The work of Marten Melsen presents a humorous picture of the life of the farmer in the countryside. Melsen painted and drew everyday existence on the polders: raw, uncultivated and primitive. He captured the vitality of the farmers in scenes of work and recreation, at the inn and the fairground. Melsen kept a certain distance, which led to some exaggeration of humour and irony. His work may be described as vivid, without ever portraying the country people as coarse or rough.
Melsen’s masterly work was done near the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, where Vincent van Gogh had painted his first farmers ten years previously, and can be placed in the context of nineteenth-century social realism. His work is also a manifestation of naturalism, the late nineteenth-century cultural movement which, in both art and literature, reacted against both the academic Romanticism and the Symbolism of that time, and took nature as its underlying principle and its guiding light. Although his work is firmly rooted in the Dutch-Flemish painting tradition, it is not easy to attach Melsen’s original art to any particular school.
His work is always figurative and sometimes appears impressionist, without ever really being so. He influenced the Expressionists without himself ever being one. Even during his Luminist period he never came anywhere near Fauvism, unlike some of his fellow painter friends whose work evolved towards Brabant Fauvism. The most obvious element in Marten Melsen’s painting is an understanding humour. In the early days it even verged on caricature, but without ever overstepping the line. This empathic humour fundamentally distinguishes Melsen from such realists as Eugene Laermans and Jakob Smits, to whom he appears most akin, and from most other European artists of his day.
Though Brussels educated, we are inclined to compare his not overly-studied work with schools of painters in the Netherlands, even though he himself never mentioned any Dutch influence and despite the fact that naturalism was not so common there. The fact that he was born half Belgian and half Dutch may of course have something to do with it. The way Melsen handled this subject places him somewhere between the Dutch painters of the Hague School and the Belgian painters, the former presenting a romanticised and idyllic but realist rendering, and the latter treating the subject in a more detailed, sometimes almost photographic and documentary style.
However, Melsen’s composition, technique and palette remain clearly related to the Belgian school.
Melsen was a child of his era, like so many other naturalist painters of the period from 1895 to 1914, including the Latem School: they liked painting in the open air – at a time of great industrialisation and urbanisation, what was seen as the authentic and honest life of country people was a great attraction to many artists, who went out into their environment to paint them. These same painters also occasionally made use of what was then the new technique of photography in the creation of their modern art. Though he was inspired by and friends with many of the notable minds of the day, Marten Melsen’s art always remained original, pure and unique. It is a ‘hidden treasure’ of modern art from the Low Countries.