Charles Leirens

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Charles Leirens (March 4, 1888 – April 11, 1963) was a Belgian photographer and musician.

Early life and career[edit]

Charles Leirens was born on March 4, 1888 in Ghent, Belgium where he undertook his primary and secondary education. Also in Ghent he received his musical education as a pianist and, at the age of 8, started giving concerts in public. He studied law at the University of Ghent for two years while also studying counterpoint and harmony and began to compose music. He married and lived in Brussels where he had a son.


During the First World War Leirens worked for the Belgian services in London and in 1919 became the secretary of Fondation Universitaire, after which he abandoned musical composition. In 1928 he was the first Director-General of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, and organized exhibitions, conferences, events, all considered very brilliant, but too expensive.[1] He had had to leave the post, as the Palais was now consigning its activities to specialized auxiliary companies. By creating La Maison d’Art in December 1933 and initiating a vital program of concerts, lectures, exhibitions, Leirens had addressed those who perceived the Société Philharmonic, for example, as risk-averse and relying too exclusively on international superstars and populist works.[1] During this period also, he founded, with Stanislas Dotremont and Jean Absil,[2] the Revue Internationale de Musique (1936–1952),[3] of which he was the first editor.

Portrait photography[edit]

In the course of his directorial work Leirens met great artists, writers and musicians,[4] and following the example of prominent German photographers, was inspired to make photographic portraits of them, for which he used a Rolleiflex and first published them in 1936.[5] Over his career subjects were to include Jacob Epstein (1929), Roger Fry (1933), August Vermeylen (1934), Andre Gide (1935), Colette (1935 and 1950), François Mauriac (1935, 1957),[6] James Ensor (1933), Paul Valéry (1934),[7] Osip Zadkine (1935), Aristide Maillol (1935), Béla Bartók (1944),[8] Henry Moore (1946), Marc Chagall (1948, 1952), Gaby Casadesus (1950),[9] Jean Cocteau (1957), Charles Leplae (1958), Paul Delvaux (1958), Andre Malraux (1958), Gaston Bachelard (1958),[10] Eugène Ionesco (1958), Franz Hellens (1960), René Magritte (1960)[11][12]

WW2 in America[edit]

With the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1940 Leirens was invited by the New School for Social Research, New York, to give courses in photography and musicology.[13] On the way his ship was stopped at Trinidad resulting in a stay of eleven months, during which he devoted himself to music and photography, and held his first exhibition there.

From 1941 in New York at the Belgian Information Centre[14] he gave courses and writes a books on Belgian music[15][16] and on Belgian folklore,[17] for the Centre and while there is influential on American photographer Erich Hartmann. From October 11 to 23, 1943 at Bignou Gallery an exhibition is held, and catalogue published, of his portraits of prominent Europeans[18]

1945, the war over, he traveled to Puerto Rico, then Morocco, making photos that included one, in Morocco in 1948, of children playing house amongst stones they had arranged on the street. It was chosen by curator Edward Steichen for the world-touring Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man that was seen by 9 million visitors.[19]

Return to Belgium[edit]

Returning to Belgium in 1952 Leirens married Virginia Haggard (McNeill) the daughter of a British diplomat, and previously the wife of painter John McNeill, whom Leirens met with Marc Chagall with whom she had lived for seven years,[20] and mother of their son, the actor David McNeil (born June 22, 1946); within three months Chagall had married his housekeeper, Valentina Brodsky[21] and the six-year old David went to live with his mother and step-father. During this time Leirens resided in Paris while also working in Belgium and made an extensive series of portraits of writers, artists and musicians for the Archives of the Ministry of Culture.

In 1954 Leirens health failed and he was an invalid for two years, nursed by his wife Virginia who also learned and maintained his photographic practice. Only gradually did he resume his actIve life, photographing his doctor Cauchoix in 1957. The following year he returned full-time to live in Brussels where he continued his concerts for the Maison d'Art as well as his photographic work, and mentoring his compatriot, the young Yves Auquier (1934-).[22] He fell ill again in 1963 and died that year on April 11.



