Jules Pierre van Biesbroeck was born in Portici in 1873, during his parents’ trip to Italy. He was the son of the Belgian painter Jules Evarist van Biesbroeck and the grandson of a well-known goldsmith from Ghent. After spending the first two years in Naples, he returned with his family to Belgium and, having soon demonstrated excellent artistic skills under the guidance of his father – who taught him the first rudiments of drawing – he entered the Ghent Academy of Fine Arts.
Early years and first academic paintings
At the age of 15, he made his debut at the Ghent Triennial Exhibition with the painting The Father, which received a lukewarm reception from the critics. From a reminiscent letter sent to Vittorio Pica late in the 20th century, we know that this event aroused pride in the young artist, who the following year, intent on surprising the public with his large canvas Le lancement d’Argos, participated in the Salon des Champs- Elyséès in Paris. Although the painting was still tied to academic stylistic elements, it received an honourable mention and above all praise from the elderly French painter William Adolphe Bougueareau (1825-1905), whose exclamation that struck him at the time was quoted by van Biesbroeck: “How happy the good David must be in heaven!” Apart from this early, youthful success, at least throughout the 1890s, the artist continued to remain almost invisible in the eyes of the critics, except for the monumental canvas Le Christ glorifié par les enfants, which won him second place at the Prix de Rome in 1894.
The early 20th century: between humanitarian sculpture and Symbolist painting
The following year, he began to study sculpture, soon achieving excellent results, until he achieved total affirmation at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, where, with the funerary group The people mourn him, dedicated to the socialist Jean Volders, he was awarded the diploma of honour. Vittorio Pica wrote of this monument: “there was such an effective emotional simplicity, such vigour and such plastic elegance that […] the eyes felt a sense of profound relief and joy…”. It was Pica himself who suggested he take part in the Venice Biennial, where he arrived in 1903 with the high-relief Our Dead, which still shows instances of realism and humanitarian socialism veiled with an expressive and dramatic intensity that can also be seen in the plaster bas-relief Adam and Eve Find Abel’s Body.
Success at the Venice Biennale
The notes of pathos that emerge from the sculptures, which are also distinguished by the naturalistic solidity of the poses and the confidence of the modelling, frequently combined with softer lines, are also found in the paintings, to which Jules van Biesbroeck began to devote himself again in these years. At the 1905 Venice Biennial, he exhibited sculptures that were still imbued with humanitarian socialism, Factory Worker and Workers in Work Dresses. His canvases, on the other hand, moved away from the realist and denunciatory intentions, veiling themselves in a delicate, dreamy symbolism, generated also by a vaporous, visionary painting, perfectly in line with the contemporary decadent literature.
The Leda tondo reveals a strong sensitivity to myth: classicism and neo-Hellenistic instances blend with a soft painting and soft light that also returns in the masterpiece The Peacock Woman. In this work, the reference to the aesthetic theories of art pour l’art contained in Huysmans’ À rebours and D’Annunzio’s Piacere, but also to the magical and timeless world of the Pre-Raphaelites, seems to seep out of the image of this woman holding a flower in her fingers, a symbol of the vanitas of earthly things, as is the multi-coloured peacock behind her. A hymn to beauty and its ephemeral essence, which is revealed in an atmospheric, opalescent painting and which he took as a model for the Allegory of Beauty of 1907, which bears the Greek inscription kalos.
His success with the critics and the public at the Venice Biennials continued in 1907 and 1909 with other sculptures including Worker Exhausted, and then at the International Exhibition in Rome in 1911 with A Wize and Strength, Beauty and Wisdom. In both the sculptures and paintings of the Belgian artist, one can see a continuous updating of the Symbolist and Secessionist theories of the first two decades of the 20th century.
During his Italian stopovers, van Biesbroeck often stayed in Liguria, between Bordighera and San Remo, especially when he worked with the architect Silvio Gabbrielli. But he was also very fond of Sicily, where in the 1910s he was a frequent guest of his friend and lawyer Edoardo Alfano in Palermo.
One of his most appreciated moments by Italian critics was his solo exhibition at the Galleria Pesaro in 1924. There he exhibited a selection of paintings, drawings, pastels and sculptures that encapsulated the essence of Jules van Biesbroeck’s plastic and pictorial work, between realism and symbolism. Two years later, he was again at the Venice Biennale, the last one he took part in before embarking on a journey to North Africa where he stayed until 1938. At the end of this period of travel, he returned to Ghent, where he died in 1965.
 V. Pica, Catalogo della Mostra individuale di Jules van Biesbroeck (Milano, Galleria Pesaro, aprile 1924), Milano, Bestetti & Tumminelli, 1924