Constant Permeke (*1886 Antwerp, BE | †1952 Ostend, BE) was a Belgian expressionist painter and sculptor and was seen as an important representative of Flemish expressionism. His subject matter was inspired by the working classes and landscapes, in particular seascapes and fishermen.
Constant Permeke was born in Antwerp on 31st July 1886. His mother was a puritan and a very pious bourgeoisie, while his father Henri-Louis was a native of Poperighe and had a merry and adventurous temper. Both characters formed a synthesis in Permeke and determined his later sense of the mystical and simplicity on the one hand and of the exuberant and baroque on the other. His father was a painter, educated in the tradition of Post-Impressionism and Luminism. He mainly painted landscapes. As a result of Henri-Louis' desire for expansion, the Permekes went out to sea in 1891 on their own boat, Artis Amor, and moored in Ostend in 1892. This confrontation with the North Sea made a strong impression on Permeke and led to an enormous love for the sea in all its variations, energy, and impulses.
Once arrived in Ostend, his father became curator of the Municipal Art Museum, where his principal task consisted in the restoring of paintings. While following classes at the boy’s school, Permeke got his first art education from his father. At the museum, he was confronted daily with classic paintings and the technical achievements of his father. After the municipal public school, Permeke studied at the Academies in Bruges and Ghent. His early interest was in Impressionism and the styles that developed from it, including the luminist works of the Flemish 'painter of light' Emile Claus, at that moment considered by many—including Permeke – as the renovator of Flemish painting. The works from that period were made in the 'stripe and point' technique of Post-Impressionism, but more expressive and courageous than his earliest works and in flexible compositions. When he lived in Ghent, from 1906 he became friends with Frits Van den Berghe and Gust and Leon De Smet. They lived in 'het Patershol', an artist's hamlet in a ruinous monastery.
Attracted by nature, the group of artists moved to the village of St.-Martens-Lathem. Here, Permeke showed interest in the work of Albert Servaes, his fellow-student at the Ghent Academy. At that time, Servaes could already be considered as the father of Flemish Expressionism. His works made a great impression on Permeke because of the heavy touch and treatment of paint, which he soon began to see as a way of expression for his own feelings.
In 1912, Permeke married Maria Delaera, a lace worker from Bruges. They went to live in the Lighthouse-district in Ostend. The poor people of this working-class quarter, especially the fishermen, became a beloved subject in Permeke's work. Affected by the poverty and misery he said: “I was above all touched by their spirit, their eternal and general character, I grew into them.” This declaration explained the essence of his art: to personify oneself with something, and then make a timeless synthesis of it. The paintings of that period were heavily constructed and composed. The colors were dull with only occasionally a burning red or a cold yellow accent. He supported a desolate character in the paintings by making daring deformations. For Permeke, Expressionism was more an attitude towards life than a style in itself. His approach to art was instinctive. He aimed to make visible the “profoundly human”. Permeke had no equal when it came to depicting the hard life of the ordinary working people, from the fishermen of Ostend to the rural life of a peasant in Jabbeke.
In 1914, the First World War started, Permeke was seriously wounded in the defense of Duffel and was sent to England to convalesce. Joined by his wife, he saw out the war in the county of Devonshire. Here his tendency for expressionism, already shown in Ostend, came to full development. The human figure dominated these works and occupied the whole surface in a harmonious and orderly way. Attracted by the sea, he traveled to Sidmouth and Sidford in 1917. He was highly impressed by nature, by the far perspectives bordered by enormous elms or oaks. The human figure was wiped from his canvas; he only wanted to recreate this sparkling nature. So light received his full attention with a stunning warm coloration, where gold, yellow, ochre, and red were used in diverse tonalities. Such an explosion of color emerged only sporadically in the work of Permeke. The skyline of these English landscapes were very high and dome-shaped, influenced by the work of the English artist William Turner. On the contrary, his later landscapes created in Jabbeke would show a very low skyline.
In 1919, Permeke returned to Ostend with his wife and three children (all born in England). He found his house completely destroyed and was faced with the misery of the war. In his works, he showed the desolate area surrounding him. He used hard and angular lines and muddy colors with sometimes a rusty green touch on the background. In the 1920s, he painted seascapes and the human figure again dominated his drawings and paintings, which were very dark in tonality and heavily structured. He created a series of monumental charcoal drawings, with the fishermen as the principal subject. The angularity remained, but the general treatment of the heavy contours was rounded. These monumental figures can be seen as a precursor of his later sculptures.
In 1929 Permeke moved to Jabbeke, a village between Ostend and Bruges, and he increasingly turned to paint rural landscapes, farmers, and their families. Although he replaced the fishermen and the sea with the farmer and the earth, the essence of his work remained identical. The locals were catching his attention and the intimate 'primal bond' that these people maintained with nature, the land, and the sea fascinated him. At the end of the 1930s, he began to make sculptures, in which he concentrated almost exclusively on the female nude. There was, however, no idealization of human beauty in these sculptures; the focus was instead on universal humanity.
In 1948, his wife died, and whose loss made a great impression on Permeke. He created several works with a strong mystical tendency. Permeke practically never traveled: he loved the sea and the rural surroundings and his greatest pleasure was to sail with his own ship on the canal to Ostend. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1951 Permeke traveled with the painter Maurice De Vlaminck to Brittany. During his stay, he did not do much painting, but once returned to Jabbeke he painted a fascinating series of landscapes from Brittany. A few months later, the disease that had undermined his health for a long time suddenly became acute. He died on January 8, 1952.
A large collection of Permeke’s works can be found in the Permeke Museum Ostend. Further works can be found at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede; Van AbbeMuseum, Eindhoven; and the Museum de Fundatie, Zwolle.