Monday 10 November 2014

Two Constantins: Constantin Heger and Constantin Meunier

Constantin Meunier
The BOZAR Museum in Brussels is currently featuring a major exhibition devoted to the work of
Constantin Meunier (1831-1905). The Belgian artist was among the very finest of 19th century sculptors; Rodin was a great admirer of his work, as was Vincent Van Gogh, who once declared Meunier to be "far superior to me".

For followers of the Brussels Brontë story, there is a detail which might give rise to extra interest in the artist - his forename Constantin. The name of course brings to mind Constantin Heger (1809-1896), Charlotte and Emily Brontë's literature professor. Constantin was a rare enough first name back in 1840s Brussels; even today it is not so common. Besides Meunier and Heger, it is a challenge to think of other Belgian public figures or artists so named. (There were some 'Constant's however - such as the painter Constant Permeke, and the football world's Constant Vanden Stock...)
Constantin Heger
It was no simple coincidence that Meunier and Heger shared the same forename. There were in fact real connections between the two men. Constantin Heger was Constantin Emile Meunier's godfather, and the sculptor was given his first name in his honour. Meunier was baptized at Ste. Gertrude's, Etterbeek, on 13 April 1831. Constantin Heger and Marie-Josephe Noyer, who were to marry in September 1831, stood for him as godparents. Marie-Josephe Noyer and Meunier were second cousins, related through the Ghigny family, from Rebecq (Walloon Brabant).

The church where Constantin Meunier was baptized no longer stands, demolished in 1993 when menacing cracks started to appear in its towers. However, the house in Etterbeek where he was born still exists, surviving somewhat uncomfortably between modern constructions on the Chaussée d'Etterbeek 172, opposite the Parc Léopold. There is a memorial plaque to the artist on the façade.

Meunier's birthplace, Etterbeek
When Constantin Meunier was aged around 11, Heger advised his godson to study at Brussels' Athénée Royal, where he himself was then teacher of the junior class (classe élémentaire). Meunier entered the Athénée in 1842, the year the Brontë sisters came to Brussels. However he struggled  with his studies; by 1845, he had already left the Athénée. It is no wonder that Meunier did not get on well at school. He was a rather  sensitive child; it is said of him that up to the age of 15, he used to cry every evening. If Charlotte and Emily Brontë were sometimes sad in Brussels, it was unlikely they were ever as sad as the young Meunier was!

Meunier in later years was a regular guest at the pensionnat which Heger ran with his wife Zoë Parent on the Rue d' Isabelle. Indeed the Heger-Parent Pensionnat was a welcoming place for a number of notable Belgian artists over the years. Some were artists who also gave classes there, such as the painter and illustrator Paul Lauters (1806-1875) and the composer Etienne Soubre (1813-1871). Others were men with family connections to the Hegers, such as Edmond Picard (1836-1924), the controversial writer and lawyer, whose brother Emile was married to Victorine Heger, Constantin's daughter, and the engraver Auguste Danse (1829-1929), Meunier's brother-in-law. It is not surprising that artists were welcome at Rue d'Isabelle, 32. Constantin Heger was a member of the Brussels Cercle artistique et littéraire, and although he never wrote or painted himself, he had a keen interest in the artistic world of his day. His daughter Louise (1839-1933) was a talented singer and painter; she was a popular figure in the artistic world of 19th century Brussels.

There are other links between the two Constantins which are worth highlighting. Both men at a young age witnessed tragedy and suffering in the family home. Constantin Meunier was four years old when his father Simon Louis Meunier died on 10 July 1835, at the age of 45. Serious financial problems seem to have precipitated his death. Heger too was still very young (aged 13) when he lost his father Joseph-Antoine Heger in 1822, also in circumstances of financial ruin.

Further deaths occurred which affected both men profoundly. In 1833, not so long after marrying her, Heger lost his first wife, Marie-Josephe Noyer to (probably) consumption. In 1894, Meunier lost his two dearly-loved sons in quick succession - Karl, who died of consumption in Leuven, and Georges, who died of yellow fever in Brazil.

The Firedamp Explosion, 1889
©MRBAB, Bruxelles
These various personal tragedies perhaps helped both men to empathise with the suffering of others. Both the professor and the artist showed a deep solidarity with those suffering from chronic poverty and harsh working conditions. The theme of humanitarian concern is central to the work of Constantin Meunier, as in his sculptures dedicated to the cruel mining world of the Borinage (near Mons in Southern Belgium). His godfather Heger, for his part, dedicated much effort to teaching and aiding the poor workmen of 19th century Brussels. In Mrs. Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Chapter XI, mention is made of his long hours of work with the Brussels underclass, as a devout member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Constantin Meunier's  humanitarianism, however, perhaps owes less to orthodox religious beliefs than that of Constantin Heger.

The name 'Constantin' comes from Latin, meaning firm, resolute. The idea that a man spends his whole life somehow fulfilling his forename seems true when applied to the professor and the sculptor. The two Constantins, Heger and Meunier, dedicated themselves from an early age to their respective passions of pedagogy and art. Over the course of their long lives, they stood firm, never renouncing the ideals which motivated them, above all the belief in the essential dignity of man. Despite many personal tragedies and set-backs, the two men strove tirelessly to combat human suffering and ignorance, and to bring about a more just, enlightened world.

Select Bibliography:
A. Behets, Constantin Meunier. L’homme, l’artiste et l’œuvre (Bruxelles: Office de publicité, 1942); A. Fontaine, Constantin Meunier ( Paris: Félix Alcan, 1923); M. Jerome-Schotsmans, Constantin Meunier : sa vie, son œuvre (Bruxelles: Belgian Art Research Institute, 2012); Anon., La vie de Paul Héger (n.p., n.d.), Belgian Royal Library, ref.:7B 3339.

Brian Bracken

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