Louis Thévenet was born in Bruges on February 12, 1874. When he was two, the Thévenet family moved to Brussels, where he would reside more or less for the rest of his life, first in the centre of the city, later in the suburban municipalities Linkebeek, Drogenbos and Halle. A number of his contemporaries also lived in this area, such as Edgard Tytgat, Ferdinand Schirren, Rik Wouters, Jean Brusselmans, Auguste Charles Louis Oleffe, and others.
It is remarkable how little biographical details are known about this artist, and those that are known are at least susceptible to interpretation. Thévenet’s biography is very vague, apart from a number of social problems (the early death of his parents and his father's drinking problem) and the fact that he came from a very culture-loving family. His brother Pierre was indeed a better-known painter than Louis himself, and his sister, who supported him financially until 1906, was a famous opera singer in Paris. The early autobiographies describe Thévenet as being mainly self-taught, but this was later refuted. At the age of 18, he embarked as an assistant cook on an English freighter. In this way, he travelled along on several long-distance voyages (e.g. to Haiti, where Gauguin once lived), about which he remained silent, not even mentioning them to his only close friend René Lyr.
At a rather young age, Thévenet comes into contact with Oleffe, a very important painter in the then Brussels scene who had a strong influence on the so-called Brussels Fauves, which included, among others, Rik Wouters. Thévenet becomes very good friends with Oleffe. In 1896 he moves with him to Nieuwpoort where they will both live for some time. He paints his first paintings in 1900, the Church of Nieuwpoort and Oleffe’s interior. In 1905, he moves back to Brussels. In 1906 he meets François Van Haelen, one of Belgium’s then most famous collectors who will from then on continue to support him. In 1906 he marries Emma Tevens, who will also manage his accounts, giving us a clear view of Thévenets sales from 1908 onward. He enjoys great success until 1914, his work sells well, and he takes part in all the major exhibitions and exhibits at the famous Brussels Gallery Georges Giroux. Even Queen Elizabeth buys one of his canvases. The interest in his work, however, was largely inspired by the beautiful and seductive aspect of his petty-bourgeois interiors and the air of naivety that pervaded his canvases. Thévenet felt greatly misunderstood because of this. His alcohol abuse and his reticence made him quite unpopular, and he was almost shunned by everyone from 1914 onward, except for René Lyr, who later in 1945 wrote a wonderful biography about him titled ‘Mon ami Louis Thévenet’. Thévenet died on August 16, 1930 at 56 years of age, lonely and withdrawn.
Thévenet was in the first place interested in the act of painting, rather than in the final result. This is evidenced in the consciously skewed composition, the unconventional, personal manner in which the paint is applied, the peculiar colour combinations and so on. He is always looking for the inherent structure of a painting. The painting itself was crucial, not the appealing subject matter for which he was widely appreciated. The psychological attitude of the painter plays an undeniably important role in this respect. He found it difficult to communicate. The early loss of his parents may have had something do with the fact that Thévenet had such a hard time establishing friendships, out of fear of losing them again. His drinking problem was probably also a crucial factor. As a result, he could never strike a balance between his inner self and the way in which he identified with the other.
The only thing he could identify with was his art and it was also only through his art that he was able to communicate. On the other hand, the painter, just like anyone, has a need for communication. He regularly painted scant traces of human activity (as if people could enter the scene of the painting anytime, or had just left). However, the human individual is systematically kept out of the image. This makes Thévenet one of the most discreet painters to take human doubt as his subject, and on many different levels: in the pictorial and the abstract, in stillness and in life, in presence and absence. It is also made evident in a painterly fashion through intentional distortions in the perspective, sudden changes in the application of colour and paint. He is not only a strong photographic observer, but infuses every segment of reality with a personal value, creating an overall composition that – despite all the contradictions – maintains both its pictorial and mental strength.
The selection at the MDD is a very limited selection from the oeuvre of Thévenet, and forms part of the series of modest exhibitions on artists whose works are present in the collection, yet who are generally less well known in Flanders. Here, the MDD seeks to investigate some of these artist’s intrinsic qualities. This selection was made on the basis of highly subjective criteria, far removed from the traditionally modernist-inspired art historical choices, based on 'innovation' or 'originality'. The classic appreciation of Thévenet as the painter of ‘beautiful and alluring’ interiors is also not relevant here. Thévenet rather captivates us by the strong underlying tension present in his interiors. The depiction of this tension clearly reflects the psychological state of mind of the artist. He does not throw his feelings into the world, makes a spectacle of them, but controls them, and translates them into paint with the remarkable objectivity of a spectator. In his everyday life, Thévenet probably also struggled to find peace with himself, the others around him and life itself. However, he does not resist, but retreats into a thoughtful and quiet solitude. It is this fragile tension that makes him an exceptional artist who deserves our full attention, even today.
The exhibition Louis Thévenet ran from February 20, to April 17, 2005.
For more information, see the issue of Museum doorDacht 1.