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Born in Dinant, Belgium from a relatively poor family, Antoine Wiertz entered the Antwerp art academy in 1820.
Thanks to his protector, a member of the Second Chamber of the States-General, King William the First of the Netherlands awarded an annual stipend to Wiertz from 1821 onward. Between November 1829 and May 1832, he stayed in Paris, where he studied the old masters at the Louvre.
In 1828, Wiertz took part in the Grand Concours, also known as Concours de Rome, but came out only second. He landed the prestigious Prix de Rome only at his second attempt in 1832, which enabled him to go to Rome, where he resided until February 1837.
During his stay in Rome, Wiertz worked on his first great work, "Greeks and Trojans fighting for the body of Patrocles," on a subject borrowed from Homer's Iliad. It was exhibited in Antwerp in 1837, where it met with some success. Wiertz submitted the work for the Paris Salon of 1838, but it arrived too late and was refused.
At the Paris Salon of 1839, Wiertz showed not only his Patrocles, but also three other works. Badly hung and lit, his entry elicited indifference on the part of the public, and provoked sarcasm among the critics. This second humiliation led to a profound rancour against art critics and against Paris.
After the Paris disaster, Wiertz veered more and more to the excessive. A fine example is the monumental La Chute des Anges rebelles ("The Fall of the rebellious Angels", 1841), on an arched canvas of 11.53m by 7.93m.
The death of his mother in 1844 was a terrible blow to the artist. He left Liège in 1845 to settle in Brussels for good. During this period he painted a confrontation of Beauty and Death, Deux jeunes filles — La Belle Rosine (1847), which remains perhaps his most famous work.
Influenced mainly by Rubens and the late Michelangelo, Wiertz' painting often moves between classical academism and lurid romanticism. His pictorial language preannounced symbolism and a certain kind of surrealism.
Wiertz was also a fine portrait painter, who made self-portraits at various ages. As a sculptor, he produced his most important project towards the end of his life: a series of plasters representing "The Four Ages of Humanity", reproduced in marble for the Wiertz museum by Auguste Franck.
Wiertz died in his studio. His remains were embalmed in accordance with Ancient Egyptian burial rites and buried in a vault in the municipal cemetery of Ixelles.
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