Spilliaert was born in Ostend, the oldest of seven children of Léonard-Hubert Spilliaert, who was a perfumer, and Léonie (née Jonckheere). From childhood, he displayed an interest in art and drawing. A prolific doodler and autodidact, he was predominantly a self-taught artist. Sickly and reclusive, he spent most of his youth sketching scenes of ordinary life and the Belgian countryside. When he was 21, he went to work in Brussels for Edmond Deman, a publisher of the works of symbolist writers, which Spilliaert was to illustrate. He especially admired the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
Watercolor, gouache, pastel, and charcoal—often in combination—were the means by which he produced many of his best works, among which are a number of monochrome self-portraits executed in the early years of the twentieth century. Spilliaert’s expressive use of black finds parallels in the work of Odilon Redon, who was a significant influence. Frequently depicting a lone figure in a dreamlike space, Spilliaert’s paintings convey a sense of melancholy and silence.
His later work shows a concentration on seascapes. He died on 23 November 1946 in Brussels.
Among the best-known works of Léon Spilliaert are the images “Digue la nuit” and “Clair de Lune et Lumières”. Both works are in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Most of Spilliaert’s works are marked by an oppressive alien and elegiac atmosphere. In “Digue la nuit” (1908), the painter removes any naturalistic characteristics of the landscape depicted in the image and creates a stylization in which the location, that serves as a template, is redesigned to become the mirror of a state of mind. Solitude, mystery, and hallucination are suggested by the landscape.
In “Clair de Lune et Lumières” (c. 1909), the colonnade and arcades of the façade of the Kursaal ballroom on the seawall in Ostend served Spilliaert as a basis for the composition of an urban landscape. In this pastel painting he catches the eerie transformation of the architecture at night and the strangeness that comes from artificial lighting. With its cosmic, metaphysical traits “Clair de Lune et Lumières” reveals the influence of Van Gogh, and is reminiscent of “Starry Night”.
In the period 1902–1909 Spilliaert concentrated on creating complex, profound self-portraits of introspective nature. His self-portrait of 1903 (Portrait de l’artiste par lui-même) is a dramatic self-presentation with ghostly apparitions in the background and a wry face in three-quarter pose. This image can be identified as a prototype for the three-quarter-portraits Spilliaert created later.
This short, evocative film is a great introduction to his work, some examples of which I’ve added below.