In most lists of the great Romantic painters, one of the most unfairly left off is Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz. Born February 22, 1806, at the height of Neo-classicism and Romanticism in European art, Wiertz waffled between the two forms in works such as Les Grecs et les Troyens se disputant le corps de Patrocle (above, from 1836), which shows Greeks and Trojans fighting over the body of Patrocles in a scene from Homer's Iliad. Even harking back to such classical themes, which haunted Wiertz’s imagination dating back to his copying of the Old Masters in the Louvre, he cannot resist allowing the Gothicism of his soul to peek out. In the 1890s, J.M.W. Turner was once called “the Wiertz of landscape-painting,” thanks to Turner’s late, wild settings. Such a remark reveals just how well known Wiertz once was and makes us wonder why he’s so little known today.
Like so many other artists of the period, Wiertz read the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Comte de Lautréamont and translated them into images. His painting The Premature Burial (above, from 1854) pays homage to Poe’s tale of the same name, depicting the sense of horror on the face of the not-yet-dead victim finding himself alone in the crypt. Wiertz’s mind often took a decidedly dark turn. He even painted a decapitated head, post-guillotine, sitting on the floor. In such works Wiertz looks forward to Symbolism and even Surrealism, going beyond even the loose boundaries of Gothic Romanticism.
And, yet, there’s always this pull in Wiertz back to the classical. In The Suicide (above, from 1854), the central figure does himself in with a shot to the head, obscuring his face in the blast as he’s blasted into oblivion. The vitality of the dying figure fits in with the standard liveliness of the Romantic body. However, Wiertz bookends this Romantic figure between a devil and an angel, classical representatives of evil and good pulling him in opposite directions as he hesitates pulling the trigger, just as Wiertz himself felt pulled in opposite directions. Wiertz didn’t just paint the Gothic side of Romanticism, he lived and died in the Gothic, as if he himself were a character from a Poe tale. Upon his death, which came while painting in his studio, Wiertz left instructions for his remains to be handled according to Ancient Egyptian burial rites. Looking back at his life and work, Wiertz remains a sphinx-like figure.