Who is Jef Lambeaux, the man behind the iconic Brabo fountain in Antwerp?

When visiting Antwerp, one cannot miss the Brabo fountain. This iconic sculpture on the Grote Markt is the creation of Jef Lambeaux, one of the most flamboyant and eccentric sculptors in Belgian history. He aimed to capture the passions and emotions of humanity through his sculptures, drawing inspiration from Greek mythology, the Renaissance, and realism. In this article, you will learn more about his life, his work, and where you can admire it.

Who is Jef Lambeaux?

Jef Lambeaux (1852-1908) was born in Antwerp to a Walloon father and a Flemish mother. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and, after completing his studies, joined a group of young artists led by Jan van Beers. Lambeaux was fascinated by the possibilities of depicting the human figure in motion and expression.

The Controversy Surrounding Lambeaux’s Work

Lambeaux’s first work, “War,” was exhibited in 1871. His masterpiece, “The Kiss,” was first displayed at the Brussels Salon in 1881. “The Kiss” depicts a sensual encounter between a naked man and a naked woman. He reaches out to kiss her, and although she resists, her playful expression and hand movements suggest she may be inclined otherwise.

This sculpture sparked significant controversy in Belgium and beyond. Some hailed it as a masterpiece, while others found it immoral and shocking. Despite being refined and sensually nude, it was unconventional for the art of that time and considered taboo.

However, “The Kiss” marked a turning point for Lambeaux as it was his first work, despite controversy, to be acquired by a museum.

Lambeaux continued to shock with works like “The Human Passions,” a colossal marble bas-relief created for the Jubelpark in Brussels. From its first presentation in 1889, the work faced strong opposition, particularly from Catholic circles.

Five Striking Works by Jef Lamb

Lambeaux created numerous other sculptures, many of which can still be seen in Antwerp and other cities. Here are five of his remarkable sculptures in Antwerp:

1/ Brabo Fountain on the Grote Markt

The Brabo Fountain on the Grote Markt exemplifies the dynamism and expressiveness of Jef Lambeaux’s sculptures. It depicts a legendary scene from Antwerp’s history: the moment when Brabo throws away the severed hand of the giant Antigoon. At the base of the statue lies the defeated giant, his left hand clutching his mutilated right forearm. The statue’s base is adorned with various mythical creatures.

Notably, Brabo is portrayed not as a classical Roman hero but more like Michelangelo’s David, wearing only a fig leaf to cover his modesty. This likely reflects the sculptor’s unconventional interpretation rather than the spirit of the times.

Lambeaux seemingly aimed to make a symbolic statement about the path one must tread for spiritual liberation. The naked Brabo symbolizes the enlightened, liberated individual. While artistically valid, the nudity caused a stir in conservative Catholic circles at the time.

2/ Allegorical Nudes on the Hansahuis

The Hansahuis, an imposing complex at the junction of Ernest Van Dijckkaai, Suikerrui, and Kaasstraat, features six bronze statues by Jef Lambeaux. These naked figures symbolize navigation, trade, and four rivers.

Among them are two bearded men. One, accompanied by bunches of grapes, symbolizes the mighty Rhine. The other, armed with a trident and a water jug, represents the Scheldt. This male duo is accompanied by two women, one bearing the coat of arms of Hamburg representing the Elbe, and the other representing the Weser.

3/ Equestrian Statue of Saint George on the Grote Markt

The Equestrian Statue of Saint George is a bronze sculpture adorning the top of the archers’ guild house. Installed in 1893 as part of the restoration and reconstruction of historical guild houses on the Grote Markt, it depicts Saint George slaying the dragon, symbolizing courage and protection for the archers.

Saint George is portrayed as a powerful and courageous knight, piercing the ascending dragon with his lance. The dragon appears menacing, using its claws and teeth in an attempt to harm the knight.

4/ Charles Darwin with Allegorical Figure in Antwerp Zoo

The sculpture “Charles Darwin with Allegorical Figure” features a bust of Darwin resting on two books. The books refer to his influential works, “On the Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man,” where he presented his theory of natural selection and the common ancestry of all living beings. Next to the bust stands a nude woman symbolizing truth, looking towards the natural history museum formerly housed in the Zoo’s banquet halls.

5/ The Wrestlers in the Middelheim Museum

“The Wrestlers” is a masterpiece at the Middelheim Museum, depicting two naked men engaged in a wrestling match. Both are muscular and athletic, one looking determined and persistent while the other appearing fearful and desperate.

The sculpture symbolizes the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, life and death. It also pays homage to Greek art, which Lambeaux admired, drawing inspiration from classical sculptures of wrestlers seen at the Louvre in Paris.

With iconic works like “The Kiss,” the Brabo Fountain, and “The Wrestlers,” Jef Lambeaux became one of Belgium’s most successful sculptors. His impressive oeuvre continues to adorn the streets and museums of Antwerp and other cities, making him an artist worth discovering in Antwerp.