A painter of portraits, history and genre scenes, Jan Van Beers was born in Belgium in 1852. He grew up in a highly cultural and artistic milieu, his father being a famous poet, and was predestined for an artistic career, having befriended artists such as the composer Pierre Benoit, whose portrait he completed in 1883, or the painter Baron Henri Leys. At an early age, he developed an exceptional talent for drawing and painting. Studying at the Antwerp Fine Arts Academy he soon became the leader of a group of young promising artists, known as the “Van Beers clique.” Among them, Piet Verhaert (1852-1908), Alexander Struys (1852-1941), and Jef Lambeaux (1852-1908). This group was famous for their mischief and eccentricities and used to walk around the town dressed up in historic costumes.
These eccentricities aside, several art critics had been emphasizing the technical skills of Van Beers, comparing them to those of the old masters. In 1878 Van Beers moved to Paris and he started to work in the studio of his fellow Belgian painter Alfred Stevens. After 1879 Van Beers began to focus on genre scenes and modern life subjects painted in a highly-finished Naturalistic style. He painted very small pictures, delicately brushed, hyperrealistic in their details and extreme finish. Success was almost immediate. However at the Brussels Salon of 1881, Van Beers found himself amid a scandal that would upset the Belgian art world and, at the same time, give him instant recognition. He exhibited two paintings at the Brussels Salon of that year, both painted in his new, miniature-like and hyperrealistic style. One of the works, The yacht ‘Sirene,’ was to become the subject of the turmoil. He was accused to have pushed his realistic style beyond the boundaries of the possible. The Belgian critics Solvay and De Mons suspected him to have painted over a photograph, calling his work a photo-peinture. While the Review L’Art Moderne defended him by suggesting that those were merely echoing comments of some artists who were jealous of Van Beers’ commercial success, the scandal nonetheless raised considerable attention. Van Beers decided to react promptly. He offered to have both his paintings scrapped off and checked by experts .
If they could discover even the most remote trace of the use of photography, Van Beers would pay them 10 000 francs for Lily, his second exhibition piece, and 20 000 francs for La Sirene, the prices he was asking for them. On the other hand, if they couldn’t find anything, the critics were to pay this amount to the Caisse de recours (a pension fund) of the Brussels artists. The critics refused the challenge, arguing that Van Beers just had to recognize his mistake. Then, on September 3, 1881, during the short absence of the guards at the Salon, an unknown person vandalized the Sirene by scratching off the face of the young woman. Immediately the painting attracted even more attention and crowds of visitors, who wanted to check by themselves if any trace of photography was visible. Van Beers took this opportunity to name a commission to examine the painting. It included the president of the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire of Brussels, the artists Charles Verlat and J.F. Portaels, and two specialists in photography and chemistry. After a thorough examination the commission’s report cleared Van Beers of all charges and concluded that he was “an honest man.”