Emile Claus (September 27, 1849–June 14, 1924) was a Belgian painter. Emile Claus was born on September 27, 1849, in Sint-Eloois-Vijve, a village in West-Flanders (Belgium), at the banks of the river Lys. Emile was the twelfth child in a family of thirteen. Father Alexander was a grocer-publican and for some time town councillor. Mother Celestine Verbauwhede came from a Brabant skipper’s family and had her hands full with her offspring. As a child, little Emile already loved drawing and on Sunday went three kilometres on foot to the Academy of Waregem (the neighbouring town) to learn how to draw. He graduated from the Academy with a gold medal. Although father Claus allowed him to take drawing classes, he did not fancy an artist's career for his son. Instead, he sent Emile as a baker’s apprentice to Lille (France). Emile learned French there but the job of a baker clearly did not appeal to him. He also worked for some time with the Belgian Railways and as a representative in the flax trade. The urge to paint did not let go of Emile and he wrote a letter for help to the famous composer and musician Peter Benoit, who live in nearby Harelbeke and was an occasional visitor of the family. Only with some effort, Peter Benoit managed to convince father Claus to allow his son to train at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts. Claus did have to pay for his studies himself though. After graduating, he stayed to live in Antwerp. In 1883 Claus moved to cottage Zonneschijn (‘Sun shine’) in Astene, near Deinze (East-Flanders, Belgium), where he stayed until his death. From his living room, he enjoyed a beautiful view across the river Lys. The space and light of the country house clearly inspired him.
In 1882 Claus had completed Cock Fight in Flanders, portraying the dignitaries of Waregem, collected around a small arena with two fighting roosters. One of the dignitaries was the Waregem notary Eduard Dufaux. At the notary’s home, Emile got to know Eduard’s niece Charlotte Dufaux. They got married in 1886. Artistically, Claus soon prospered. As a celebrity, he became a friend of the family with amongst others the French sculptor Auguste Rodin and the naturalist Emile Zola, and with the Belgian novelists and poets Cyriel Buysse, Emile Verhaeren, Pol de Mont and Maurice Maeterlinck. He travelled around the world to attend exhibitions of his work. An important person in the life of Emile Claus was the lady painter Jenny Montigny. She followed master classes at his workshop in Astene and for years travelled back and forth between Ghent and Astene. Although Claus was 26 years older than her, they began a relationship that would last until Claus' death. The First World War interrupted Claus’ international success. He fled to London where he found a house and workshop at the banks of the river Thames. He returned in 1918. On June 14, 1924, Claus died at Astene. His last words were: “Bloemen, bloemen, bloemen …” (‘Flowers, flowers, flowers’). The day before his death, he had painted a pastel of a bouquet of flowers, sent to him by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Claus is buried in his own garden in Astene. From 1869 to 1874, Claus trained at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, amongst others with the landscape painter J. Jacobs. Already during his training, Claus attracted the attention of and found favour with the local upper middle class. In 1882 Claus completed Cock Fight in Flanders. At its first exhibition in Antwerp, it was a sensation. He also won a gold medal with it at the Paris Salon. It was his great breakthrough. Artistically, Claus soon prospered. The Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts bought one of his works and the well known painting The Picknick (1887), which shows a farmer’s family watching the Sunday outing of the urban bourgeoisie on the opposite bank of a small river (the Lys), was bought by the Belgian Royal Family. Under the influence of Claude Monet, he developed a style that has been characterized as luminism. In 1904, he started the artist group Vie et Lumière ('life and light'). In 1918, at his return from London after World War I, Claus' fame had diminished by the arrival of expressionism. He was given a last survey exhibition in Brussels in 1921, where especially his London works (showing the city and the river Thames) made an impression.