Frans Van Severdock

(aka François or Francois Van Severdonck )

Who was Frans Van Severdonck? Where was he trained and under who did he study?  These are some of the questions collectors have been asking for decades.  Little is known about this prolific Belgian painter.  He was born in 1809 and passed away in 1889. He is often listed as residing in Brussels and is also often listed as being born and/or having passed away in Brussels but these statements are speculative. 

The sole information that we currently have is quite derivative.  Brussels is often listed as his residency as he had to be in a major metropolitan city in order to be so successful selling his works. While never listed, Antwerp would also have been a prime city with its international port and commerce.

 

What is known with certainty is that Van Severdonck was highly educated, professionally trained, and multi-lingual.  He did write in French as well as English.  His Flemish family name made it also likely that he spoke Flemish (Dutch). All of which would be useful in cities like Brussels or Antwerp.

 

Disrespecting the artist

Despite clearly signing his works, most often twice (front and back), Van Severdonck’s legacy has suffered for decades from misspellings both in print and on the web.  The biggest and inexcusably offenders are the Benezit (Dictionary of Artists) and Oxford Art Online which are the benchmark for identifying listed artists.  One does not have to know much of 19th century penmanship or Flemish names to recognize the capitalized letter “S” and not interpret it as a letter “d”.  Despite there being numerous photos available of the signature, some continue to incorrectly refer to the artist as “Vandeverdonck”, even when the letters “S” and “d” are obviously different. 

Flemish and Dutch names often have their origins in medieval times and many names reference a location or profession.  Names starting with “Van” reference a location as it means “From”. These location references are most often not linked to the names of villages or towns, but rather characteristics of a particular region.  The names evolved in order to properly identify people, an example would be “I mean John from the cemetery and not John who has the barn”.  This would be Johan Van der Kerkhof (John from the cemetery) and Johan Van der Hoeve (John from the barn). Over time, some names got linked, into one or two words for practical reasons, other cases, the spelling was modified to differentiate families (Van der Kerkhof may have become Van Dekerkhof or Vanderkerkhof).  Other well known artists’ examples are Johannes Vermeer could have been “John from the Lake” or “John near the lake”.  Gerard ter Borch would be “Gerard at/near the Castle” or more likely “Gerard at/by the Stronghold”.

In the case of Van Severdonck, it can be speculated that Severdock was a compilation of Sever and Donck, the name is not common and is most likely linked to a very specific location. “Sever” has multiple interpretations and was most likely a place name, “donck” has multiple period spellings but may have indicated an embankment or raised area near marshes or a swamp. It is a word that was used in the area of Ekeren and Braschaat. Both towns are located just north of Antwerp and have multiple bodies of (standing) water nearby.  It is an educated deduction that Van Severdonck’s family name originated in the Antwerp region.  For the sake of investigation, the (incorrect) word “dever” was also researched but was non-existent.

Frans or Francois / François and not Franz

Not only was Van Severdonck’s family name misspelled, his first name has also been misrepresented. He signed most of his works “François” or “F.”, this by itself does not say much about his mother tongue. Society and aristocracy spoke French even in the Flemish parts of the country.  Flemish was at the time of Van Severdonck’s life considered a language used by farmers and laborers.  Even if Van Severdonck was Flemish, he spoke French and signed his works with the French spelling of his first name.  This was standard in the day where he was educated in French and would predominantly sell his works to people speaking and dealing in French even if their mother tongue was Flemish.  Frans is the Flemish spelling of Francois and is thus correct, but as little is known about him, there is no indication that he used the name “Frans” at all. For the sake of Google searches, the French language cédille accent was not used throughout most of this article, so I am writing “Francois” instead of the more correct “François”.  

What is certainly not correct is that Frans Van Severdonck was German as is often reported and so his name was not Franz, the letter “z” indicating German origin.

Influence, Style, and Medium

While we do not know who Van Severdonck studied under, the period Flemish painter, Paul Balthasar Ommeganck, certainly appears to have been, at the very least, an influence on Van Severdock.  There are surprising similarities between the works of Van Severdonck and Ommeganck.  Several aspects of Ommeganck paintings appear to have been carried over and evolved into Van Severdonck’s style. Both artists focused almost exclusively on barnyard and farm animals (especially sheep), scenery common for the Flemish countryside.