  • 1941 La Trinite, Antilles
  • 1943 Bignou Gallery, New York
  • 1946 Palais des Beaux-Arts, Bruxelles
  • 1949 New School for Social Research (USA)
  • 1952 Galerie Giroux, Bruxelles
  • 1953 Galerie Arnuad, Paris
  • 1958 Galerie du Cheval de Verre, Bruxelles
  • 1958 Venlo, Netherlands
  • 1959 Librairie des Editions Universelles (B)

Group exhibitions[edit]

  • 1955 The Family Of Man, MoMA, N.Y.
  • 1959 Groupe Photographie, Bibliotheque Royale, Bruxelles

Posthumous exhibitions[edit]

  • 1968 Librairie de la Jeune Parque, Belgium (solo)
  • 1974 Galerij Paule Pia, Antwerpen, Belgium (solo)
  • 1978 Foyer Culturel, Flobecq, Belgium (solo)
  • 1978 Palais des Beaux-Arts, Bruxelles, Belgium (solo)
  • 1978 Images Des Hommes, Credit Communal de Belgique (group)
  • 1979 Galerie et Fils, Bruxelles (solo)
  • 1984 Musee d'Ixelles, Bruxelles (solo)
  • 2005, 24 Jun – 18 Sep Belgische Fotografen 1840-2005 FotoMuseum Antwerp (FoMu), Waalse Kaai 47, 2000 Antwerp (group)
  • 2010, 24 Oct – 21 Nov Borders/No Borders, Kommunale Galerie Berlin Hohenzollerndamm 176 10713 Berlin (group)
  • 2012, September 27 to December 2 The intelligence of the gaze. Portraits of artists: 1933-1960, National Museum of Art of Romania (MNAR) (solo).
  • 2011, 4 Feb – 26 Mar Borders/No Borders: Avec des images de la collection du Musée de la Photographie à Charleroi. Centre Culturel Les Chiroux, place des Carmes 8, 4000 Liège. (group)
  • 2018 April 28–September 16 Entrechats, Musée de la Photographie, Avenue Paul Pastur 11, 6032 Charleroi, Belgium (group)



  • Leirens, C., & Poulet, R. (1936). 20 portraits d'artistes. Bruxelles: Editions de la Connaissance S.A.
  • Leirens, Charles; Belgium Information Center (New York, N.Y.) (1943), Belgian music, Belgian Information Center
  • Leirens, Charles (1947), Belgian folklore, Belgian Govt. Information Center
  • Jouffroy, A. (1997). L'atelier de Paul Delvaux. Gent: Snoeck-Ducaju.

Publications about Charles Leirens[edit]

  • Vausort, M. (1991). Charles Leirens: l'intelligence du regard. Musée de la photographie.


