Jean-François Portaels was born in the city of Vilvoorde in Belgium in 1818 and as the son of a wealthy father was, aged 18, able to pursue his artistic ambitions at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. This was an auspicious period in the school’s history as it was then under the directorship of the eminent neoclassical painter François-Joseph Navez (1787-1869) who himself had been a pupil of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).
In 1841 Portaels moved to Paris where he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and became a pupil of the great French painter of historical subject pictures Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). The following year he won the Belgian Prix de Rome, a prestigious award that marked him out as one of Europe’s most gifted young artists. It also enabled him to travel to Italy where he lived and worked in Venice, Florence, and Rome. Whilst Portaels’ training may have been classically northern European his subjects were to be drawn from elsewhere. The five years he subsequently spent living and working in Spain, Hungary, Algeria, Egypt and in particular Morocco gave him the themes for many of his most important paintings.
The European delight and fascination with all things Eastern had been growing rapidly since 1800 but it was perhaps the paintings of Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) that really whetted the public’s appetite for what became known as “Orientalism”. From a modern perspective describing Spanish, Turkish, and North African subjects as Oriental seems a bit loose to say the least but then back in the day anywhere south of Rome was considered to be The Orient.
I think the term “Exotica” might be a more accurate moniker but whatever we are going to call it the finely executed portraits of North African women painted by Portaels made him the first (and foremost) Belgian painter of the genre. Portaels’ kaftan-clad Moroccan beauties must be considered to be as important examples of Orientalism as the kimono-clad young Parisian ladies of Alfred Stevens are of Japonisme. The former’s finely executed depictions of the striking (and at this time profoundly exotic) women of the southern Mediterranean are painted with a vibrant palette and much affection and, in their accurate rendering of fabrics and the female form, as true and exact as anything painted by the great French and Italian costume painters such as James Tissot, Auguste Toulmouche, Frederic Soulacroix and Vittorio Reggianini.
On his return to Belgium, Portaels became its most popular portrait painter receiving numerous commissions from both the government and the royal family. In 1878 he was appointed director of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, one of Europe’s most prestigious art institutions and it was here that he would go on to nurture and influence an entire generation of Belgian painters.
Nevertheless, it was his achievements as an artist in his own right and in particular his Orientalist portraits of the woman of north Africa that earnt Jean-Francois Portaels his great reputation. They may not have been the expensively attired society girls of John Singer Sargent, Soulacroix and Stevens but Portaels’ sensual young woman were no less beautiful and dignified.
In 1894 the art critic Edmond-Louis de Taeye predicted that Jean-François Portaels “is and will remain the painter of everyday elegance and feminine grace” and I wouldn’t disagree.