The Family: 1866-1883
George Minne was born in Ghent on 30 August, 1866 as the son of Frédéric Auguste Minne and Emma Coralia Delphine Vankakerken. He is the second of four children. The Family lived in the Lange Violettestraat, close by the Klein Begijnhof. His father, was an architect, as George's one-year older brother Jules would also later become. The eldest of his two younger sisters, Emma, passed away in 1886 at the age of seventeen. Details of Minne's childhood years are especially scarce. For the most part, Minne has grim memories of his school time. The strict discipline ensured that early on the young boy was withdrawn into himself and that this enhanced his introverted nature. He drew a great deal, and after 1879 he left the primary school and went to the Academy of Fine Arts of Ghent, where he followed lessons of a general nature.
Training and Debut: 1883-1886
In 1883, George Minne enrolled himself for painting lessons at the Academy of Fine Arts of Ghent. George Minne's parents were not supportive of the artistic choice of their son. They preferred an architect's training, a profession that would offer more esteem and financial security. Initially, George Minne did follow architecture lessons under the duress of his father, but quite quickly it is clear for him that his avocation was elsewhere. Minne at first engaged in monumental art. The works that he produced, a seven-metre wide painting with the fall of the rebellious angels from 1884 and a monumental sculpture La souffrance humaine from 1885 have disappeared. It is rumoured of them to have been large, sweeping projects after the fashion of the 19th Century. During his student time he met Valerius De Saedeleer (1867-1941), which was the beginning of an enduring and close friendship between the two artists.
1886-1889: Development of an individual style and Literary Contacts
The year 1886 signaled a complete turnabout in Minne's oeuvre. He left the Academy and obtained a studio in the Patershol in the old centre of Ghent. A few images here emerged in various formats in which the artist developed an expressive language that stood far afield from the contemporary academic tradition: Men Fighting, Couple Entwined, and the masterpiece, Mother Grieving over her Dead Child. They are images from a simple and direct power of expression, in which he also implements a few motifs that he further explores in the following years. In 1888, the engaging image, Mourning Mother with two Children, appears as well as the like-named ink drawing (private collection).
The turning point in the work of the twenty-year old artist towards a more introspective art and a direct power of expression undoubtedly has to do with his friendship with the francophone Symbolist Ghent writers Charles Van Lerberghe (1861-1907), Grégoire Le Roy (1862-1941) and Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949). Primarily between Minne and Maeterlinck there existed a kindred-spirit communion and a mutual influence, so much that one art critic of the time even spoke of a ‘symmetrical talent.' Both artists were engaged with the mystic of the early Middle Ages. At the time, Maeterlinck is busy with a translation of the writings of Jan van Ruusbroec into French he gave recitations from this for his friends. What attracted them in the work of Ruusbroec is the spiritual comportment that simultaneously stood open for the sensual kingdom of the creation.
Minne took part for the first time in an exhibition at the Tri-Annual Salon of Ghent in 1889 with two images, of which was Small Injured Figure the first example in Minne's oeuvre of the solitary naked youth with spread legs. From this image he made a second version in 1898. From the same year of 1889, dates the image group of Man and Woman Kneeling, the first in a series of kneeling figures.
After a visit to the exhibition, Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) wrote in the leading art newspaper L'Art Moderne: "And then there are sculptured images of Mr. Minne, a debutant. It seems that at first they did not want to exhibit them: amongst all the banality praised by the blessing hands of the official jury, naturally they fall away from the show. He expresses youth, fortitude and power. Although they are tiny and tucked away on the floor, they still command attention... . He explores the plastic from simple, naïve and primitive movements, contrary to every convention and achievement, he shuns each pomposity and bombast, that are as if the rhetoric of the sculptural art and he concentrates on a special world full of melancholy and religion, like a medieval stone mason in whose footsteps he walks... . If people ever remember the Salon of Ghent, than it shall be thanks to him."
The following year in 1890, Minne exhibited in Brussels at Les XX, inter alia, Mother Grieving over her Dead Child (1886) and Mourning Mother with Two Children (1888, Brussels, KMSKB). The delicate, nearly primitive, moving images in plaster garnered strong critique from the conservative press. However, Minne found support from the progressive art critics such as Eugène Demolder and Grégoire Le Roy. They realised the originality and the rejuvenating power of Minne's images.
In the dramatic expression of the first images, a definite influence of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) is noticeable. Minne admired the powerful language of form of the French master and would have visited him in Paris in the hope of being admitted to his studio. According to reports, he allowed Rodin to see some photos of his work and he would, under the impression of the monumentality of Minne's small figures, have said that he could not further teach the young artist any more.
