15 iconic art works Brussels museums should be famous for

Either this list will make you regret you were asleep during Art History class or you won't believe these absolute masterpieces are actually to be found in Belgium. Go check them out!

The Empire of Light (1954), René Magritte

In this painting, the master of Surrealism creates a poetic atmosphere where the light of day is able to meet a nocturnal landscape. Very direct, this illustration translates the vision of Magritte in the purest of ways: a mystery of common objects and surroundings in disguise. (Magritte Museum - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

The road to Calvary, Peter Paul Rubens

Rubens painted this gigantic composition (5.65m high) for the high altar of Affligem Abbey’s church. Set to enhance the religious exaltation of the ensemble, a continuous ascending and whirling movement is created from two crossing diagonals attracting the eye with related tones, colour after colour. In the middle of this grey-skied procession, the Christ’s unique direct look to the viewers is a call to share his sufferings. (Old Masters Museum - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Through the chaos of this fray, Brueghel mixes medieval fantasy to a whole series of discoveries of his time as effortlessly as it can be. Often claimed to be a ferocious illustration of the political and religious tumult of the 16th century, the painting is above all a testimony of Brueghel’s mastery of contrasted colours, detailed material effects and sharp sense of observation. (Old Masters Museum - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

The Bather (1910), Léon Spilliaert

Around the time he painted "The Bather", Spilliaert’s fascination for the dark and hypnotic swirl of the sea had reached its peak. Here, a sinister silence prevails over the work of art. We wouldn’t probably dare to bother this bather lost in a state of obvious communion if it wasn’t for the lightning addition of the little dog painted by Spilliaert who used to take long night strolls in elusive Ostende to ease his pains away. (Fin-de-Siècle Museum - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

Flowers and butterflies, James Ensor

A lesser-known facet of James Ensor’s pioneering work finds a shinning reflection in this colourful still life from the Charlier Museum. A very subtle material render and the application of larger brushes make the painting layers seemingly merge in a vibrating light, reminiscing of J.M.W. Turner himself. 

The Temptation of Saint-Anthony (1946), Salvador Dali

One of the first Christian hermits, Anthony the Great is reported to have spent thirteen years in the desert. Isolated, he was exposed to many temptations, a topic surrealist painter Salvador Dali couldn’t ignore as convinced that consciousness is but a thin layer under which subconscious forces remain hidden. What results of his imagination is a frightful procession of Saint-Anthony’s guilty pleasures and fears, a caravan of pleasures assailing him. (Modern Museum (selection) - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

Portrait of Erasmus by Albrecht Dürer

During his journey to the Netherlands in 1520, Dürer met Erasmus at least 4 times. This meeting between the famous humanist and the most prominent German artist of the time couldn’t end unfinished. That’s how Dürer came to make this intellectual portrait of Erasmus symbolising the parallel between ancient writing and the newly discovered printing technique. Erasmus’s laconic answer to it was reportedly: ‘Resemblance, none.’ A verdict the Latin sentence on the painting funnily seems to contradict: ‘Portrait drawn from nature, on the spot.’ (Erasmus House)

Pygmalion (1939), Paul Delvaux

"Pygmalion" refers to the myth of Greek sculptor Pygmalion who once sculpted his perfect woman in marble, unable to find her in real life. Here, Delvaux swaps places and illustrates himself as a teenager brought to life by a nude beauty’s intervention. A desire that obviously remains unsatisfied, hinting at the painter’s own world of contradictions and fear of women. (Modern Museum (selection) - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

Aristide Bruant, Ambassadeurs, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

In the late 19th century, Artistide Bruant was a star throughout France. For a show in Les Ambassadeurs, a renowned café on the Champs-Elysées, the cabaret singer ordered this emblematic poster from Toulouse-Lautrec. Favouring the iconic dimension of its image (scarf, black wide-brimmed hat and club), Toulouse-Lautrec represents Bruant with very few elements and large stripes of plain colours: minimal composition to maximum efficiency. (Museum of Ixelles)

Tea in the garden (1903), Théo van Rysselberghe

In an evanescent light, three ladies are drinking tea in a country garden. An intimate yet relatable scene for painter Théo Van Rysselberghe who represents two friends and his wife Maria, "Tea in the garden" is a perfect illustration of pointillism. After studying in Ghent and Brussels, the initiator of neo-impressionism in Belgium discovers Georges Seurat’s "Sunday Afternoon in la Grande Jatte" which leaves him in shock. He’ll however strip the pointillist method of its systematic dimension, giving it more warmth, freedom and lightness by the use of less contrasted colours. (Museum of Ixelles)

The Three Crosses, Rembrandt

Although Rembrandt is mainly known for his "Night Watch", few people know he was a passionate engraver too. He left a unique graphic work of which the Royal Library possesses the almost complete set (divided in the different stages of the process). Rembrandt resorted to various techniques to work these plates extensively: drypoint, etching, buring, all providing opportunities for surprising and expressive results.

The King drinks, Jacob Jordaens

Jordaens’ talent for composition expresses itself in this exuberant and gesticulating scene of Epiphany celebration where he apparently represented his father-in-law as king, the painter Adam van Noort. When some art historians considered this scene to be extremely joyful, it has also been said to be a pretty ironic critique of excess. (Old Masters Museum - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

The Caress (1896), Fernand Khnopff

Most famous painting by Belgian symbolist Fernand Khnopff, this is also one of his most enigmatic works. The combination of an hazy-eyed androgynous male by the side of an hybrid cheetah-woman and the trappings of antiquity suggests a dilemma between pleasure and power. Both a muse and a temptress, the woman plays a universal role in Symbolism. Here however, it could also be the illustration of inaccessibility and power of the artist’s very own sister and eternal muse, Marguerite. (Fin-de-Siècle Museum - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

The Wedding Cortège, Jan Breughel 

In 1996, when the Brussels City Museum acquired this piece, it was still attributed to Pieter Breughel the Elder. However, this popular scene from ordinary life contrasted by a very refined technique is, according to recent studies, by the artist’s youngest son Jan who notably worked with Pierre Paul Rubens. 

The Beautiful Rosine / The Two Young Girls (1847), Antoine Wiertz

"The victory of death over life and its transitory vanities is inescapable." On the label of its frame, the allegory of a peaceful fatality, Memento Mori, makes this emblematic painting of unusual size, a troubling contrast for Antoine Wiertz whose work is usually inhabited by frenzy and disproportion. Rosine and its feminine nude, more seductive than academic present a rare sobriety of composition, rigor of drawing and an innate sense of chiaroscuro making it a definite masterpiece. (Wiertz Museum - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)