Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


AUGUST DE WILDE (Lokeren 1819 – Sint-Niklaas 1886)

The Wheel of Fortune

signed and dated A. De Wilde 1861 in the lower right

oil on canvas

32 2/5 x 39 ⅛ inches          (82.3 x 99.4 cm.)


Private Collection, Curacao until the present time


On the evening of the kermis in Walcheren[1] a young couple stands before a wheel of fortune. To their delight the arrow points to a baby in a cradle as their future. Their joy is echoed by their friends as well as the booth’s proprietor. Particularly popular in the Low Countries, the wheel of fortune was a standard feature among the amusements on offer at the kermis.[2] The kermis was a much anticipated annual event that took place from June – September throughout Holland. A carefully devised schedule existed to allow owners of booths, stalls and other amusements to proceed to each kermis in an orderly fashion. The fair went on for eight days and closed around midnight each evening.[3] The riotous side of the kermis was quite shocking to a number of American and English journalists who recorded their impressions during the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. H. G. Cutler in his book Panorama of Nations wrote “There is one occasion which completely submerges every trace of native sedateness and that is the kermis. The foundations of the national character seem overturned.”[4] The American painter George Wharton Edwards in an article titled The Forbidden Kermis wrote of beer flowing by the barrel and air heavy with the fumes of tobacco and the smoke of oil lamps. Putting into words what De Wilde has painted in The Wheel of Fortune, he goes on to describe “the noise of the moving peasants, the hum of voices, the coaxing shouts of the showmen, the beating of drums, the blare of trumpets, and the countless indescribable noises of a large crowd”[5] capturing the extended hours of “singing, laughing, pushing and pulling in all directions.”[6]

Atypically during the period of the kermis, absolute freedom was given to the young people to congregate unchaperoned and thoroughly enjoy themselves. The intent was that such interaction would lead to romantic attachments resulting in matrimony. This proved a successful formula as weddings were commonly announced two to three months afterwards.[7] One cannot help but wonder if the joyous bliss of De Wilde’s featured couple was a result of last year’s kermis.

The kermis was an event that the locals saved up for all year and everything at the fair was arranged to extract the last dubbeltje (a coin of 10¢) from its visitors.[8] On offer in unlimited quantities were every imaginable treat which included poffertjes, waffles, nougats, smoked eels, pickled onions, chocolates, cakes, coffee, lemonade, a thick chocolate drink, thin beer, huge glasses of soda water or tiny thimbles of “halluf-en-halluf” (gin and bitters).[9] Amusements included besides wheels of fortune, bingo, lotto, shell games, merry-go-rounds, swings, mountebank’s shows, theaters, dancing, drinking bars and cake shops.[10] Booths were also crammed with souvenirs and toys. De Wilde has cleverly juxtaposed the happy couple between an array of hanging and shelved children’s toys in the booth to the right and a passing mother and child on the left, foreshadowing their foretold future.

The locale of the fair as Walcheren is identifiable from the picturesque regional dress depicted as every island in Zeeland has its own special costume, and naturally everyone dressed up for such an important occasion. The young women in the painting wear the traditional fitted lace caps covering the ears typical of Zeeland, from beneath which hang ornate earrings, testifying to the area’s love of gold. Around their necks are red coral with gold clasps. Coral was traditionally worn to ward off disease and evil spirits, but these necklaces also functioned as a signal of the wearer’s matrimonial status. The clasp was always worn in the front, if in the middle it meant the woman was married, to the left engaged and to the right she was still available.[11] In Zeeland the color of choice for a woman’s dress was a variety of pale lilacs evident here in the patterns and various parts of their ensemble. A chemise was usually embroidered and prominently displayed at the neck and chest with the gown explicitly cut away for this purpose. Kerchiefs were draped over their shoulders. All young women wore short sleeves. In Walcheren the height of fashion, as displayed by the young lady in the foreground, was to have the sleeves end in the tightest of black bands. The sought after effect was to plump and further redden sun burnt arms, as red arms were considered beautiful. Skirts intentionally ballooned out, and the black underskirt with plaid gingham above, topped by an apron was typical.[12]

Also particularly distinctive of the island of Walcheren in the painting are the men’s outfits. The black round beaver hats worn with the brims rolled-up around the entire head were standard. Short black jackets or brightly colored shirts with a cotton scarf were also favored. The golden earrings and belt ornament of the young husband in the foreground, again demonstrative of the region’s passion for the metal, enhances his charm. The mens’ brown eyes and hair along with darker complexions were regarded as vestiges of the area’s long Spanish occupation commonly referred to as Zeelanders of the Spanish type.[13]

