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Fine Art

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

Last September, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, one of Belgium’s most prestigious & important museums, reopened after an 11-year closure. During this period, the 19th-century building was renovated and augmented by an entirely new museum, built within the four courtyards of the old structure, invisible from the outside. The original museum was beautifully restored to its old grandeur, and the new one is of ethereal elegance. The collection spans seven centuries, from Flemish Primitives to expressionists, featuring works by artists such as Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and James Ensor, the greatest Belgian modernist.

Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp
The Salon, crammed with 19th-century art

Collection highlights include Van Eyck’s Saint Barbara, Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean Fouquet, starring French King Charles VII’s busty mistress Agnès Sorel as the Virgin Mary, Hans Memling’s portraits of Bernardo Bembo and God the Father, The Prodigal Son and The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, Alexandre Cabanel’s painting of Cleopatra conducting research on snake venoms, The Oyster Eater and The Intrigue by James Ensor, Rik Wouters’ Woman Ironing, reclining-nude champion Amedeo Modigliani’s Seated Nude, not his best work by the way, Spring by Jean Brusselmans, René Magritte’s The Sixteenth of September, The Last Day by Pierre Alechinsky, and Günther Uecker’s Dark Field.

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Only six of Jean Fouquet’s paintings have survived the ravages of time, including his Madonna at the KMSKA. It was originally part of a diptych, but the two panels were separated in 1773. The other one ended up in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and shows Étienne Chevalier, the person who commissioned the paintings, with his patron saint.


After the Belgian state acquired Amedeo Modigliani’s Nude for 35,000 francs in 1926, it was first offered to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, but the offer was rejected on the pretext that the painting did not represent the artist’s best work and that it lacked sufficient persuasiveness. One museum committee member, Albert Ciamberlani, even wrote that he was under the impression that such works are produced & praised only in hatred of civilization. (‘J’ai comme l’impression que de telles œuvres ne sont produites et ne sont louées qu’en haine de la civilisation et des conquêtes de beauté et de savoir que l’homme n’a pu réaliser que grâce à des siècles de labeur.’) In an article titled Un nouveau scandale au Musée de Bruxelles, the art magazine Sélection (March 1927, p. 482–483), before naming & shaming the responsible committee members, commented that it’s better to have a Modigliani, even a somewhat inferior one, than no Modigliani at all. (‘Et mieux vaut en tous cas posséder un Modigliani, même quelque peu inférieur, que pas de Modigliani du tout, surtout à un moment où les toiles capitales de l’artiste atteignent des prix que le Musée de Bruxelles ne sera pas disposé de si tôt à payer.’) The curator of the KMSKA must have agreed, because he saw his chance and managed to acquire the painting for the museum in Antwerp.