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Just Back: Capital of Art Nouveau Brussels 2023

We traveled to Brussels from Paris last week for “Capital of Art Nouveau Brussels 2023,” a yearlong celebration of Belgian Art Nouveau architecture with an extensive program of design exhibitions and events. We took the 8:25 a.m. Thalys train from Gard du Nord station and arrived at Brussels Midi station, an hour and twenty-two minutes later, at 9:47 a.m.

The five-star Le Louise Hotel Brussels – MGallery was a quick seven-minute taxi ride from the station and a perfect central location for us, since all the attractions we visited were less than 20 minutes by walking or by tram. We checked into room No. 608, a Superior Room measuring 260 square feet, with a super comfy king-sized bed, two plugs on both sides of the bed to connect our phones and computers, L’Occitane bath products and a great view of the city skyline. The hotel manager, Marion Aubry ([email protected]), warmly welcomed us at check-in in and she said she was at our disposal if we needed anything. The concierge service was excellent, and they were kind enough to print out our exhibition tickets and maps, as we had trouble getting service on our mobile phones. The nicest touch was a gift of a box of chocolates from Elisabeth, one of the top chocolate boutiques in Brussels.

Over the next two days, we visited three former mansions turned museums and two other Art Nouveau exhibitions.

Victor Horta was the founding father of Belgian Art Nouveau and in 1893; he completed work on the Tassel townhouse, his first major project, which eventually launched his career. He went on to design some of the most iconic Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels, including Hotel Solvay, Hotel Aubecq, Maison du Peuple (the headquarters for a worker’s political organization), Magasins Waucquez (a former department store that is now the Comic Book Center) and, finally, the Brussels Central Station, his longest project, which took 40 years to construct. 

Our first visit was to Hotel Solvay, which was down the street from our hotel. Armand Solvay, the son of industrialist Ernest Solvay, commissioned Horta to design a family home in 1894. With no expense spared, Horta spent eight years designing everything in the mansion from head to toe, including the building, the furniture, light fixtures and personally selecting the marble; plus, it was the first house in Belgium to have electricity.

The main floor of the house had perfunctory rooms such as the cloakroom, kitchen, bathroom and office. The gray and white marble staircase leading up to the second floor had flourishes of metal swirls and mahogany banisters and led to a large, Impressionist style painting by Belgian artist Theo Van Rysselberghe, followed by piece de la resistance, a magnificent, stained-glass awning, resembling butterfly wings, on the third floor.

The second floor had the reception rooms, including the dining room, salon/ smoking room, living room, music room and billiard room, all with most of the original furniture, artworks, rugs and hand-painted canvas lining the walls. In between the second and third floors, the winter garden room is encased in Tiffany-like stained glass, along with plush sofas and potted plants. The standout on the third floor is the master bedroom with wood-lined walls and a fabulous velvet chaise lounge with satin fringe on the edges.

In the late 1950s, the Art Nouveau style went out of fashion, and the Solvay family sold the house to two couturiers, Louis and Berthe Wittamer-De Camps, in 1958, where they set up their atelier and showroom. The house is still owned and maintained by the Wittamer family.

Tickets are timed for a 40-minute visit, and only 22 people are allowed per time slot. We were required to put a cover over our shoes, and we were only allowed to take photos during the last 10 minutes.

After a quick lunch break, we visited the Horta Museum—comprising his former home and workshop—n the Saint-Gilles quarter.

Horta purchased two plots of land and built his five-story workshop and home, side by side, with 21 rooms, from 1898 to 1901. The ground floor was where Horta’s workshop was, complete with simple furniture, bookcases, sculptures and his desk. In keeping with Horta’s signature architectural details, the house has a white marble staircase and surprisingly, stained glass windows imported from the United States. Besides the typical rooms of the time, such as the smoking room, salon, music room, family room, kitchen and boudoir, there was another series of unique rooms, a photo lab, a draftsman’s workshop and a sculpting studio.

Like Hotel Solvay, tickets are timed for a 40-minute visit, and only 15 people are allowed per time slot. Taking photos is prohibited.

That evening, we decided to extend the Art Nouveau experience and headed to Brasserie La Porteuse d’Eau, an Art Nouveau gem. While admiring the architecture of stained-glass windows, rich wood booths, painted murals and a handsome, winding stairway, we savored a classic carbonadde flamande (a Belgian beef stew cooked in beer) served with the famous Belgian double-fried frites.

The next morning, we visited two museums, located side by side in the Sablon district, next to Brussels Park.

The Fin-de-Siècle Museum is a separate museum inside the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (which has six other museums) and is dedicated to the early 1900s when Brussels was the capital city of Europe. The deceptively expansive museum (it covers the bottom four floors of the building) captures the essence of the rich period when culture and art thrived with sculptures, paintings, furniture, art objects, drawings, posters, photos and films.

The two bottom floors are focused on Art Nouveau with an exquisite display of furniture, lamps, and artworks of the most renowned architects, craftsmen and artists of the time, but the highlight was the incredible collection of colored vases, ornately decorated with leaves and flowers.

The BELvue Museum reveals the complicated history of Belgium from 1830, when Belgium was established as a nation, to the present. In collaboration with the Art Nouveau events around the city, the BELvue has curated a collection of Art Nouveau pieces from 10 of the most influential Belgian architects and designers of the period with everything from jewelry to art posters to furniture, ceramic tiles and book covers.

For the “grand finale” of our trip, that afternoon we went to Maison Hannon, another Art Nouveau beauty, in the Saint-Gilles neighborhood. More like a townhouse than a mansion, Maison Hannon was the home of Marie and Edouard Hannon, an engineer and photographer. It was conceived by their friend, architect Jules Brunfaut, and constructed between 1902 and 1904.

Entering the house, you pass through a pair of thick velvet curtains, leading into the foyer. Once past the foyer, the sweeping staircase takes your breath away with a three-story fresco, depicting the Hannons as shepherds, while below the staircase is an intricate, circular-shaped mosaic floor. A winter garden on the second floor is an airy room with white marble and mosaic tile floors and stained-glass panels by master glassmaker Raphael Evaldre, who studied under Louis Comfort Tiffany. Objects and furniture from some of the rooms have been removed and replaced with a temporary, Art Nouveau exhibition with works, some never seen by the public before, from some of the top designers, artists and sculptors of the time.

After the exhibition we explored the streets behind and near Maison Hannon, discovering more Art Nouveau houses. Below is a list of additional Art Nouveau sites and exhibits in Brussels:

  • Hotel Max Mallet
  • Maison Autrique
  • Hotel van Eetvelde
  • Les Magasin Wolfers
  • Maison Cauchie
  • Maison Tassel

Explore Brussels organizes Art Nouveau Masterpieces tours, with many of the places listed above.

Source: luxury travel advisor