The design of the euro banknotes depicts the architectural styles of seven periods in Europe’s cultural history. Compared to the former notes of the member states of the euro area which can be regarded as glorious portrait galleries, the euro notes no longer depict portraits from famous persons of the euro area. Questions that might have given rise to discussion were, amongst others: who? males? females? what nationality? In the 20th century the portrait became one of the main motifs of the Belgian notes.
All the more reason to focus our attention to a note with no less than five brilliant portraits. The 500 francs note has been designed by the Walloon painter Louis Buisseret.
The note is part of a series of three, the Centenary series, which has been produced on the occasion of the Bank’s first centenary in 1950. As some of the former Dynasty-notes were being forged too frequently, the Bank grasped the occasion to issue a new series and to enhance it’s beauty and security by the introduction of copperplate printing in conjunction with the four-colour process. In contrast with the former letterpress process used on the earlier series, copperplate engraving or taille-douce enabled the skilled artist to produce neat, sharp and pure engravings of portraits. Elements printed in high relief resulted from this technique and they contributed considerably to the security of the notes.
Although the Centenary-series is thematically closely linked to the Dynasty-series, the representation of the persons is much more modern. The kings freed themselves by stepping out of their tight frames, they are more colourful, they seem to adopt a more natural pose and King Albert I evens wears casual clothes. For the obverse of these notes Buisseret even went a step further: for the first time in the Belgian banknote history he represented two non-royal persons, i.e. the former minister of Finance Hubert J.W. Frère-Orban who founded the National Bank in 1850 and Hendrik Geeraert, the Newport lockmaster and World War I heroe. The portraits of the 500 francs note represent an anonymous man but refer, indirectly, to the painter Peter Paul Rubens, author of this portrait-study. The reverse of this note is dedicated to Leopold II.
The portraying of kings and queens on Belgian notes dates back to the First World War. The reason for this new move in iconography might have been double. The royal portrait most probably engendered patriotism in times of war on the one hand and, on the other hand, thanks to its large recognizability, it increased considerably the note’s security.
Leopold II’s portrait is accompanied by the heraldic lion who serves as the background for a number of typical and/or compulsory mentions, as e.g. name of the issuing bank, value, signatures of the bank’s governor and treasurer, date, penalty clause and the wording “payable at sight”.
The obverse of the note depicts the portrait-study “Four Negro Heads” of the 16th-17th century baroque Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. L. Buisseret got inspired by a reproduction of this study which belongs to the most famous works of Rubens. The original, which has long been assigned to his apprentice Antoon van Dyck, can be admired in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. The study represents four portraits of one and the same African man. Rubens portrayed him from different angles and with different expressions, ranging from happiness to serenity. With this study the artist wanted to find out the right expression for one of his models for a large altarpiece, The Adoration of the Magi.
As already mentioned in the third paragraph, an interesting evolution can be seen in the “portrait” as iconographic theme, especially in the Centenary-series. Whereas kings are represented on the reverse (Leopold I on the 100 francs note, Leopold II on the 500 francs and Albert I on the 1000 francs note), the obverse shows for the first time people belonging to civillian society, i.e. H.J.W. Frère-Orban on the 100 francs note and H. Geeraert on the 1000 francs note. And who figures on the obverse of the 500 francs note? His name does not occur in history books; we do not even know his name, the only thing we know about this anonymous African is that he used to be one of Rubens’ models. Why did Buisseret choose for an unknown person instead of a national heroe? The colonial theme might serve as an explanation. His identity did not matter, he is depicted because he represents a theme, a topic: Congo, Africa.
The link between Leopold II and colonialism can hardly be disconnected. Not only Louis Buisseret developped this idea, he actually followed in the footsteps of Jules Vanpaemel, the designer of the former Dynasty-series. The 500 francs note of that series equally shows Leopold II on the obverse and a local scene along the Congo river on the reverse. The representation of a proa, a medicin man, a local family transmits the traditional view of Central Africa. The Centenary-series represents the African population in a somewhat different way. Rubens’ model wears 17th century European clothes and a haircut wellknown to Europeans, in other words he looks very westernized.
If you would like to compare the preprarative portrait-study “Four Negro Heads” with the monumental altarpiece “The Adoration of the Magi” you are welcome, until January 27 2008, at the exhibition Rubens, a genius at work. This exhibition takes place at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. The centenary note of 500 francs can be seen in room 4 of our museum.
- CD-rom, Het Belgische bankbiljet, Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, Brussels, 2001.