  1. ^ a b Wangermée, R. (1995). André Souris et le complexe d'Orphée: Entre surréalisme et musique sérielle. Liège: P. Mardaga.
  2. ^ Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique. (2007). Nouvelle biographie nationale: Tome 9. Bruxelles: Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique.
  3. ^ Huys, B. (1988). Belgian music periodicals; their national and international interest. Fontes Artis Musicae, 35(3), 179-184.
  4. ^ Karel, David (1992), Dictionnaire des artistes de langue française en Amérique du Nord : peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs, graveurs, photographes, et orfèvres, Musée du Québec : Presses de l'Université Laval, ISBN 978-2-7637-7235-6
  5. ^ Leirens, C., & Poulet, R. (1936). 20 portraits d'artistes. Bruxelles: Editions de la Connaissance S.A.
  6. ^ Philip Stratford writes of his 1957 meeting with Francois Mauriac and mentions Leirens portrait “ "There is something terrible in all that," he said much later, speaking about his life of writing and about the job of writing in general. And he meant this with every fibre of himself, and his face was like that portrait of him by Charles Leirens, bleak with sincerity and suffering…” Stratford, P. (1959). One Meeting with Mauriac. The Kenyon Review, 21(4), 611-622.
  7. ^ Darville, A. (2017). Médaille en hommage à Paul Valéry.
  8. ^ Piette, Isabelle (1987), Littérature et musique : contribution à une orientation théorique, (1970-1985), Presses universitaires de Namur, ISBN 978-2-87037-138-1
  9. ^ Kozinn, Allan. (1999). Gaby Casadesus, Pianist in Duo, Dies at 98.(The Arts/Cultural Desk)(Obituary). The New York Times, p. The New York Times, Nov 20, 1999.
  10. ^ Dans une lettre du 20 janvier 1960 que Fernand Verhesen m'a très aimablement communiquée, je trouve: «Mais il y a deux ans un photographe d'art, un homme très sympathique est venu chez moi prendre des clichés. C'est un Belge. ( ... ) Cet homme plein d'esprit, d'une grande culture littéraire m'a beaucoup plu. ( ... ) Il s'agit du grand portraitiste Charles Leirens. Combien d'autres vivifiantes rencontres d'artistes à retrouver? (In a letter of 20 January 1960 that Fernand Verhesen very kindly communicated to me, I find: "But two years ago an art photographer, a very nice man came to my house to take pictures. He is a Belgian. (...) This man full of spirit, of a great literary culture I liked very much. (...) This is the great portraitist Charles Leirens. How many other invigorating artist might one encounter?) quoted in Voisin, M. (1984). Bachelard et les Lettres françaises de Belgique. Revue De Littérature Comparée, 58(2), 197.
  11. ^ Roegiers, Patrick; Polizzotti, Mark (2005), Magritte and photography, Lund Humphries, p. 160, ISBN 978-0-85331-933-7
  12. ^ Magritte, R., & Ollinger-Zinque, G. (Eds.). (2005). Magritte in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Ludion.
  13. ^ Jennings, E. (2002). Last Exit from Vichy France: The Martinique Escape Route and the Ambiguities of Emigration *. The Journal of Modern History, 74(2), 289-324.
  14. ^ New Personnel. (1947). College Art Journal, 7(1), 43-50.
  15. ^ Leirens, Charles; Belgium Information Center (New York, N.Y.) (1943), Belgian music, Belgian Information Center
  16. ^ The Once Over. (1947). Books Abroad, 21(1), 109-122.
  17. ^ Leirens, Charles (1947), Belgian folklore, Belgian Govt. Information Center
  18. ^ Leirens, C. (1943). Photographic portraits of prominent europeans by Charles Leirens under the auspices of the Belgian Information Center: New York, Bignou Gallery, 11.10. - 23.10.1943. New York
  19. ^ Steichen, Edward; Steichen, Edward, 1879-1973, (organizer.); Sandburg, Carl, 1878-1967, (writer of foreword.); Norman, Dorothy, 1905-1997, (writer of added text.); Lionni, Leo, 1910-1999, (book designer.); Mason, Jerry, (editor.); Stoller, Ezra, (photographer.); Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) (1955). The family of man : the photographic exhibition. Published for the Museum of Modern Art by Simon and Schuster in collaboration with the Maco Magazine Corporation.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  20. ^ Haggard, Virginia (1987), My life with Chagall : seven years of plenty, Hale, ISBN 978-0-7090-3165-9
  21. ^ Archer, M. (2008). WEEKEND JOURNAL; Books -- Review: Shtetl Moderne; A painter's rise from rural Russia to the pantheon of 20th-century art. Wall Street Journal, p. W.8.
  22. ^ Centre régional de la photographie Nord–Pas-de-Calais, Press release for the exhibition Yves Auquier/Jean Marquis: C’est Clair at the Centre régional de la photographie Nord–Pas-de-Calais Place des Nations 59282 Douchy-les-Mines February 28–April 12 2015