FRANS DENYS (Antwerp 1610 – Mantua 1670)
Portraits of Eugène de Berghes, Count of Grimbergen and Florence-Marguerite de Renesse-Warfusée, Countess of Grimbergen: A Pair
female portrait dated Anno 1641 in the upper left
both oil on canvas
male portrait: 40 ¾ x 31 15/16 inches (104 x 81.4 cm.)
female portrait: 40 11/16 x 32 13/16 inches (104 x 83.4 cm.)
In the possession of the sitters from 1641 and thus by inheritance
to their son (according to family tradition)
Georges-Louis de Berghes (Prince-Bishop of Liège, 1662–1734) to
Jean-Adam de Berghes, and then by descent in the family until 2016
S. Speth-Holterhoff, “Un portraitiste oublié, François Denys” in Cahier des Arts, volume VII, June 1962, pp. 2773-2775, (both illustrated, from private collection, Brussels)
Christine van Mulders, “Frans Denys” in Le Dictionnaire des Peintres Belges, La Renaissance du Livre, Brussels, 1995, pp. 333-334
Katlijne Van der Stighelen has confirmed the pair of paintings to be by Frans Denys.
This spectacular pair of wedding portraits depict Eugène de Berghes, Count of Grimbergen, Baron d’Arquennes, Seigneur of Buggenhout, Saint-Amand, Baesrode, Thisselt, Sempst, Weerde and Rode, and his wife Florence-Marguerite de Renesse-Warfusée, Dame of Feluy and Escaussines. The identity of the couple is indisputable, as it is confirmed by their engraved portraits circa 1650 by I. Meyssens after paintings by Charles Woutier. They are shown at three-quarter length, slightly turned toward one another, while looking directly at the viewer, on colonnaded porches framed by blue curtains, with an almost split-screen view of their ancestral home in the background (in all likelihood Château Fort de Grimbergen). The Count’s costume is dominated by a large flat linen and lace collar, over a black doublet, with gold brocade sleeves, and lace cuffs. He holds a pair of leather gloves in his right hand and in his left a large hat. The Countess stands alongside a Spanish chair upon whose arm her hand rests. Her hair is pulled back beneath a diadem cap trimmed with lace from which a solitary pearl hangs. She wears a double linen and lace collar fastened by a pair of buttons fashioned from gold, gemstones, and pearls, which tops a black dress with voluminous sleeves, and lace cuffs. Further ornamentation is provided by a white satin stomacher heavily adorned with gold embroidery and a gold belt worn high on the waist. Multiple strands of pearls are around her wrists and neck, with large pearl earrings, and three gold rings.
At first glance this pair of portraits give the immediate impression of an important dynastic pairing, but more subtle symbolism has also been included. The blue drapes are intended to recall the monarchical tradition of curtained structures under which royals sat on ceremonial occasions. The flamboyancy of the lace used to accessorize their costumes, stems from the fact that at this point lace was often more costly than woven fabrics or jewelry. The gloves the Count holds in his right hand are a symbol of fidelity. His doffed hat welcomes the viewer into the scene. The profusion of the Countess’s pearls is of course indicative of the sitter’s wealth, but is also emblematic of purity, perfection, and femininity. The ring on her right index finger is presumably her wedding ring, as this is where it was customarily worn in the seventeenth century.
The majority of this type of pendant paintings are no longer together. As ancestral portraits were passed down through generations, quite often they came to be split among different sibling’s households, ultimately often passing out of the family altogether. For this reason it is all the more remarkable that since their execution in 1641, this pair has remained side by side.
Eugène de Berghes (1620–1671) was the son of Godefroid de Glymes, Count of Grimbergen, Baron d’Arquennes, Seigneur de Stabroeck, and Honorine de Hornes, Dame d’Arquennes. He resided in the family castle in Grimbergen. In 1641 he wed Florence-Marguerite de Renesse-Warfusée (1619–1665). Her parents were René de Renesse, Count of Warfusée, Viscount Montenaecken, Baron of Resves and Gaesbeke and Albertine d’Egmont, Dame of Cantairg and Cambresis. René de Renesse was quite a notorious figure. At one point in his career he was the director of finance under Philip IV of Spain, but it came to light that he had accepted bribes from both Holland and France, and become embroiled in a plot to overthrow Spanish rule. Under the accusation of high treason, his property was seized and Renesse was forced to flee to Liège. Liège was not part of the Dutch Republic or the Spanish Netherlands. Instead it was a principality, and a member of the administrative Circle of Westphalia. It was also considered neutral in international disputes.
As a free town, Liège was subject to constant meddling in its politics by France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Renesse, hoping to use this situation to his advantage, formed an alliance with the French faction in Liège called the Grignoux, and in particular befriended their leader, the burgomaster of Liège Sebastien La Ruelle. In actuality Renesse’s plan was to destroy the French faction, aided by a few Spanish soldiers, and regain the trust of the King of Spain. On April 17, 1637, he gave a dinner party to which he invited La Ruelle along with other guests which included his four daughters. Spanish soldiers lay in wait, and during the course of the banquet, rushed in and murdered La Ruelle. At least according to one account, Renesse’s daughters had pleaded to no avail for their father to spare La Ruelle’s life. News of the assassination quickly spread throughout Liège, and a mob gathered to storm the house. The Spaniards were killed, but luckily a group of burghers took pity on the girls and removed them to the safe confines of the Hôtel de Ville. Renesse was dragged through the streets, murdered by a combination of stabbing and clubbing. For two days his body hung upside down in the marketplace, and when torn down, cut to pieces and burnt, with his ashes thrown into the Meuse. In 1671, the Dutch playwright Thomas Asselijn wrote Moort tot Luyk Graaf van den voor Warfusé aan den Burgermeester de la Ruelle about the assassination of La Ruelle by Renesse.
