Belgium might be a small country but for centuries it has been a crossroad of cultures, trade and intellectual exchange. It was also at the epicenter of one of the historical events that forever changed the landscape of Europe in the twentieth century: World War I. From the intricate detail of lace knitting in Brugge, to chocolate making in Brussels and abbey-beer brewing in Wallonia, Belgium has developed a rich and ever-developing culture. This tapestry of knowledge and social diversity has been exemplified by a number of important figures throughout the country’s history.
Travel Tomorrow wants to take a moment to pause and shed light on a few of these personalities, some of whom might be less known than others. From leading intellectuals to pop and Hollywood stars, these are 10 notable people whose roots can be found in Belgium.
1. Justus Lipsius
Justus Lipsius was born in Overijse, in 1547. He studied at the Jesuit college in Cologne, and when he was sixteen he moved to the University of Leuven in Leuven. The publication of his Variarum Lectionum Libri Tres (1567), which he dedicated to Cardinal Granvelle, earned him an appointment as a Latin secretary, and a visit to Rome. Lipsius wrote a series of works designed to revive ancient Stoicism. He taught at the universities in Jena, Leiden and Leuven. One of the three EU Council’s buildings bears his name.
2. Anna Rosalie Boch
Anna Boch was born in Saint-Vaast in 1848. Boch was a painter and her style was Neo-Impressionist. Her early works used a Pointillist technique, but she is best known for her Impressionist style which she used for most of her career. She promoted many young artists, including Vincent van Gogh, whom she admired for his talent and who was a friend of her brother Eugène Boch. She was the only person ever to buy one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings when he was still alive.
Besides her own paintings, Boch held one of the most important collections of Impressionist paintings of her time. Boch donated some of her paintings to various museums including the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. She is buried in the Ixelles Cemetery, in Brussels.
3. Adolphe Sax
Born in 1814 the city of Dinant in Namur province, Sax showed early signs of musical talent and curiosity. He could play the flute and clarinet, and was a remarkable singer. His father, Charles-Joseph, was a maker of musical instruments and nourished Adolphe’s musical drive. Sax patented the new saxophone family of instruments in 1846 in Paris, where the Belgian inventor was a living at the time.
4. Lily Boeykens
Liane “Lily” Boeykens, was born in 1930 in Dendermonde. She was a leading Belgian feminist of the second wave of feminism. She was also active internationally. She was a pioneer in the field of women’s equality and emancipation. From 1972 to 1992, she was president of the National Council of Women and co-founder of the Vrouwen Overleg Komitee (VOK). She organized the first National Women’s Day in Belgium on 11 November 1972. She died November 22, 2005 in Antwerp.
5. Jean Baptiste ‘Django’ Reinhardt
Reinhardt was born in 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a family of Manouche Romani descent. He was the first major jazz talent to emerge from Europe. Reinhardt’s most popular compositions have become standards within gypsy jazz, including “Minor Swing”, “Daphne”, “Belleville”, “Djangology”, “Swing ’42”, and “Nuages”. He died in 1953, aged 43, in Samois-sur-Seine, France.
6. Marie Moke Pleyel
Marie Pleyel was a Belgian pianist, born in 1811 in Paris. His father, Jean Jacques Moke, was a language teacher from Torhout, Flanders. She was one of the most famous virtuosos of the 19th century. Engaged to Hector Berlioz in 1830, she broke up at her mother’s instigation and married Camille Pleyel, son of the composer and piano maker Ignace Joseph Pleyel. Marie Pleyel was highly respected on the European music scene. She died on March 30, 1875 in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, in Brussels.
7. René Magritte
René Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium, in 1898. His work is known for challenging observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality. His imagery has influenced pop art, minimalist art and conceptual art. He moved to Paris and became friends with André Breton and became involved in the Surrealist group. Fans can see a collection of his work at the Magritte Museum in Brussels and in Jette, where the surrealist painter lived. He died of pancreatic cancer on 15 August 1967, aged 68.
8. Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born in Ixelles in 1929. Her father was Joseph Ruston, the Director of the Brussels branch of the Bank of England, and Ella Van Heemstra. Hepburn starred in films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady. In 1953, at the age of 23, she received an Academy Award for best actress for her role in Roman Holiday. Some of her most successful movies are Sabrina (1954), War and Peace (1956), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and My Fair Lady (1964). Hepburn also dedicated her life to volunteering with charitable organizations, such as UNICEF.
Paul Van Haver, Stromae, was born in Brussels in 1985. He grew up in the district of Laeken. He is mostly known for his works in the genre of the hip hop and electronic music. He came to wide public attention in 2009 with his song “Alors on danse” (from the album Cheese), which became a number one in several European countries. He has sold over 8.5 million records worldwide.
10. Marthe Donas
Marthe Gabrielle Donas was born in Antwerp in 1885. She enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp at the age of seventeen. When WWI broke out she moved to Dublin, eventually relocating to Paris at the end of 1916. She studied at the Académies de la Grande Chaumière and Ranson, and discovered the work of André Lhote and Cubism. She became an important abstract and cubist painter and is recognized as one of the leading figures of Modernism. She died on January 31, 1967, aged 81, in Audregnies, Belgium.