August De Wilde was famous for his exquisite effects of light and shade as brilliantly demonstrated in The Wheel of Fortune. He was born on June 2, 1819 the son of Seraphinus De Wilde and Barbara Smith. His brother Frans was also a painter who specialized in portraits and landscapes. August received his initial training at the Academy of Sint-Niklaas where he distinguished himself as a talented student. This was followed by further studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp under Gustaaf Wappers. August became known for genre and historical scenes as well as portraiture and received further notoriety for the warm coloration so often featured in these works. He was made director of the Academy of Sint-Niklaas in 1851 and held the post for the next 35 years. Shortly after his appointment he married Louise Buissou. In 1870 he was awarded a prize for The Love in the Moonlight by La Société Dunkerquoise des Sciences, Lettres et des Arts. His paintings are in the permanent collections of the City Hall, Academie Schone Kunsten and the Stedelijk Museum in Sint-Niklaas. In Sint-Niklaas the Stedelijk Museum mounted an exhibition from September 14 – November 16, 1986 dedicated to the works of August and Frans De Wilde.[14]

We are indebted to Jan de Meere for his invaluable assistance in the writing of this entry.



[1] The island of Walcheren is in the province of Zeeland at the mouth of the Scheldt estuary. It is one of the oldest and still most popular vacation spots in Holland as it features miles of beaches and large areas of woodland. Technically today it is no longer an island as it is connected by polders and a dam across the Oosterschelde to the former island of Zuid-Beveland which in turn has been connected to the North Brabant mainland.

[2] Written communication from Jan de Meere dated December 19, 2012.

[3] Demetrius C. Boulger, Holland of the Dutch, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1913, pp. 161 – 163.

[4] H. G. Cutler, Panorama of Nations, Star Publishing Company, Chicago, 1892, p. 864.

[5] George Wharton Edwards, “The Forbidden Kermis” in The Chautauquan, volume 53, The Chautauquan Press, Chautauqua, New York, December 1908 – February 1909, pp. 357 – 358.

[6] Florence Craig Albrecht, “The Passing of Kermis” in The Outlook, A Weekly Newspaper, volume XCI, The Outlook Co., New York, January – April, 1909, p. 189.

[7] Beatrix Jungam, Holland, Adam and Charles Black, London, 1904, p. 18.

[8] George Wharton Edwards, op. cit., p. 357.

[9] Florence Craig Albrecht, op. cit., p. 189.

[10] Demetrius C. Boulger, op. cit., pp. 162 – 163; and Jan de Meere, op. cit..

[11] Florence Craig Albrecht, “The City of Jacqueline” in The National Geographic Magazine, volume XXVII, The National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., January – June, 1915, p. 49; and Pat Seward & Sunandini Arora Lal, Cultures of the World Netherlands, Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, Tarrytown, New York, 1995, p. 62.

[12] George Hitchcock, “The Picturesque Quality of Holland” in Scribner’s Magazine, volume X, Charles Scriber’s Sons, New York, July – December, 1891, p. 625; Beatrix Jungam, op. cit., pp. 3 – 4; Florence Craig Albrecht, “Veere an Artist’s Paradise” in The Outlook, volume XCI, The Outlook Company, New York, June – April, 1909, p. 735; and Demetrius C. Boulger, op. cit., p. 169.

[13] George Hitchcock, op. cit., p. 706; Florence Craig Albrecht, “The City of Jacqueline”, op. cit., p. 49; Pat Seward, op. cit., p. 62; and Jan de Meere, op. cit..

[14] Biographical information taken from Ulrich Thieme & Felix Becker, “August De Wilde” in Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler, volume XXXV, Veb E. A. Seemann Verlag, Leipzig, 1940, p. 510; P. & V. Berko, “Auguste De Wilde” in Dictionary of Belgian painters born between 1750 & 1875, Editions Laconti, Brussels, 1981, p. 240; Willem G. Flippo, “Auguste De Wilde” in Lexicon of the Belgian Romantic Painters, International Art Press, Antwerp, 1981, unpaginated; August De Wilde, Frans De Wilde, exhibition catalog Stedelijk Museum, Sint-Niklaas, September 14 – November 16, 1986, pp. 14, 21; and “Auguste De Wilde” in Dictionnaire des Peintres Belges du XIV Siecle à nos jours, La Renaissance du Livre, Brussels, 1994, p. 376.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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