Mental Floss

The Orientalist: Jean-Francois Portaels

Andréa Fernandes

In honor of his 191st birthday, today's "Feel Art Again" features the Belgian painter Jean-Francois Portaels. A few facts about the "highly imaginative" artist who painted "The Rose Vendor" (left) and "Femme Orientale" (right):

1. Jean-Francois Portaels won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1842 (though it may have been 1841 or 1843). After studying in Rome, he traveled to Italy, Greece, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt, followed by Lebanon, Judea, Spain, Hungary, and Norway. He took inspiration for his exotic paintings from his 5-year trip.

2. The role of director of the Academy of Brussels was Portaels' dream. (He had studied at the school prior to winning the Grand Prix de Rome.) When he was unable to obtain the position, he opened his own private school. In 1878, he was finally appointed director of the Academy.

3. Through his role as director of the Academy, Portaels had a "great influence" on an entire generation of Belgian artists. His exotic paintings had started an Orientalist fashion in Belgium. For both these reasons, the writers of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica believed Portaels would fill a "high place"¦ in the history of contemporary Belgian art"¦" Yet today, Portaels is not as well known as some of his contemporaries and students; in fact, it's difficult to find information about him.

4. In 1881, Portaels served on a commission to investigate claims that Jan Van Beers overpainted photographs (used photographs as the basis for his paintings). The commission was formed by Van Beers himself after an unknown person scraped off the face of the young woman in his painting "La Sirène;" Van Beers felt it was the perfect opportunity to clear his name once and for all. The report issued by Portaels and the rest of the commission did indeed clear Van Beers' name.

Larger versions of "The Rose Vendor" and "Femme Orientale" are available. Fans should check out the collection of Portaels' work on Wikimedia. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.