Some notable similarities are light play; light is an important yet subtle aspect of the paintings especially how directional light penetrates through the clouds and sky.  Both artists focused on the realistic depiction of the animals especially their coats and plumage.

Other similarities are seen in the compositions like laying sheep among other animals on a gently sloping hill.  Subtleties can be seen in the background, both artists sometimes show a village or windmills in the (far distance) background.  Only Van Severdonck does often show the North Sea or banks of the Schelde (Meuse) river in the far distance in some of his paintings.

 

A major difference is the depiction of the shepherd, prominent in several Ommeganck paintings, but always missing in Van Severdock paintings.

 

Ommeganck was an art professor at the Académie de peinture, sculpture et architecture d'Anvers. Van Severdonck was only about 15 years old when Ommeganck passed away (1826) so he was likely not a student of Ommeganck but may have been exposed to Ommeganck’s works and techniques if Van Severdock did study at the Antwerp academy… Of course this is all highly speculative.

 

Frans Van Severdonck was active throughout his adult life, the earliest observed work (by the author) is dated 1833 which he painted when he was about 24 years of age.  His latest observed work is dated 1889, the year of his passing, around the age of 80.  Most of his works are dated in the 1860s and 1880s, indicating that he was most active later in life and possibly after retirement.  This may indicate that for most of his life he did not make a living from his paintings.  This again is deducted from observations and is highly speculative.

   

Like Ommeganck, Van Severdock used predominately oil on board in order to achieve realism, some (early) oil on canvas works do exist however.  The boards appear to be made out of high quality French walnut or mahogany.  Van Severdonck used predominantly three board sizes and was consistent with these sizes throughout his career, the back of the boards are always beveled towards the edges.

Frans Van Severdonck, 1833 - Chickens, rooster and ducks - in period original wooden carved frame (Photograph by Anthony Vanderlinden, courtesy of Ruth Howard Collection) 

Frans Van Severdonck, 1833 - Chickens, rooster and ducks - note the North Sea in the distant background and the attention to detail like the dove flying over the hay barn.  The usual Van Severdonck duck with his mate is in the bottom right corner. (Photograph by Anthony Vanderlinden, courtesy of Ruth Howard Collection) 

Humor, Appreciation, and Growing Popularity   

Many art collectors know little about his paintings but are taken by its detail and realism.  These are usually random discoveries like at an auction, which often lead to interest and the beginning of a collection.  Van Severdonck paintings have gained increasing popularity and recognition, especially in Germany and the United States where prices have climbed significantly in past years.    

Van Severdonck had a sense of humor which is incorporated in most paintings. This can often be seen in the facial expressions of the animals, and the comical ducks that most often are featured in a lower corner.  The expressive ducks (and ducklings) are almost a signature of Van Severdonck’s work.  Collectors of Van Severdonck’s work enjoy the small nuances in his works as well as the humoristic expressions. “You can always see something new when looking at a painting” and “it always puts a smile on my face” are common ways many collectors talk about his work.  Many are committed life time collectors who rarely sell a piece.

Lately some of Van Severdonck’s works have been commercialized with modern printing on posters, canvasses, and even shower curtains.         

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (not really)

Frans Van Severdonck signed and dated his paintings at the bottom (usually left or center left) of the scene.  He used the rear of the board to paint a statement or certificate of originality.  These small statements were usually in French or English and described the scene. Less common are descriptions of who the buyer was and if the painting was commissioned.  The signed statement certified that he was the original painter.  This practice makes us believe that at the time, Van Severdonck was dealing with painters who copied his work.  This can be asserted by period paintings that are signed “Van Severdonck” but are clearly not Francois Van Severdonck’s work.  These period copies are very obvious as they always lack the detail we recognize as original.

The relationship, if any, between Frans and Joseph van Severdonck is not known.  These are two distinctively different artists.

Frans Van Severdonck, 1880 - Sheep and lambs - note the village depicted in the distant background. This is a very typical Van Severdonck scene.  The usual duck with his mate is in the bottom right corner. (Photograph by Anthony Vanderlinden, courtesy of Ruth Howard Collection) 

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