1890-1894/1895: Book Illustrations
In 1890, Minne took part in the seventh exposition of the Brussels' avant-garde art ring Les XX, amongst others with Mother Grieving over her Dead Child, Kneeling Man and Woman and Mourning Mother with two Children. The following year, he also showed three drawings at Les XX, amongst which was Mourning Mother from 1890 from the collection of Grégoire Le Roy. In 1892, he became a member of Les XX and until 1893 he participated each year in the expositions of the group. More and more he sought contact with the Brussels' art milieu. There, he regularly met Octave Maus (1856-1919), the driving force behind Les XX, Edmond Picard (1836-1924), also an influential figure in the Brussels art world and the Symbolist writer Emile Verhaeren.
Between 1890 and 1893, there are no known sculptures by Minne. In the period he applied himself to graphic work. With small-format woodcuts, he illustrated poetry collections and theatre work from his friends: Mon coeur pleure d'autrefois (1889) of Grégoire Le Roy and Serres Chaudes (1889) from Maeterlinck and Maeterlinck's theatre pieces La Princesse Maleine (1889) and Trois petits drames (1894). In 1895, he illuminated a publication of a poetry collection Les Villages illusoires by Emile Verhaeren. In addition, independent pencil drawings appeared, such as Mourning Mother from 1890 and Mother and Child, Lying in her Arms from ca. 1895.
In 1892, George Minne married Joséphine Destanberg (1869-?), daughter of the free-spirited Ghent writer Napoléon Destanberg and Lucie-Colette Vereecke. The relationship with his father, who strongly criticised his son's work, is in the meantime seriously deteriorated. Contrary to busied and pretentious display, Minne departed from the city in 1893 and settled with his wife in Zevergem, a village in the vicinity of Ghent, where their first son George was born. Minne engaged himself as a farmer to provide. The farming life, however, is not for him, and in 1894 he moved with his wife and child to Ghent (Oude Kerkweg, 6). The family lived in poverty and, in order to provide, the artist is compelled to make religious images in plaster and to model carnival carousel pediments. That year Paul, Minne's second son, was born. After a period of more than three years, Minnes begins anew to sculpt with religiously inspired pieces: Nun Praying and John the Baptist.
1895-1899: Brussels : A new enthusiasm
On 21 September 1895, Minne moved to Brussels and on 25 December, Minne's wife gave birth to the twins Marie and Agnes. Minne enrolled himself in the Academy for Fine Arts, which provided him a model. In 1896, the artist received a state allowance. Despite his precarious financial situation-moreover, he had to move various times and ultimately settled in a small villa in Vorst-and an attack of typhus, which nearly cost him his life, the Brussels' years were an exceptionally creative period for Minne. The Prodigal Son (1896), Man Grieving over a Dead Deer (1896), Man with a Waterskin (1897), Small Injured Figure (1898), and subsequent versions of kneeling youths, with as the epitome, his absolute masterpiece, Fountain with Kneeling Youths (1898), all came about from this period.
In Brussels he met Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957) and he arranged to go meet him in his Villa Bloemenwerf in Ukkel. There he met the sculptor Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) and the art critic and art nouveau expert Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935), who would play an important role in Minne's reputation abroad.
For the Partie Ouvrier Belge, Minne designed a monument in 1898 for Jean Volders, the socialist foreman who died in 1896. This is Minne's first project for a public space; however, his model was not accepted.
On 6 September 1898, Minne's fifth child, Marc, was born. That year an important article appeared in the newspaper Pan by Meier-Graefe about Minne under the title The Plastic Ornament. In 1899, Meier-Graefe opened the art nouveau gallerie La Maison Moderne in Paris. There he exhibited work by Minne in addition to Rodin and Meunier and produced an edition of the Small Injured Figure II from 1898, a version with its ornament fit in more with the art-nouveau aesthetic than the first version from 1889. Unlike Meunier, Minner received scant appreciation in France. However, in his own country the public valued his work. Thus, the Association des Ecrivains français gave him the assignment to design a memorial drawing for the francophone Ghent writer Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898). The first design from 1899 was, however, not carried out, and the definitive project was inaugurated only later in 1903 in the Saint Elisabeth Beguinage in Ghent. Meanwhile Minne, under the encouragement of Valerius De Saedeleer, moves to Sint-Martens-Latem in 1899, which is where, with the exception of the war years, he remained living until his death.
