A gem in northern France: Cassel and its museum
Le Carnet de France
Since 2012, one of the most popular programs on French television is entitled “Le Village préféré des Français” (the French people’s favorite village). It is hosted by Stéphane Bern, a very popular expert on French history and culture who presents colorful and appreciated television programs. During the first six months of the year, 13 to 20 villages all around France and in French overseas territories are selected, studied and filmed; by mid-June an online vote, open to everyone, is taken. One evening at the end of June, each village is presented through a seven-minute film about its history, topography, local costume and customs — and, not to be missed, their culinary specialties — and the winner is announced. It is a very interesting way for the viewers to discover French treasures and the countryside.
For the winners, the impact is significant as they claim a 30 percent increase in tourism after the show. This year, the village of Hunspach in Alsace won; Last year it was Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue in Normandy and, in 2018, Cassel in the north of France was elected.
Cassel is a very old village of about 3,000 inhabitants, located at the very northern end of France, 20 minutes’ drive from the Belgian border, a 40-minute drive northwest of Lille, two hours directly north of Paris, and an hour-and-a-half by Eurostar to London. Cassel is in a strip of France that was part of Flanders, under Spanish rule from 1579 to 1713, then under the Austrian Habsburgs until 1795-1815. Its rich history includes many battles between different cultures (French and Spanish), civilizations and religions (Catholic and Protestant). The Flemish cultural influence is still very prominent, and today, many local people speak Flemish in their daily lives (as well as French, of course).
The architecture of some of the façades in Cassel is magnificent, especially the Hôtel de la Noble-Cour built in the 16th century, classified as a historical monument, which now houses the Musée de Flandre.
The Musée de Flandre specializes in Flemish and Dutch art from the 15th century to today and its permanent collection shows some of the 6,000 works of art it owns. In another wing, it presents temporary exhibitions. This year, the museum once again caught the interest of the European art media with a very interesting and unique exhibit entitled “Sacrée Architecture! La Passion d’un collectionneur” (“Sacred Architecture! The Passion of a Collector”).
Interestingly, the collector and his wife have asked to remain anonymous. In 1970, while they were browsing through the streets of London’s Mayfair, the couple fell in admiration in front of a small painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Neefs the Elder of the interior of the Antwerp Cathedral. Pieter Neefs was born in Antwerp around 1578 and specialized in interiors of churches. [Just an anecdote — the collector had hoped to be an architect.] Since that chance moment in Mayfair, having searched the art world, the collectors’ collection has increased to 50 paintings. Given the quality and the high reputation of the Musée de Flandre, they thought it would be the perfect venue to share their passion and lend their collection for others to admire.
Other artists represented in the exhibit are Emmanuel de Witte (Alkmaar 1617–Amsterdam, 1692), Anton Gunther Ghering (1630-1668), and Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665), just to name a few. The paintings show wonderful stones and lines and incredible perspectives, but also people conducting different activities in the churches from masses or services, baptisms, funerals, chatting, praying, begging and more. (Not to be missed are the dogs in almost every painting). In them, 30 interiors have been recognized as specific churches and others are the artists’ creations based on their knowledge of these types of spaces. Some are in the Gothic style, others in the Romanesque style.
The hanging is spectacular. And, as mentioned earlier, the museum is also interested in living artists — therefore, inside two rooms you can admire the sculptures by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who is also interested in architecture and Gothic art.
Next year, February 13 to June 13, 2021 — when hopefully life will be normal again — the Musée de Flandre will present an exhibit concentrating on the “Dynastie Francken.” The first well-known artist in the family was Nicolaes Francken (c. 1520-1596) of Antwerp. Three of his sons were artists and his pupils and sons’ works will be shown in the exhibit. Frans Francken I (1542-1616) was a contemporary of Rubens. His two brothers were Hieronymus Francken I (c.1540-1610) and Ambrosius Francken I (1544 – 1618). Between the late 16th century and mid 17th century, they created many triptychs for churches, but Hieronymus I also became the appointed painter of the French royal family in 1594. The next generation of the family, including Frans Francken II (1581-1642) collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder. Many paintings will be lent by museums from other countries, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Beyond Cassel, the north of France has the greatest number of museums-per-square-kilometer of the whole country. The cities of Lille, Tourcoing, Arras, Saint-Omer, Amiens and many others are worth visiting for the art and, of course — for the history.
Martine P. Dulles lives in Tours, in the Loire valley of France. Martine was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston where they lived for 11 years. She now organizes bespoke guided tours in France. She may be reached at email@example.com.
[Top image: Hôtel de la Noble Cour, Musée de Flandre. Photo by Dominique Silberste, used with permission. Below: Wim Delvoye, Musée de Flandre, Cassel]