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The Bossuet tapestries at the National Bank of Belgium

The Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, located in the Bank’s original building in the rue du Bois Sauvage, still houses a number of original elements well visible to visitors. As these ornaments are generally of great artistic value and have an interesting story attached to them, it is perfectly natural for them to be regularly highlighted as “Object of the month”. This time, attention is drawn to the picturesque tapestries in the General Meeting of Shareholders’ room.

The General Meeting of Shareholders' room [1]

The General Meeting of Shareholders’ room

The National Bank of Belgium was founded in 1850 and initially occupied a building in the Nouvelle rue Royale. In those days, the Bank only had limited means, to such an extent that it even had to fall back on second-hand furniture. Soon, the National Bank was faced with expansion problems and thus, in 1857, it began its search for some free space to establish itself there. Meanwhile, the institution’s resources had increased, which allowed for more luxurious accommodation. The solution was found in 1858, when it was decided to renovate the Saints-Michel-and-Gudule cathedral’s forecourt. The old houses in this forecourt were demolished, thus creating the necessary free space and an excellent place for the National Bank to set up its new head office. In 1859, a competition was launched to design the new building, offering architects the possibility to enter their projects. In the end, the plans of the duo Henri Beyaert and Wynand Janssens prevailed. Incidentally, the former did most of the design work for the new building complex, the construction of which started at the end of 1860. The building work took longer than planned, and it would take more than twenty years for it to be completed.

As to the furnishings of the various rooms, the National Bank was then able to move up to the high-class category and buy new furniture. The upholstery fabrics used for fitting up the chairs were bought by the Bank at the Braquenié textile company in Paris. And the Bank turned to this very same company for making the tapestries.

The room of the General Meeting of Shareholders is situated right next to the Bank’s former main entrance. The room is dark, yet richly decorated. Above a hearth decorated with red marble and bronze, pride of place is taken by the portrait of King Léopold I, the monarch during whose reign the Bank was founded. The painting’s sumptuous frame includes medallions with the royal initials and ends at the top with a crown, accompanied by two crossed sceptres. The room’s walls are covered with oak wainscoting panels on which the tapestries are hung up. In 1866, when the first contacts were established with manufacturer Braquenié, the question was what was to be portrayed on the tapestries. The textile company proposed to depict the ten most important Belgian cities of that time (Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, Kortrijk, Ghent, Tournai, Bruges, Mons, Namur and Mechelen), but it had not yet been determined how these cities were to be illustrated. First, it was suggested to represent them as allegories, with or without their corresponding escutcheons. Architect Beyaert almost immediately advised against the concept, as he had his doubts about the hoped-for result. Another option was to show typical sights of the cities. With regard to the artist, Jean-Baptiste Van Moer (1819 1884), there was protracted hesitation to ask him to furnish the sketches for the tapestries. Van Moer was specialised in city panoramas, and his estimates were correspondingly high. His first quotation amounted to 20,000 gold francs, which would be over € 106,000 today. In the end, and in order to lower the costs somewhat, the choice fell on the sketches of another artist named François-Antoine Bossuet (1798 1889).

François-Antoine Bossuet was born in Ypres and studied in Antwerp. From 1855 until 1876, he was professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. Bossuet was particularly renowned for his knowledge of perspective and his skills in the matter. In 1843, he had proved this knowledge by publishing his dissertation Traité de perspective linéaire. His work is especially known for its city views and architectural landscapes from Mediterranean regions (Spain, Portugal, Italy, etc.). Each painting depicts picturesque scenes of everyday life that fit in perfectly with the romantic spirit of that age. The National Bank’s tapestries were woven in this style, too. Consequently, not one economic scene is to be seen in the General Meeting room. The ten cities were represented by means of their most important distinguishing features, along with a few people, boats, etc., while no attention was paid to the Belgian industry’s liberal spirit. The tapestries rather look like tourist postcards.

Anyone looking more closely at some of the tapestries may be put in doubt as to what is represented. Although Bossuet was a master in the use of perspective, there are certain scenes which feature buildings that, in reality, are not situated within the same line of vision. In this respect, the tapestry depicting Ghent is a fine example. It actually combines a view of the northward-oriented Graslei (Quai aux Herbes) and a side-view of the town hall with, in the background, the burgeoning belfry tower, whereas in reality, however, these three elements can never be seen together.

A creative townscape of Ghent [2]

A creative townscape of Ghent

A certain amount of time elapsed between the room’s design and that of the tapestries. It took until 1882 before the tapestries could be installed.

MAARTEN BASSENS
Museum Guide

Bibliography