The major museum is the Groeningemuseum; I'm not actually a huge art connoisseur (as my successive postings here about the artist categories in the BSFA Awards and Hugos have probably made clear) but I loved a lot of things here, starting with Jan van Eyck's The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele and ending with the pre-graphic novel woodcuts of Frans Masereel. But I was especially struck by the nineteenth century portraits; in the era just before photography, artists often managed to catch an inner truth which we struggle to get at with the camera.
In 1818, 23-year-old Mary Lodge, born in England, married the recently widowed Governor of West Flanders, Charles-Louis de Keverberg de Kessel, who had just turned 50. Their portraits, painted by Joseph-Fran&cced;ois Ducq, dominate one of the Groenigemuseum's rooms.
I found this a tantalising pair of pictures. He looks, frankly, as if he's already had a brandy too many before lunch, staring out of the portrait at us; she looks like a very smart young woman, her gaze cast aside - towards him, if his portrait was hung to the right of hers? Or were the portraits meant to face each other, given that she has her back to the garden and he to an interior wall? If the latter, it seems odd to have the couple looking in different directions.
I did a little more research. Baron de Keverberg, born in what is now Dutch Limburg, made himself very useful to successive regimes in the cockpit of Europ - he rose gracefully through the local administration of his home territory, first under Prussia, then under the French. Then Napoleon put him in charge of small bits of Germany from 1810 (and he married for the first time); and after the fall of the Empire (which coincided with the death of his first wife), the new Kingdom of the United Netherlands made him governor first of Antwerp and then West Flanders, giving him his title of Baron into the bargain.
I found it much more difficult to find out about the background of Mary Lodge. French Wikipedia thinks that she was born in Stonor, Oxfordshire; Dutch Wikipedia thinks she was from Rochdale, and Nederland's adelsboek goes further and names her parents as John Lodge and Frances Croft. I found (and then lost) one online source saying that her father owned a textiles factory in Halifax. In any case, she seems to have been an orphan, staying in Bruges with her uncle, where she caught the Governor's eye. He wrote a novel, Ursula, princesse britannique, inspired by her and the art of Memling. Perhaps the manuscript for the novel is among the papers he is proudly pointing to in his portrait. In hers, she is holding the published book open at the title page (it clearly says "D'Ursula").
The year after their marriage, he was appointed to the Dutch government (as one of the officials in charge of Belgian affairs) and they moved to the Hague (where he originated the de Keverberg dilemma). They settled down and had four children, three of whom are recorded as having been born in Stonor, Oxfordshire - now the home of Jeremy Paxman; but is there therefore a connection with the Stonor family, also linked to the Blounts of Maple Durham, one of whom married my great aunt? The Baron's political career was interrupted by the Belgian revolution of 1830, but he got back in the game and died an elder statesman in 1841 aged 73. She lived until 1879, almost four decades of widowhood, and died at the Keverberg family seat of Aldengoor. Her portrait is often cited as a key example of Regency fashion.
I found it an interesting if frustrating exercise to look into the background of these paintings. A lot of the Baron's voice has been preserved for history, as he climbs the political pole while also positioning himself as a cultural guru; we get much less of Mary, whose role is that of his muse and future mother of his children. But she has a very interesting smile. I bet she was much more fun to know than him.