Six pieces of the puzzle: Georges Lemmen’s preparatory drawings for Fête foraine
by Professor Jane Block (9 December 2018, Michigan, Illinois, USA)
The six drawings on display by the Belgian artist Georges Lemmen [1865-1916] are studies for his large-scale Neo-Impressionist work Fête foraine (motif de décor) [Figs. A & B]. First exhibited in Brussels at the international exhibition of Les XX (Les Vingt) in February of 1892, the painting was initially conceived in August 1890.
The artist worked on a series of sketches during the fall but was not ready to send it to the Les XX exhibition of 1891. He returned to the subject in fall 1891 and submitted the completed work for exhibit in spring 1892. Thus, there are two sets of sketches. Our group of six comes from both 1890 and 1891. These drawings are significant not just for their masterful handling of line but also because they reveal the meticulous working method of the artist. They are also important pieces of a puzzle which provide major clues to unraveling the larger and complicated story to be presented here.
In returning to the Fête foraine, Lemmen was undoubtedly motivated by the death of his French colleague, Georges Seurat, who had died prematurely at age thirty-one on 29 March 1891. Seurat, founder of the Neo-Impressionist movement, had found a haven in Brussels complete with patronage and invitations to display works at Les XX in 1887, 1889 and 1891.
Seurat’s twenty-three paintings and three drawings submitted to these three exhibitions led to the conversion to Neo-Impressionism of the Vingtistes Alfred Finch, Jan Toorop, Henry van de Velde, Théo van Rysselberghe, and Georges Lemmen.
The Les XX exhibition of 1892 was a tribute to Seurat with a retrospective displaying nineteen of his paintings and ten drawings, many of which were owned by Belgians including Lemmen. Lemmen wanted to honor Seurat with a major Neo-Impressionist work that reflected Seurat’s intense exploration of popular culture. Thus Lemmen, echoing Seurat’s interest in the café-concert and the circus, chose the theme of the fête foraine.
The subject of the fête foraine had already attracted such nineteenth-century artists as Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, James Tissot and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Since 1888 Lemmen had been interested in images dealing with contemporary popular entertainment such as the café-concert and traveling menageries, where Lemmen was particularly attracted to depicting elephants. The Belgian counterpart of the fête foraine, the Kermesse, had a long tradition inaugurated in 1530 to commemorate the end of a plague epidemic. By 1880, the year celebrating Belgium’s fiftieth year of independence, the Kermesse was given a permanent location in Brussels on the Boulevard du Midi, and was held annually on the closest Sunday to 13 July. However, less official fêtes foraines were also a ubiquitous part of the Belgian cultural landscape. The crowds attracted to the Kermesse were a true slice of all socio-economic levels as they were composed of poor and rich, worker and gentlemen, old and young, prostitutes and wives.
Thanks to two sketchbooks containing thirteen drawings pertaining directly to Lemmen’s painting, five independent drawings, and a letter, we can trace the genesis of the Fête foraine. All six drawings on display come from the two sketchbooks: three from one dated 1890 and three from 1891. In order to better understand Lemmen’s conception of the work and where the six studies on display fit in the evolution of the painting, we will review these works in chronological order.
The complete 10-page essay written by Professor Jane Block exclusively for the depicted set of six sheets is available upon request.
 This essay is dedicated to the late Sophie van der Perre, for her unstinting hospitality and her permission to consult the sketchbooks from which these six important drawings on display originate and to Roger Cardon for his friendship, and unfailing devotion to scholarship on Georges Lemmen. This study is based on the author’s essay, “Le carrousel et le monde de la fête foraine,” in Roger Cardon’s Georges Lemmen 1865-1916 (Brussels: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon/Pandora, 1997), pp. 68-79.