He restored works by Rubens, Paul Delvaux, Jordaens, Ensor and Manet and still uses the ancient techniques of the old masters. The artist Jef Seynaeve (77) lives for his art, but today only chooses new work.
He is a bit heavy on his feet, but even as we walk arm in arm towards Mercator, the gracious and unassuming Jef Seynaeve talks about art and artists, especially the great masters. And it has its reasons, as will become clear from our conversation. A sweet man, but above all a gifted artist with an incredible career behind him. Interested in many things, he even briefly followed the restoration of Mercator. “It was also a bit of art,” he says. “The craft is a true work of art, isn’t it?”
Where does the passion for art come from, Jef?
“It is clearly in the genes. My grandparents and great-grandparents were sculptors. My father was an ebenist, that is, a cabinetmaker specializing in marquetry, an art in itself. I started drawing when I was five. My father even had to hide my pencils and paper because at one point I did nothing else. At the OLV college in Ostend, teacher Michel Verstraete encouraged me to paint. He had noticed even then that I was good at it. “Give him water and paint so he can paint,” he said to my father, what is music in that boy.
“In all my works I also put a message”
Did you have an art education afterwards?
“Yes, and I was very happy about that. My father allowed me to attend the Humanist Art Academy in Bruges for three years, provided I passed. So it turned out to be no problem. Later I went to Sint-Lucas in Ghent for three years, where I graduated in 1969 in the direction of monumental art. Later, I myself taught at the same school.”
You have always been passionate about the work of the old masters. Has this got you interested in restoration techniques?
“Absolutely. My passion for the greats like Van Eyck and Rubens is boundless. To master the restoration technique, I followed a course at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels (KIK). In the early 1970s I started working there as restorer. At that time I had already studied the techniques of the old masters, and I still use that knowledge in my current works. Restoring a Rubens masterpiece with your face barely a foot away does something to a person. I worked there on his ‘ The Adoration of the Shepherds’, but also on paintings by Jordaens, Ensor, Permeke and Delvaux. At that time I restored Delvaux’s famous work ‘The Iron Age’. There was a bullet hole in it. I also don’t think you should go too far in the restoration. It can’t you’re supposed to add new elements to it. For example, if a hand is faded in a painting, the owner will ask to repaint it. It’s simply not possible.”
Who is Jef Seynaeve?
Jozef – Jef – Seynaeve was born on 20 May 1945 in Ostend and married Greta Famaey from Diksmuide in 1977. Together they have 3 children and 9 grandchildren. The daughter Herlinde is also a talented artist.
Education and career
Jef went to primary school at the OLV-College in Ostend and then went to the Royal Athenaeum. This was followed by six years of art education: in Bruges and Ghent. In April 1970 Jef started working at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels (KIK). In the early 1980s, Jef started as a teacher at Sint-Lucas in Ghent.
You also use the techniques of the old masters such as Van Eyck and Rubens in your own paintings. How does it work?
“I work on both canvas and wooden panels, and they are prepared as they were done in the 17th century. The same with paint: to restore a painting, knowledge of old techniques is indispensable. Back then in Amsterdam, for example, I did scientific research into old pigments and binders. We succeeded in developing a white lead that is very close to the pigment that Rubens used to create the spark in his paintings. By the way, I make all my dyes in a way that was done back then.”
But you told me that the days of restoration are behind you. Why?
“Yes. I decided that when I was 65. From then on, I chose to create only my own work, a conscious choice by the way. I’ve worked enough on other people’s paintings. It was time to go another way. Although, even during my restoration years, I never stopped making my own creations. I also make sculptures, among other things in marble.”
In other words: the passion does not die out, on the contrary.
“I work with my art every day. I just can’t resist. All my works also contain a message. For example, I recently made an ode to Vincent Van Gogh with a work depicting hundreds of sunflowers. I also have an extensive library of art books, where I read a lot and discover many novelties.”
And what does your wife Greta say about that?
“Greta has been my unconditional support and rock throughout my career. I am very grateful to her for that. She still plays an indispensable role in my artistic life, art lover that she is.”
What will the future bring? Will there be more exhibitions?
“Who knows? There really is no end to my creativity. We’ll see what the future holds.”