(Brussels 1889 – 1973 Paris)
Le vieux Sylvestre (Old Sylvester)
Signed, monogrammed and numbered lower right Eekman/ 5-S-C/ Le viex/ Sylvestre
Pen and ink wash on paper
41 x 33 cm (16 1/4 x 13 inches)
Born in Brussels to Dutch parents, Nicolas Eekman produced an immense body of work consisting of over three thousand paintings, watercolors, prints and illustrations over the course of his career, never straying far from the influences of his Flemish and Netherlandish origins. Although he moved to Paris permanently in 1921 and lived out the rest of his life in France, Eekman’s early life in Belgium and Holland proved to be the most significant time in his artistic development. A precocious adolescent, he began to study drawing at the age twelve, and by eighteen he delivered his first lecture on Vincent van Gogh in Brussels. Despite his great admiration for Van Gogh and a pointed interest in figurative art, Eekman shifted his academic focus to architecture and pursued his studies in the field at the Academy of Brussels in 1913.
Eekaman’s career as an architect did not endure, however his early lecture proved to be prophetic, and he soon moved into Van Gogh’s former residence in Nuenen upon fleeing from Belgium to the neutral Netherlands at the breakout of World War I. At the urging of his friend the Pastor of Ligt, Eekman lived in Vincent van Gogh’s room in the presbytery and developed relationships with the famed painter’s former neighbors and models. He recorded their countless anecdotes about “the little painter,” a nickname Vincent had complained about to his brother Theo in a letter from November 1885. He also captured their likenesses in many drawings, as Van Gogh had done more than thirty years earlier. After four years in Nuenen, Eekman felt a profound connection to the master and was undoubtedly influenced by the humble subject matter and dark, earthy color palette that characterized Van Gogh’s work between 1883 and 1886. This style is most notably identified in Van Goh’s first major painting The Potato Eaters (1885), in which he portrayed an impoverished family sharing a meager meal. Like his precursor, Nico Eekman found a calling in the depiction of humanity’s harsh realities, always with dignity and empathy, and often with an air of mysticism or even humor.
Eekman’s path again mirrored that of Van Gogh in 1915 when he exhibited in The Hague, where Van Gogh had first presented his work publicly in 1885. Unlike Van Gogh, The Hague initiated a fortunate turning point in Eekman’s artistic career. His presentation at the Galerie d’Art d’Audretsch was well-received by the famed Dutch critic Henk Bremmer, who advised his client Helene Kröller-Müller, one of the wealthiest women in the Netherlands, to purchase a painting. Kröller-Müller’s vast and diverse personal collection, which in 1938 became the Museum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, holds the second largest number of works by Vincent van Gogh after the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, as well as several prints and paintings by Nico Eekman.
Living in Paris allowed Eekman’s success to grow internationally. By 1930 he had participated in exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States, including the Venice Biennale and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1924 he befriended the renowned gallerist Jeanne Bucher and through her network crossed paths with many important artists including Jan Toorop, Paul Signac, Marc Chagall and Piet Mondrian, the De Stijl contributor with whom he remained close his entire life. Despite his friendships and collaborations with countless avant-garde artists, Eekman consistently preferred to explore figurative subjects. His strong use of line and affinity for depicting peasants with exaggerated features and sensitive renderings of working-class people often resulted in works reminiscent of Bruegel and Bosch.