Les Vingt Artist Group
The Twenty: Belgian Avant-Garde Artists Exhibition Society, Brussels.

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Caresses of the Sphinx (1896)Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.
By Vingtiste Fernand Khnopf.

Les Vingt Artist Group (1883-93)


Belgian Artists Exhibition Group
Art and Design in Everyday Life
La Libre Esthetique: Decorative Art and Design

Christ's Entry into Brussels (1888)
Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Aa acknowledged masterpiece of
Post-Impressionist painting,
by James Ensor, the great Belgian
Symbolist painter and member of
Les Vingt.

Belgian Artists Exhibition Group

In modern art, the term "Les Vingt" (The Twenty) refers to a Belgian group of modern artists, which originally consisted of twenty progressive painters, sculptors and writers based in Brussels, who joined together from 1883 to 1893 to exhibit innovative art, both Belgian and foreign and to promote the latest international developments in decorative design. The original twenty included James Ensor (1860-1949), Alfred Finch (1854-1930), Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), and Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926).

Artistically and stylistically diverse, the group was brought together by the lawyer Octave Maus (1856-1919) to provide a forum for avant-garde art, music, poetry, and decorative art. The formation of Les Vingt coincided with the upsurge in modern art movements in Paris - such as Impressionism and the broader sequel Post-Impressionism - whose innovations were noted and discussed within the Brussels group.

Art Nouveau Staircase (1893-7)
Emile Tassel House, Brussels.
Designed by Victor Horta, a leading
member of Les Vingt artist group.

See: History of Art.
For styles, see: Art Movements.

Art and Design in Everyday Life

Maus had already started spreading his ideas concerning art and design through the periodical L'Art Moderne (1881-1914), which he had set up with his lawyer friend Edmond Picard (1836-1924). Using this as their mouth-piece, Maus and Picard attacked the tradition-bound Brussels Academy of Fine Arts and its conservative Salon, agitating at the same time for the introduction of art into everyday life. In this respect, Les Vingt had a common agenda with the English Arts and Crafts Movement, who also promoted the idea of art and design for the masses, as would the coming decorative styles like Jugendstil, in Germany.

Unnerved by the hostile reaction to the rhetoric of L'Art Moderne, a few of the more conservative members of Les Vingt left the group. Their places were quickly filled by others, including Belgians Anna Boch (1848-1926), Felicien Rops (1833-98), Henry van der Velde (1863-1957), Isidor Verheyden, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the French Neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac (1863-1935) co-founder of Pointillism (a variant of Divisionism), and the Dutch artist Jan Toorop (1858-1928), a member of the Symbolism movement. In all, there were thirty-two members of Les Vingt, throughout the group's 10-year existence.


With the aid of painter Van Rysselberghe and the poet and critic Emile Verhaeren, Octave Maus organized exhibitions in February of each year, from 1884 until the group's dissolution in 1893. The inaugural exhibition set the agenda, presenting work by members of Les Vingt alongside those of established and emerging international artists, and introducing the public to new styles in French painting. Among the 126 invited artists who participated were: Impressionist painters like Whistler (1834-1903), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Renoir (1841-1919) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903); the Symbolist Odilon Redon (1840-1916); Emile Bernard (1868-1941) and Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) the founders of Cloisonnism; the colourist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) founder of Synthetism; as well as Post-impressionist painters like Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Van Gogh (1853-1890).

The resulting exchange of information prompted local versions of Symbolism by Les Vingtistes Khnopff, the sculptor George Minne (1866-1941) and Rops, and a brief enthusiasm for Neo-Impressionism on the part of Boch, Finch, Georges Lemmen (1845-1916), Van Rysselberghe and Van der Velde. From 1892 onwards, the exhibitions included applied art and various types of crafts. As an outward-looking exhibition society for artists, Les Vingt was an important model for many groups that followed including the breakaway movements like the Munich Secession (1892), the Vienna Secession (1897) and the Berlin Secession (1898).

La Libre Esthetique: Decorative Art and Design

After the group dissolved in 1893, Maus and Van Rysselberghe continued with a new association, La Libre Esthetique (1894-1914), pulling an even greater emphasis on decorative art. Painting, sculpture, furniture and applied art were all given equal status. The first exhibition included work by members of the English Arts and Crafts movement, including William Morris (1834-96), Walter Crane (1845-1915), as well as T.J.Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922) and Charles Ashbee (1863-1942) (both of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society), and book illustration by the Decadent illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). Poster art and lithography was represented by Toulouse-Lautrec and music by the modernist composer Claude Debussy.

As a result of this experimentation and exchange of artistic ideas, Continental Art Nouveau emerged first in Brussels, particularly in the work of the architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) - famous for his serpentine ornamentations in metal, glass and paint - as well as the former Vingtiste Van der Velde. Another similar architect was the Frenchman Hector Guimard (1867-1942). The new movement was enthusiastically supported by L'Art Moderne.


Works by painters and sculptors affiliated to Les Vingt can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe, notably: the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; the Petit Palais, Geneve; Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp; the Musee d'Orsay, Paris; and the Kunsthaus, Zurich.

• For the chronology of modern art and design, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about modern painting in Belgium, see: Homepage.

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