After such a remarkable past, Florence-Marguerite and Eugène’s marriage proved a successful union, and resulted in the birth of at least seven children. The inheritor of their paintings is believed to be their son Georges-Louis. He became the highly regarded ninety-fourth Prince-Bishop of Liège. Upon his death he left over a million florins to the poor of the town. Although conjecture, one feels it must have been an act of atonement for the sins of his grandfather.
Frans Denys was a portrait painter, who joined the Guild of St. Luke, Antwerp in 1632. Jan de Duyts was his pupil. His son Jacob was also a portrait painter. Prior to the recent rediscovery of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joannes van Buyten from 1648, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, and our pair of portraits, about twelve others are known from Denys’ Antwerp period. Denys had left Antwerp by 1654, after which he first worked for Duke Friedrich III von Holstein-Gottorf, then was court painter to Ranuccio II of Parma, and lastly employed by Regent Isabella Clara of Mantua.
Among the earlier portraits, executed between 1635–1653 while he lived in Antwerp, are A Portrait of a Clergyman, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and François-Paulin de Brouchoven, Lord of Vechel, Musée National du Château de Versailles. He worked largely for the aristocracy, but there are several paintings that portray members of the middle class. Quite a number of Denys’ portraits were engraved. Sitters were typically painted at half or three-quarter length, either standing or sitting. A characteristic trait of Denys’, noticeable here in Florence-Marguerite’s right hand, is the index or other fingers spread wide apart. He favored sumptuous dress on his subjects placed against sober backgrounds. Expressions tend to be serious with eyes that directly engage the viewer.
In the 1998 survey Flemish Art and Architecture 1585-1700, Hans Vlieghe wrote of Denys, “Only a few rare works by him are known, but his reputation must have been considerable. It obtained him important commissions…. To judge by the other portraits by him, mostly only known through engravings, Denijs seems to have had a mainly aristocratic clientele in the Southern Netherlands.…”
The 1874 Catalogue du Musée d’Anvers, in a fitting tribute, wrote of Frans Denys his, “excellence as a portrait painter, almost forgotten nowadays, who deserves an eminent place among the master painters of the seventeenth century; he is very close to the great models of this remarkable period.” With the portraits of Eugène de Berghes and Florence-Marguerite de Renesse’s reemergence, not only are two more works added to the tiny known oeuvre of Deny’s Antwerp period, but also an amazing chapter in the history of Liège retold.
Katlijne Van der Stighelen felt the pair warranted further commentary:
“The portraits testify to Denys’ capacity to represent the aristocratic sitters in their own environment. Thanks to recent discoveries (as published by Beatrijs Wolters van der Wey) Denys has been reappraised as an excellent painter of individual and group portraits who has been unfairly neglected in the context of Antwerp Baroque. Just as Cornelis de Vos, he had his own clientele that appreciated his analytical and most decorative style. This pair of portraits forms the culminating point of his Antwerp period. The importance of the sitters may have challenged his best efforts.”
We are indebted to Katlijne Van der Stighelen for confirming the pair as by Frans Denys, as well as her very insightful additions to this entry.
 Peter C. Sutton, Dutch and Flemish Painting, The Collection of Willem Baron van Dedem, Frances Lincoln Limited, London, 2002, p. 147.
 Santina M. Levey and Patricia Wardle, The Finishing Touch, Frederiksberg Museum, Denmark, 1994, p. 4.
 Jack Tressidder, ed. “Pearls” in The Complete Dictionary of Symbols, Chronicle Books, L.L.C., 2004, pp. 376-377.
 Judikje Kiers and Fieke Tissink, “Companion Pieces” in The Glory of the Golden Age, exhibition catalog, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, April 15 – September 17, 2000, p. 31.
 Biographical material taken from M. de Vesiano, Supplément au Nobilaire des Pays-Bas, Chez Duquesne, Gand, 1861, p. 192; and S. Speth-Holterhoff, op. cit., p. 2773.
 George W. T. Omond, Belgium, A & C Black, London, 1908, p. 342; Henri Pirenne, trans. by J. V. Saunders, Belgian Democracy: its Early History, The University Press, University of Manchester, 1915, p. 242; and Myron P. Gutmann, War and Rural Life in the Early Modern Low Countries, Princeton Press, Princeton, N.J., 1980, p. 11.
 George W. T. Omond, op. cit., pp. 342-344.
 Ibid, pp. 347-349.
 M. de Vesiano, op. cit., p. 192; and Memorial de la Ville de Liège, H. Vaillant-Carmann, Liège, 1884, pp. 11-12.
 Biographical information taken from Christine van Mulders, op. cit., pp. 333-334; and Beatrijs Wolters van der Wey, “A New Attribution for the Antwerp Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joannes van Buyten” in Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, volume I, Issue 2, 2009.
 Hans Vlieghe, Flemish Art and Architecture 1585-1700, Pelican History of Art, Yale University Press, 1998, p. 139.
 Beatrijs Wolters van der Wey, op. cit..