01 Classic Work of Art, Marine Paintings, Edmond Marie Petitjean’s Ships at the Port of Antwerp – With Footnotes, #219

Edmond Marie Petitjean (1844-1925)
Navires au Port d’Anvers/ Ships at the Port of Antwerp, c. 1883

Oil on canvas
15 x 23 1/2in (38.2 x 59.8cm)
Private collection

Antwerp’s potential as a seaport was recognized by Napoleon Bonaparte and he ordered the construction of Antwerp’s first lock and dock in 1811. Called the Bonaparte Dock, it was joined by a second dock – called the Willem Dock after the Dutch King – in 1813. When the Belgian Revolution broke out in 1830, there was a well-founded fear that the Dutch would blockade the Scheldt again but, in the event, they contented themselves with levying a stiff toll. Fortunately, the young Belgium had friends in Britain and particularly in the person of Lord Palmerston, who believed the existence of Belgium would be beneficial to Britain, and that, in consequence, it was important to make sure that the newly born state was economically viable.

With his support, the Belgian government was able to redeem the Dutch Toll in 1863. By that time, the Kattendijk Dock had been completed in 1860 and the all important Iron Rhine Railway to the Ruhr had been finished in 1879. Antwerp then experienced a second golden age and by 1908 eight docks had been constructed. The opening of the Royers Lock, commenced in 1905, meant that ships drawing up to 31 feet (9.4 m) of water were able to enter the existing docks and access the new Lefèbvre and America docks. Such was the situation at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The British, and Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, in particular were well aware of the Port of Antwerp’s strategic importance, so much so that Churchill arrived in Antwerp on 4 October 1914 to take charge of the defence of the city and its port. More on the Port of Antwerp

Edmond Marie Petitjean, 1844 – 1925, French, was born at Neufchâteau in the Vosges. His father, a lawyer, did not allow him to study art until he had completed courses at the Faculty of Law at Nancy. From that moment, he abandoned the law and was able to devote himself entirely to his artistic career. Success followed swiftly; his work was well received at the exhibition of the Lorraine Society of the Friends of Arts, and then, in 1873, he made a brilliant début at the salon in Paris.

He was awarded an honorable mention in 1881, and a bronze medal in 1884; hors-concours, and a silver medal in 1885; a silver medal in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle, the Legion of Honor in 1892, and a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1900; he was a member of the jury and of the Committee of the Artistes Français for many years.

Yet Edmond was never satisfied with his own work: “In my painting, I have searched passionately for perfections, delicacy, tenderness of expression and tone; and I feel that it will all crumble and become insipid in the Salon where, in order to elbow one’s way in, one most by violent.”

All those aspects of nature which Petitjean loved appear in his work. He could see the picturesque detail and transcribe it in full; sensitive to color, but wary of its violence. He loved the countryside, and his vision was essentially that of a country man, his inclinations leading him to the peace of rural surroundings.

Petitjean is perhaps best known for his depiction of the countryside and villages of Lorraine and Vendée. He did, however, find inspiration further afield – in the harbors of le Hâvre, Dunkerque, les Sables d’Olonne, Dieppe, Rotterdam, Bordeaux and the neighboring coastline. More on Edmond Marie Petitjean

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