The work of the painter Léon Dardenne

The painter Léon Dardenne (1865-1912) was recruited for the scientific mission of Katanga (1898-1900) which was directed by Charles Lemaire. His task was to produce graphic documentation which had to be descriptive and objective. The artist’s temperament, however, was nonetheless evident is his work. His know-how and production complement that of the photographer François Michel (1855-1932). The RMCA has most of the works produced by Léon Dardenne during this expedition.

The works include representations of fauna, flora, landscapes, villages, scenes of social life and portraits. Botanical and zoological depictions are brought together in an album which is appreciated for its accuracy. The collection also contains caricatures published by the periodical Le Petit Bleu and satirical drawings about the exploitation of natural resources, made after the expedition to Katanga. The artist defended the Congo Free State in the context of the international campaign against the exploitation of rubber and its violent excesses.

Dardenne's interest in the social and cultural aspects shine through in his iconography and even more in the notes which are preserved by his family. In defiance of the typical prejudices of his time, he showed respect for local traditions, for the solidarity, and he took much interest in dances and local techniques. He painted portraits of Katanga dignitaries and represented the mnemonic performances of the Mbudye society.

The analysis of his pictorial art shows that he had difficulty mastering the strong light of the regions through which he travelled. His landscapes transform according to the seasons. The rainy season is dominated by the green vegetation, whereas the dry season is rendered by more pale light. His graphic work provoked fascination among the local communities, but it also aroused suspicion.

Sabine Cornelis
Couttenier, M. 2005. Congo tentoongesteld. Een geschiedenis van de Belgische antropologie en het museum van Tervuren (1882-1925). Leuven/ Voorburg : Acco.
Bompuku Eyenga-Cornelis, S. 2003. ‘Les peintres naturalistes belges au Congo (1886-1900)’, In Guisset, J. (ed.). Le Congo et l’Art belge 1880-1960. Tournai : La Renaissance du Livre, pp. 90-109.
Cornelis, S. 1994-1995. ‘Léon Dardenne et la mission scientifique du Katanga, 1898-1900’, In Regards d’artistes. La palette et la plume au Congo 1880-1914 II, Thèse de doctorat inédite, Louvain-la-Neuve : UCL, pp. 186-245.
Devroey, E.-J. & Neuhuys-Nisse, C. 1965. Léon Dardenne 1865-1912. Peintre de la mission scientifique du Katanga (1898-1900). Tervuren : Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale.