First encounter with the work of Eugeen Van Mieghem

In the 16th century, Antwerp experienced its Golden Age. You could say its importance in those days can be compared to that of New York today. Antwerp owed its wealth to its Port, which was also frequently used by Jakob Fugger. After the Spanish occupation and the closure of the Scheldt, however, things went downhill, until the port of Antwerp started to grow again in the 19th century and is now considered one of the most important ports in Europe alongside Rotterdam and Hamburg.

As part of the Erasmus project on Jakob Fugger, we have been commissioned to chart the history of the port of Antwerp. One aspect that the city of Antwerp strongly highlights, is the history of the Red Star Line. We decided to find out more about it. This story also ties in with a similar event from Jakob Fugger’s time: the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Back then, too, people had to leave their possessions behind, hoping to find (more) happiness elsewhere.

There is not much visual material about that period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, because who cares about poor people? After all, there is no money in doing that. Fortunately, there is the painter Eugeen Van Mieghem (1875-1930), who occupies a unique place with his work. No other artist in any European port city was so concerned with the hard, hard fate of the common people and the emigrants who hoped for a better life in the United States.
In the early 20th century, Eugeen Van Mieghem did not have to walk far to see the world go by. His mother kept a café open in the port of Antwerp, right opposite a Red Star Line shipping company warehouse. There, prospective emigrants were subjected to an initial medical check-up. Van Mieghem made hundreds of drawings of those fortune seekers.

An exhibition on the young Van Mieghem, Antwerp around 1899, is being organised at Cepa. Forty paintings, pastels and drawings have been selected for this exhibition, many of which can be seen for the first time. Indeed, almost all of them come from private collections. On the basis of these works, visitors get a good insight into the cultural and economic life of Antwerp during the transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Photographs, posters and documents complete the picture of the era.

On Monday 29 November 2021, we are given a guided tour by Erwin Joos, curator of the Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum. He draws our attention to numerous carnival scenes Van Mieghem painted around 1902. Carnival was then an intoxicating event in which the whole city immersed itself. The painter also paid much attention to nightlife at De Keyserlei, paying special attention to the lives of the “working girls” who tried to snare rich gentlemen. Van Mieghem also recorded his private life. In 1902, he became a father and began painting mother and son, and child portraits in general. The young marriage ended abruptly in 1905 when his wife, model and muse died of tuberculosis. The artist immortalized her brief sickbed in harrowing drawings. Only after 1910 would Van Mieghem devote himself almost exclusively to depicting hard life on the docks, but that will be the story of a subsequent exhibition in April, which we will of course visit.

Due to copyright issues with some paintings, no photos have been attached to this article.