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'Awaiting An Audience' (1886), by Willem Geets (1838-1919)


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About the artwork

This painting is deliberately ambiguous. A mother and child wait in anticipation to attend a crucial appointment. With a letter in hand and dressed in black, it is possible that the woman is recently widowed. Perhaps she must meet with officials to clarify the terms of her late husband's will. The little boy now fills the role of protector and looks across the room with bravery and determination. However, a resigned and hopeless expression on the woman's face, combined with the presence of a towering guard, dressed in bright reds, strongly suggests that the situation is more serious.

As in Geet's other well-known work, 'A Martyr in the Sixteenth Century', now hung in Birmingham, 'Awaiting An Audience' may illustrate an actual historical event of religious persecution. The Birmingham piece is based on a passage in Henne's 'Histoire du Regne de Charles-Quint en Belgique' of 1858. This deals with the sufferings of Lutherans in the Low Countries at the dawn of the Reformation. The passage gives the names of those who were tortured to death, among them a young girl who was buried alive in 1526. The accuracy of this account was later questioned when it was discovered that the girl was in fact buried alive in 1514, three years before Luther's break with Rome. Geets may also have had such serious historical intentions with the Walker piece. 'Awaiting An Audience' can also be translated from the Belgian to 'Before the Interrogation'. This further suggests that the woman could be suspected of heresy.

It was probably due to these earlier problems of potential inaccuracy that Geets decided to make this piece rather more vague and more typical of the 19th popular genre painting. Like many of his contemporaries, with their vivid fascination for the past, Geets sought to call up our ancestors before us with all their strange manners and clothing. The costumes probably represent his idea of Switzerland around 1530-1540. The marble bench may suggest that the scene is set in Italy, but as the dress is of northern origin, it is more likely that the stark interior simply reflects the powerful Italian influenced trend that swept through Europe at around this time. In the same vein as his friend Alma Tadema, Geets juxtaposes cold hard marble surfaces with glowing sunlight. However, whereas Tadema's figures are bathed and comforted by such light, the figures in 'Awaiting An Audience' are kept from this reassuring warmth by the alert cavalier.

The cavalier became a recurring image in 19th century genre painting, in particular for one of Geets' teachers, Hendrick Leys. Similarly, children were regularly included to evoke emotion and women often became a painter's primary focus. All of these common motifs are well illustrated in another Walker historical suspense piece, 'And when did you last see your father?' by WF Yeames.

Geets shared with the emerging Symbolist movement a sympathy with the mysterious spirituality as well as the decorative qualities of women and also a pictorial delight in the invasion of privacy and the glorification of a domestic setting. This keyhole vision harks back to Dutch 17th century genre scenes. His 'Writing a Letter' and 'Polishing Brass and Copper' have the essential Vermeer ingredients of a soft falling light from the side, pensive looking women and rich heavy fabric drapes. The carpet and curtain are very prominent in 'Awaiting An Audience', intricately detailed because Geets was from a town famous for its tapestries (he himself designed eight rugs featuring worthy citizens for the town hall in Brussels). The mood is tense but without drama. Like his teachers, Leys and Cogniet, he wanted to replace the tendency towards pathos and sentimental anecdote with historical and psychological truthfulness.

Geets was born on the 20 January 1838 in Mechelen, Belgium. Although never short of foreign connections, he remained an inhabitant and artist of this town for most of his life. It was here where his lengthy and successful career began at the age of 12 as an apprentice interior decorator, and where he became director of the local Academy until his 70th year.

In 1854 he left Mechelen for Antwerp, where he attended the School of Fine Art for two years. His first teacher, Nicaise de Keyser, one of the first important romantic painters in Belgium, frowned upon natural studies and forced his pupil to work on lavish and antiquated local cloth. Baron Hendrick Leys, Geets's next tutor, painted reconstructions of 16th century Antwerp and sought to convey the spirit of an earlier time. Leys distanced himself from the dramatic and seemed to herald a more sober style, an approach that more accurately reflected the national heritage. Geets developed the same preoccupation with the past, inherited a loyalty to 17th Dutch interiors and a love of the French Realists. Geets died in 1919 as holder of a Gold Medal at Ghent and the Cross of the Order of Leopold for his lifetime service to the arts.

The 1880s was the decade which found Josef Israels more important than Van Gogh and Bouguereau, Gerome and Bastien Lepage surer of eternal greatness than 'eccentrics' like Manet, Monet or Degas. Geets was part of this phenomenon. Popular taste cherished such calculating mixtures of technical brilliance, pretension and excess. The century as a whole was paradoxical. Artists combined the domestic with the exotic, the bourgeois with the commercial and the romantic with the restrained. Geets's own career incorporates some of these contradictions. His paintings can be huge or small, historic or genre scenes, tranquil and peaceful, or agitated and tense. 'Awaiting An Audience' seems to fit somewhere between all of his extremes.

'Awaiting An Audience' stands as a bridge between Geets's epic English exhibition debut of 1884 at the Royal Academy summer show, 'A Martyr in the Sixteenth Century', and his much more intimate and commercial works such as 'Writing a Letter' and 'Polishing Brass and Copper'. Signed and dated 1886, 'Awaiting An Audience' was purchased on its appearance the same year in the Walker's annual Autumn Exhibition. Geets' notebooks reveal that the painting was begun on 31 May 1886 and completed on the 28 July. By 14 August it had been sold by the artist's dealer, Lefevre, the man who had taken over Ernest Gambert's London art dealing firm in 1870, to an American collector for 6,250F. The Walker bought out the original purchaser by paying an additional 1,250F.