Henri Joseph Thomas (1878-1972)

Henri Thomas was a Belgian genre, portrait and still life painter, sculptor and etcher. Born in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, he studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels from 1895 until 1898. On graduating he started a studio in Brussels, where he mainly worked as an illustrator of avant-garde books. His fine art practice centred on marine paintings, floral still lifes and portraits of elegant ladies. He initially launched his career with the exhibition of ‘Vénus de bar’ at the 1909 Prix Godecharle. This prize is still running today and aims to allow young talents, unknown before the award, to become recognized by a panel of experts made up of famous artists.

He exhibited publicly during the Belle Epoque at the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire in Brussels and the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was a member of the Labeur society for fine artists that organised annual expositions for its members in the Museum of Modern Arts in Brussels between 1898 and 1907. The Society was at the forefront of the Belgian avant-garde and its key members went on to form the group known as the ‘Brabant Fauvists’.

Thomas often depicted Belgian night life - scenes in bars and portraits of ladies - with the suggestion of decadence, temptation, adultery and prostitution in his subjects poses, that echoed his French contemporaries’ images of the demi-monde during the Parisian Fin de siècle. These paintings of elegant and voluptuous women date mainly from the Belle Époque and interbellum and show no small influence of the Belgian artistic giant of the period Félicien Rops.

He was also a successful book illustrator, as with his paintings he enjoyed depicting the racier side of Belgian society. In 1898, having barely graduated, he contributed forty illustrations to the gay-erotic book L'Homme-sirène by Louis Didier, who worked under the pseudonym Luis d'Herdy. In 1909 Thomas contributed an illustration to a collection of poems ‘Au claire de la dune’ by the influential art critic and poet Théo Hannon (1851-1916). Four years later Hannon commissioned him to illustrate his collection of erotic poems ‘La toison de Phryné’.

This delightful little portrait painting is a typical work by Thomas, many of his oils were on the smaller scale and the majority depicting the beautiful women he encountered in the Café Society around Brussels. We probably won’t know now whether this was a friend, lover or even a complete stranger sat at an adjoining table but through his painting he has left a permanent record of her beauty and personality for us to enjoy and some lucky collector to own!

Henri Joseph Thomas (1878-1972)

A Fin de siècle Beauty