1900-1914: International Recognition
With the Fountain with Kneeling Youths, Minne established his name abroad, thanks to Van de Velde and Meier-Graefe, specifically in Austria and Germany. He first presented the Fountain with the five identical youths for exhibition in 1899 in Brussels at La Libre Esthéthique. After this, the work is to be seen in an altered form at the exhibitions in Vienna, Budapest and Venice. At the Wiener Secession of 1900, Minne is one of the main artists in the exhibition and in addition to the plaster model of The Fountain are also 12 sculptures by Minne to be seen, in plaster, marble, bronze and wood, in addition to one woodcut. With his delicate, inwardly turning youthful figures, Minne closely adhered to the Jugendstil and the art-nouveau aesthetic of the fin de siècle in Vienna. His influence on artists such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and later also on Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919) is unmistakable.
In the appreciation of Minne by the Viennese avant-garde, the Jewish mecenas and industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer played an important role. In addition to works by Klimt, Jan Toorop (1859-1928)and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), he possessed at the time the largest private collection of sculptures by Minne, plus a sketchbook of the artist. The sketchbook dates from ca. 1883-1888 and is now found in the Albertina in Vienna.
From 1900 on until World War I, Minne would be represented nearly annually at exhibitions in Germany: Berlin, Munich, Mannheim, Weimar and Dusseldorf. In leading, German newspapers such as Pan and Die Kunst, photos of his work appeared, through which his recognition abroad grew. With the help of Henry Van de Velde, the German industrial and mecenas Karl Ernst Osthaus gave Minne a project in 1900 for the Folkwang Museum in Hagen (now in the like-named Museum in Essen) to produce a marble version of the Fountain with Kneeling Youths. Between 1906 and 1909, moreover, Osthaus ordered three memorial monuments from Minne both for himself and for his family.
In 1904 Jeanne, the seventh child, and thee years later in 1907, Minne's last child, Frédéric were born. The projects and the honours abroad allowed for Minne to be in the position to build his own house in Sint-Martens-Laterm, with the so-called white house, Meerstraat 31. He made an adjacent farm and shed into a studio for the practitioners who cut his images in marble, stone or wood. Despite the success that now befell him, Minne doubted his art. He still tried, primarily in his memorial monuments, to engage in the stylised form of the kneeling youths, but his work no longer has the taut lines that originate from an inner power. He is aware of this himself as no other and resolutely turns to the path of a radical realism. He draws and models after a live model and even follows anatomy lessons at the University of Ghent. The images that appear between 1910 and 1914 were poured in the bronze foundry that he himself established in the Holstraat in Ghent and over which his oldest son, George, is in charge. In 1913-1914 Minne is the instructor in the life-drawing class at the Academy of Ghent. He receives the offer to teach at the Rijksacademie Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, but does not accept the position out of fear of not being able to adapt elsewhere.
1914-1919: Exile in Wales
At the outbreak of the First World War Minne fled, just as Gustave Van de Woestyne and Valerius De Saedeleer, with his family to Wales. During the four years of their stay-first for a short period in Aberystwyth, then later in Llanidloes-the family was cared for by the well-established, art-loving sisters Davies, who were engaged in the fate of the Belgian exiles and in particular of the Belgian artists. The relative rest that the family enjoyed in Wales was, however, overshadowed by the constant fear over the fate of the three eldest sons on the Belgian front. In these years Minne did not produce a single sculpture, primarily due to a lack of financial means to procure sculpting materials. Drawing is now his primary form of expression and the medium to conquer his frequently paralysing fear. Hundreds of drawings appear, mostly in charcoal on paper in various formats. Herein the same obsessive themes recur nearly exclusively: Mother and Child, Pietà, Waiting Woman, The Eucharist, and Christ on the Cross. Some 400 drawings-probably about the entirety of Minne's production in Wales-is purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts of Ghent in 1949 from the collection of Elie Burthoul.
1919-1941: The Interbellum
After the war, Minne gave lessons at the Academy of Ghent for a year. The fame that he had gained before the war in his own country has not diminished. In 1930, the first published monograph on him by Leo Van Puyvelde appears, supplemented with a catalog of his oeuvre. On 25 April 1931, Minne is given the title of baron. Various official projects, such as the Queen Astrid Memorial in Antwerp, were entrusted to him. Minne remained active as a sculptor and drawer. The theme of motherhood was repeated in many variations, but also religious presentation such as the Pietà and The Eucharist remained favourite subjects. In addition, Minne repeated a number of images from his earlier period: Mother Grieving over her Dead Child, Kneeling Youth, Fountain with Kneeling Youths and Woman Bathing. The late versions, however, are missing the austere line and expressive movement that so distinguished his work before 1900. With his late work, Minne fit in with the decorative art of the interbellum.
George Minne died on 18 February 1941 at the age of 74. A Woman and Child by his own hand adorns his grave in Sint-Martens-Latem. Also, in the same year a retrospective exhibition of his work was held in the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels.