Maurice Maeterlinck and Léon Spilliaert

Thanks to the generosity of Eliane Vercaempt, the three volumes of Théâtre by Maurice Maeterlinck, illustrated by Léon Spilliaert, are now part of our public heritage. The campaign to save this work was made possible thanks to a unique collaboration between the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, the Flemish Community and the King Baudouin Foundation.

A remarkable work of art becomes part of our public collections

Théâtre is an irrefutable masterpiece. Two great Belgian artists contributed to the work: Maurice Maeterlinck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature (9/11/1911), and Léon Spilliaert, a key figure of the Belgian avant-garde at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Listed by the Flemish Community, this masterpiece had always been in private hands, but thanks to an initiative of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, a unique collaborative effort saw the light of day to ensure that this important work would become part of our public collections. Acquired thanks to a bequest to the King Baudouin Foundation destined to benefit the RMFAB, this masterpiece of the Flemish Community is now on long-term loan to the RMFAB, which will exhibit it in the Léon Spilliaert Room of the Fin-de-Siècle Museum.

A unique and priceless treasure

Regrouping Maurice Maeterlinck’s entire oeuvre for the theatre, the three precious volumes of Théâtre, illustrated by Léon Spilliaert between 1902 and 1903, form the last example of an edition of 110, published by Edmond Deman in Brussels between 1901 and 1902. In fact, this was a personal edition belonging to the famous publisher, who had commissioned Spilliaert to produce an intimate, illustrated vision of Maeterlinck’s works.

Original drawings by Spilliaert

Created using Indian ink enhanced by pen, coloured pencils, gouache, pastels and watercolours, Léon Spilliaert did far more than simply producing illustrations for the margins and vignettes; he created many full-page compositions too. Through the 348 original drawings, which often overlap onto the printed typography, as well as the magnificent power of Maeterlinck’s words, the reader finds him/herself caught and bewitched by the characteristic universe of the master artist whose work was already showing incredible artistic maturity, despite his young age. We see here the forerunners of characteristic themes that Spilliaert would go on to develop in independent works and larger formats.

Two artists with similar sensitivities

Maurice Maeterlinck was born in Ghent in 1862. The Belgian poet, writer and dramatist was a major figure in late 19th and early 20th century literature. His success went beyond national frontiers and, in an article by Octave Mirbeau for Le Figaro, Maeterlinck was even labelled the ‘new Shakespeare’ at the age of just 28. Draughtsman and painter Léon Spilliaert was born in Ostend in 1881 and almost 20 years younger than Maeterlinck. From the early years of the 20th century, his work reflected a symbiosis between the Symbolism of the late 19th century and a certain Expressionist modernity that was typical of the period. Close to the poet Emile Verhaeren, a spiritual father whose acquaintance he made through the publisher Edmond Deman, the young Spilliaert was fascinated by classical literature as well as that of his own time. Although they never met, the two creative geniuses shared this personal experience, tainted with feelings of anguish, provoked by the multiplicity of the ‘self’ and the world of dreams. Maeterlinck speaks, in his own words, of an effrayante mare tenebrarum, a terrifying sea of darkness within the soul and we see Léon Spilliaert imbued with a similar sensibility from his very earliest work. Engaged by Edmond Deman, he could not help but be inspired and stimulated by Maeterlinck’s words, full of melancholy and existential terror. ‘Inspired’ is the right word here, because the illustrations for Théâtre, populated with ghostly characters in claustrophobic worlds, are not mere visual reflections that serve the texts, but the genuine personal perceptions of a young artist hypnotised by these masterpieces of dramatic literature.

The Liliane Vercaempt Fund

Théatre, Maurice Maeterlinck’s and Léon Spilliaert’s masterpiece, was acquired by the Eliane Vercaempt Fund. This fund, managed by the King Baudouin Foundation, was created in order to acquire one or more important 19th or 20th century works for the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

An exceptional collaboration

It was the RMFAB and their director Michel Draguet who decided to acquire this work, given its exceptional heritage value. Thanks to financial support from the Eliane Vercaempt Fund and the role as facilitator played by the King Baudouin Foundation, the three volumes of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Théâtre, illustrated by Léon Spilliaert, are now part of Belgium’s public heritage. This was a rescue operation made possible thanks to the very unique collaboration between the RMFAB, the Flemish Community and the King Baudouin Foundation.

Model for a book
Material / technique: 
Indian ink enhanced by pen, coloured pencils, gouache, pastels and watercolours
Type of acquisition: 
Acquired by the Eliane Vercaempt Fund
Year of acquisition: 
Depository institution: 
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Fin-de-Siècle Museum, Brussels