Victor Rousseau 

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Biography of Victor Rousseau  ( 1865-1954 )

Victor Rousseau, born in Feluy in December 1865 was the eldest of five children born to Emile Rousseau, stonemason and Philomène Duquesnes. Around 1870, the family left this quarry region to settle in Brussels where Emile found work. After five years there, the young Victor returned to live in Feluy where he flourished under the care of his maternal grandparents. With one of his uncles who awakened his sensibility, he started to carve stone.

Back in Brussels in 1876, the 11-year-old boy joined his father and uncle Alexandre Duquesnes on the construction site of the new law court. He spent the next seven years carving, cutting and sculpting on the scaffolding of the Palais de Justice. Thus, like Rude and Rodin, he began as a sculptor’s worker.

In Volume VI of Flemish art devoted to “Contemporary Artists”, Victor Rousseau related: “From my early youth, I was put to study on my father’s profession. It was not until I was fifteen years old that I began to follow the evening class at the Academy in Brussels, then at the school of drawing of Saint-Jean-ten-Noode in order to learn ornamental sculpture, because, during the day, I carved stone and marble until my nineteenth year, when noticed by sculptor-ornamentalist, J. Houtstont, I entered his studios of modelling and did not leave them until 1890.

Nevertheless, in my spare time, from 1887 onwards, I had dedicated myself to the study of staturay; this is how I was the pupil of Van de Stappen at the Brussels Academy in 1888-1889 and laureate of his classes in that first year; and I can say that it was the only class I frequented to study the figure. But, for three consecutive years, I attended the dissection course at the University and I drew a lot.”

These years in Brussels were also a good opportunity to “awaken his soul” with his uncle Alexandre who introduced him to theater and music. His friend Léon Léonard initiated him into culture, history and science, disciplines to which he hadn’t had access due to his early school leaving. The themes of music and dance were to be found later in his work.

In 1889, a first trip allowed the young artist to discover Paris, Versailles and Reims. He realized many sketches and took a lot of notes to trace his observations. It was a habit that never left him: his numerous sketchbooks served as a source of inspiration for the creation of his figures in clay, marble or bronze.

Back in Brussels, Victor Rousseau became involved in artistic life and kept company with Delville, Montald or Meunier. He won the Godecharle Prize in 1890 with his sculpture Tourmente de la pensée (Upheaval thoughts) at the Triennial Brussels exhibition. On the same year, he married Françoise de Lœul in Saint-Gilles who remained the calm and ideal partner of an often tormented artist. The grief of not being able to be parents will be alleviated by the adoption of two nieces, Alice and Marie, daughters of Françoise’s brother.

The family travelled to England, France and Italy in 1891, 1892 and 1893. In 1892, Jean Delville, Victor Rousseau and other artists from L’Essor founded the idealistic artists’ association Pour l’Art in Brussels. Victor Rousseau exhibited there successively: Puberty and Virginal Love. According to the sculptor, this bas-relief also exhibited at the triennial Brussels exhibition in 1893 was the first to attract the attention of artists and connoisseurs. Other works include the sculptures Cantique de l'amour, OrphéeLe Liseur, Déméter and some bronzes: Coupe des voluptés, Danses antiques; candelabras for the Brussels Botanical Gardens, and statues: Le Jeu and Le Vent.

Victor Rousseau worked tirelessly and took part in more than sixty exhibitions between 1890 and 1910. He was more interested in the character of attitudes than in physiognomies. His figures have flexible gestures, sinuous movements, often with an unprecedented charm. Rousseau clung to the symbolist movement which was moving towards a more realistic idealism. His creation was intended to be diversified and profound. It doesn’t express hope but rather offers a sober moment of dream and understanding. 

Concerned with the transmission of his art, he accepted the post of professor of sculpture after the Antique at the Brussels Academy in 1905, then became professor of sculpture after Nature in 1910 following his master Charles Van der Stappen. He won the Great Prize of Rome in 1911. Three years later, he met Rodin in Roquebrune who promised to come in Brussels to have his bust made. Unfortunately, the German invasion pushed him to London where he stayed for five years. In his Chelsea studio, he prepared projects for monuments.

Back in Brussels in 1919, he organised his first solo exhibition which was held at the Galerie Georges Giroux in 1920. He produced The Dance and The Sculpture on the same year. This was followed by other exhibitions at Giroux in 1925, then Madrid in 1928 and United States in 1929. 

In 1933, a major retrospective exhibition was held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It featured 286 sculptures, 169 drawings and pastels that celebrated the art of the poet-sculptor. At that time, his art remained figurative even if the artist tended to simplify his forms by covering his figures with straight draperies. 

 In 1938, Victor Rousseau, 73, was still an active artist. He had just returned from a trip to Sicily where he mainly realized pastels before moving to Geneva and then Forest. The new town hall has to receive two of his figures on his frontage: Sainte Alène and Le Droit Communal. Aware at the events that were already affect Europe, he produced Prayer for Peace which is his major art work of the year 1938. A bronze of this sculpture is now kept in the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. This work responds to several of the artist's favorite themes: female beauty, the ages of life, spiritual communication and the inner life. In this group, the communication between people is expressed in a tenuous way, through the touching of heads and a deep contemplation that unites them. Finding the contemporary world "vulgar and incoherent", Victor Rousseau took refuge in his inner world and sculpted forms haloed by pure thoughts or marked by secret emotions. 

The Second World War cast a pall of sadness over the sculptor, who chose to isolate himself in his house in Forest from 1940. However, he continued to work and, above all, to write extensively. Between 1930 and 1954, Victor Rousseau wrote about 300 essays, notes and poems.

He celebrated his 80th birthday after the war with a solo exhibition at the Breughel Gallery on Avenue Louise in Brussels. The works from the 1950s are marked by a deep melancholy, particularly after the death of Alice in 1948. A final exhibition of 15 sculptures and 13 drawings chosen by the artist will be held during his lifetime at the Belgian Consulate in London.

In 1965, a retrospective exhibition was organised in Mons for the 100th anniversary of his birth. It included 41 marbles, plaster casts, bronzes and ivories, 25 earthworks, 57 drawings, watercolours and pastels.

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