In the middle of Antwerp's pleasant 'Zuid' (South) quarter lies the largest Museum of Fine Arts in Flanders. The famous 19th-century museum building is celebrating its 120th anniversary in 2010. Here is a brief look back at the origins of this temple of art.
In the second half of the 19th century, Antwerp was bursting at the seams. With the demolition of the ramparts and a Spanish fortification south of the city centre, an area of land measuring 49 hectares became available for urban expansion. From 1875 onwards, the area would be developed into a brand-new district, complete with docks, a railway station, churches, a synagogue and a number of cultural buildings. At the centre of it all, a new museum would be constructed to replace the existing museum of the Academy. The Antwerp city council organised two design competitions and studied numerous examples of arts temples abroad. Construction work eventually got underway in 1883, under the leadership of the architects Jan Jacob Winders (1849-1936) and Frans Van Dijk (1853-1939). Seven years later, on 11 August 1890, the new museum opened its doors to the public.
An ambitious construction project
The architects had to take into account a whole range of aesthetic and practical requirements. The galleries had to be bright as well as fire resistant. The project had to include restoration workshops, a meeting room, calamity-proof cellars, a modern climate control system and storerooms. It was, in other words, an ambitious project for what was to be a state-of-the-art museum.
An eclectic architectural style
The new museum building combines various architectural styles. The façade, with its six Corinthian columns, has a very classical appearance. The imposing stairs leading to the entrance give the building the feel of a temple. The windows in the sidewalls provide ample daylight for the ground floor galleries, which were originally intended for graphic art and sculpture. The upper floor, with the Rubens room at its heart, was reserved for the collection. The monumental staircase between the floors is an exact copy of that in the old museum. The dimensions had to be identical, in order that it could accommodate the grand series of paintings by Nicaise De Keyser. The back of the building was inspired by the Flemish Renaissance style. The construction is adorned with sculptures representing various artists, disciplines and periods.