NDENCA Seminar | Overlooked but essential: famous artists’ domestic servants
March 7 @ 11:00 am - 2:00 pm
Apolline Malevez, PhD Candidate, Queen’s University Belfast
Apolline Malevez is currently a final year Marie Sklodowska-Curie PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast (UK). Her research project (‘Interior Spaces in Belgian Art and Architecture (1880–1914): Domesticity, Materiality and Intimacy’) investigates the concepts of domesticity, materiality and intimacy, with a particular emphasis on men’s involvement with the domestic sphere, the material culture of artists’ homes and the meanings of threshold spaces in the representation of interiors. During her PhD, she completed a placement at the Horta Museum (BE), where she worked on the inventories of furniture and plans owned by the museum. She recently co-edited a special issue of Dix-Neuf on intimacy in nineteenth-century painting, literature and architecture in France and Belgium. Her work has appeared in Dix-Neuf and Textyles.
Overlooked but essential: famous artists’ domestic servants
In this paper, I explore the crucial role played by domestic servants in enabling the artist’s lifestyle, whether through their participation in shaping the persona of the artist (before and after their death), domestic work or creative collaboration. I will focus on three different cases: the butler of the painter Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), who was in charge of regulating access to the artist’s controversial purpose-built studio and home; the domestic servants that the painter Théo Van Rysselberghe (1862-1926) hired locally when he stayed extensively in Tanger (Marocco) in 1883; and August Van Yper and Ernestine Mollet, who worked for the painter James Ensor (1860-1949), and continued living in his house after the artist’s death. Thanks to archival material, letters and newspaper reports, precious information about the various roles they performed for these artists have survived.
While domestic servants contributed in essential ways to artists’ daily life, and sometimes continued to shape artists’ legacy after their death, they have been overlooked in scholarship on late nineteenth century Belgian art history. The chosen case studies allow me to develop three main themes: the active role domestic servants took in the musealisation of the artist’s home and in shaping the artist’s public identity; the paradox of their constant presence and simultaneous invisibility, which facilitated their erasure from art history; and the power imbalances at the heart of the relationships between artists and domestic servants, exacerbated by racism and exoticism in the case of Van Rysselberghe.