Joseph van Lerius: Portrait of Henriette van den Bergh, 1857.

She was born 1838, the daughter of Jan van den Bergh, an Antwerp alderman, senator and businessman. In 1857, she married Emil Mayer, a native of Cologne who had moved to Antwerp and worked his way up to become one of the wealthiest and most important businessmen in the city. The couple’s oldest son, Fritz, born in 1858, started accumulating an art collection after Emil Mayer died in 1879, leaving the family business to his brother Oscar. Fritz died in 1901, only forty-three, as the result of a riding accident. His mother commissioned the famous Antwerp architect Joseph Hertogs to build a museum next to the family residence on the corner of Arenbergstraat to house the immense collection.

Joseph van Lerius

His full name was Joseph Henri François van Lerius (in French) or Joseph Hendrik Frans van Lerius (in Flemish). He was Flemish, born in the little town of Boom not far from Antwerp, on November 23, 1823. It seems that he never spelled his first name Jozef, as you will find it in modern Dutch texts.

He first studied drawing at the academy at Brussels in 1838/39 and was then admitted to the academy at Antwerp, as a student of Gustave Wappers. He graduated in 1844 and began making a living as a portraitist. Probably the greatest success of his early career was a scene from the then immensely popular Paul et Virginie. Engraved by Joseph Franck, it enjoyed a wide circulation.


In 1852 he traveled to Italy. In the same year, Queen Victoria bought his Firstborn, now on display in Windsor Castle but unfortunately not on the collection’s website. In 1854, only thirty years old, he was called to the Antwerp academy as a teacher. Gustave Wappers had retired and settled in Paris, and for about a year, Lawrence Alma-Tadema was van Lerius’ student.

So far, van Lerius had exhibited in Antwerp only. His international breakthrough came with Virtue Triumphant in 1864. J.J. Guiffrey, who visited the exhibition for the Gazette des Beaux Arts, wrote an enthusiastic review, suggesting the artist would be very well received in Paris. He was, indeed, when he exhibited the painting there the next year.


It may have contributed to his success that he kept a fine balance between titillation and morality, with a good portion of melodrama thrown in. Among the few of his paintings that can be found on the web there is not a single nude, but several show a young woman “barely covered with a poor, half-torn shift” or just wrapped in a sheet, often in some sort of adversity, but, if necessary, willing to kill or die for their honor.

In 1875, van Lerius showed the first signs of meringitis. He died on February 29, 1876, in Mechelen, where he was treated, fifty-three years old. There were rumors that he killed himself for one of his models. The “the painter of women” supposedly had a tumultuous love life. He received a state burial. In 1936 his remains were transferred to the Schoonselhof.