancellor who was greedy for power. Following intervention by the King of France Louis VI the Fat, the usurpers were executed and the Count of Flanders was buried with dignity in the Saint-Christophe church in Bruges. The painting depicts the procession formed by knights, clergy men and burgomasters who are advancing along the nave watched by the crowd. The Crusaders, recognisable by the red cross on their clothing, took part in the procession, their presence acting as a reminder of Charles le Bon’s participation in the Crusades. The Count’s body, clothed in red, is shown on the far right of the composition. The figures on the frieze are richly dressed.

In this large historical composition, Jan Van Beers gives free rein to his imagination, nourished by reading mediaeval texts and observing works from the Middle-Ages: the face of the deceased Count of Flanders is a reproduction of an old work by Barend Van Orley (ca. 1488-1541) still kept in Bruges cathedral. The monks kneeling with their backs to the viewer seem to echo the mourners at the tomb of Philippe Pot (Musée du Louvre).

Van Beers was only 25 years old when he painted this spectacular work. He included himself anonymously amongst the crowd, placing himself in the exact centre of the composition. His self-portrait in profile, hidden among the knights in chainmail coats and the Bruges middle classes, clearly reveals his eccentric personality. The young student from the Académie des Beaux-arts in Anvers loved to create scandals along with his friends, who formed the “Van Beers clique”. Subsequently continuing his career in Paris, the artist enjoyed a well-established reputation, sometimes marked by controversy such as the incident at the Brussels Salon of 1881, when critics, struck by the realism of the figures, accused him of having painted over a photograph. 

The funeral of Charles Le Bon is characteristic of a historical vision of art which can be compared with that of Jean Paul Laurens (1838-1921), but was not a success despite exhibitions in Anvers, Amsterdam and Paris. The retrospective and detailed style of the man from Flanders was denigrated by the supporters of realism. Joris-Karl Huysmans criticised Van Beers’ style in 1879, saying, “It’s like Van Eyck gone crazy, it’s antiquated!”

H. V. de S.    

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