Hidden Belgium: The museum built for a naked nymph

Hidden Belgium: The museum built for a naked nymph

The sleepy town of Tournai in Hainaut province doesn’t get too many tourists. But it has a magnificent Cathedral with five towers and a stunning museum located in an Art Deco building designed by Victor Horta.

The museum opened in 1928 to display a private collection of 300 paintings acquired by the Belgian hotel owner Henri Van Cutsem. He originally planned to leave his exceptional art collection to the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels, but a government official refused to accept the collection because it contained a nude painting, The Nymph of Capri.

Van Custo went on to commission his friend Victor Horta to design a museum in Tournai. It displays some remarkable works, including Manet’s early Impressionist painting Argenteuil showing a couple on the banks of the Seine in the summer of 1874.

The museum also owns Manet’s painting Chez le Père Lathuille from 1879 which shows a man seducing an older woman in the garden of the Parisian cabaret Père Lathuille. The work scandalised polite French society, but Van Cutsem snapped it up for his collection.

You can also admire Léonce Legendre’s painting of the Nymph of Capri. The Belgian state would only accept Van Cutsem’s collection if it didn’t include the ‘naked canvas’. But Van Cutsem refused. ‘The artist who painted the work you call a ‘naked canvas’ won the prestigious Prix de Rome,’ he argued. The stuffy official refused to back down. ‘It’s too offensive,’ he insisted.

And so you have to travel down to Tournai to see the only museum designed by Victor Horta, along with works by Manet, Monet and Van Gogh. And the Nymph that caused such a fuss.

Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.

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