The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
That well-known opening line from L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between sits well with these Autochromes by artist and photographer Alfonse Van Besten (1865-1926) taken in the years leading up to the First World War. Looking at these beautiful idealized portraits of people working and playing in the tranquil Belgian countryside it is hard to imagine the bloody slaughter about to unfold on these “Flanders Fields.” They are like a glimpse of a man-made paradise before the Fall.
Van Besten was an early adopter of the LumiĂ¨re brothers’ photographic process by which color was replicated through compressed pieces of dyed starch. His portraits are painterly—superbly composed and artfully created—with a sense of spectacle and drama. The majority of pictures show a wealthy middle and upper class at play—but as can be seen Van Besten was equally adept at capturing the working lives of the poor with a fine eye for detail and group composition.
The artist and photographer Alfonse Van Besten painting in his garden circa 1910.
‘Musing’—The photographer’s wife Josephine Arnz circa 1910.
Men in civic and military clothes, ca. 1911.
Children at play ca. 1912.
Women washing and bleaching clothes ca. 1912.
Farmers on a cart ca. 1912.
Unloading a barge at Brugge ca. 1912.
Two girls picking cornflowers ca. 1912.
‘Young girl among marguerites’ ca. 1912.
‘Symphony in White’ ca. 1912.
‘Modesty’ ca 1912.
‘Innocence’ ca. 1912.
Group ‘Antique Composition’ ca. 1912.
‘Ancient Times’ ca. 1912.
‘Nero playing the Harp’ ca. 1912.
‘Grecian Times’ ca. 1912.
‘Pierrot in Love’ #1 ca. 1912.
‘Pierrot in Love’ #2 ca. 1912.
Winter scene in park ca. 1912.
Dahlias ca. 1913.
‘The Shepherd’s Boy’ ca. 1913.
‘Japanesque’ ca. 1913.
A windmill at twilight ca. 1913.
‘Still Life with Brown Fruit’ ca. 1913.
A view of the garden ca. 1914.