Monsieur Jacques

In the 1950s Rotterdam Municipal Council wanted to embellish the city, then being rebuilt following the bombings of the Second World War, with a series of sculptures. One such work erected in the city was Monsieur Jacques (1956) by Oswald Wenckebach. This sculpture had already acquired a certain degree of fame in the sculpture park of the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Hoge Veluwe National Park and particularly as part of the Netherlands’ representation at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Rotterdam ac¬quired a copy of this sculpture for the corner of Coolsingel and Binnenweg in 1959, where it was unveiled on 19 May, on Reconstruction Day.

Nowadays Monsieur Jacques stands further along Coolsingel, in front of ABN AMRO bank. Wenckebach was born in Heerlen in 1895 to a family of German origin. His father was an eminent cardiologist who went on to hold various professorships abroad. For the young Wenckebach this meant an education in various countries and institutes. During his training at the School of Arts and Crafts, Haarlem (1913-14) and while taking painting classes at the Kunstgewerbe-schule in Vienna (1915-18), he experimented with various materials and techniques.

Until 1927 he chiefly exhibited etchings, lithographs and drawings, but he also made gold and silverjewellery and objects, as well as figures carved from wood and ivory. While he had no specific training forthis, in the second half of the 1920s he decided to specialize in sculpture. In the 1930s Wenckebach was mostly known for his sculptured portraits, and his bust of the poet Jacques Verwey with the ‘flying eyebrows’ was a popular work. He excelled at capturing both a specific individual as well as a general ‘mood’ in a static portrait. His sculpture MonsieurJacques is as ordinary as Verwey’s bust or the 1950 sculpture of Dr A.F. Philips are intimate and characteristic. The small figure of Monsieur Jacques that has been braving the wind and rain on the Coolsingel since 1959 is the ‘suit and tie’ man personified, the embodiment of the middle-class burgher par excellence. Those who write about the figure, write about the man and not about ‘the sculpture’. Monsieur Jacques, clad in a long coat, arms on his back, hat in hand, head raised slightly, does not do anything, but simply stares. His proud figure is devoid of detail; the coat, for instance, is only indicated via collar and pockets, while the trouser legs run smoothly over into the feet. The pose with the left foot projecting is not inelegant, de-spite his burliness. The simplified form and the lack of any detail make the sculpture highly distinctive. In fact, the abstract depict-ion of the clothing and the human scale convey just the right tension: Jacques is so ordinary that he becomes extraordinary again – you’re almost inclined to greet him – in contrast, for instance, to Wilhelmina by van PaIIandt, who towers above the observer in an unapproachable manner.

Monsieur Jacques represents without doubt a highpoint in the tradition of placing anecdotal sculptures in the city, a tradition which continues to this very day. Other sculptures in the Rotterdam inner city which are part of this tradition include Drum Playerby Adri Blok (1958), Bears Playing by Anne Grimdalen (1956), Fikkie by Joeki Simak (1963) and Balance by Evert den Hartog (1987). Unlike more modern sculptures by Gabo, Zadkine and Moore, these works could instantly count on the sympathy of the general public.

As well as the standing Monsieur Jacques, during the 1950s Wenckebach made a series of small sculptures of this small burgher figure in various poses and situations. These arecurrently in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen collection. They are small bronze models, about 20 centimetres in height, with such titles as The Critical Jacques, Jacques after the Funeral, Careworn Jacques and Jacques on Holiday. The latter depicts an indolent Jacques, wearing a hat, with his hands supporting his head. According to the artist’s son this was the original Jacques. On finishing the sculpture of this man relaxing, his father is purported to have commented: “It’s just like Jacques Bloem”. Due to the figure’s physical resemblance to the Dutch poet J.C. Bloem and because Jacques was such a distinguished name, the figure became known as `Meneer Jacques’. It is unclear over the years how Meneer became Monsieur; perhaps this happened during the World Fair in Brussels.

Wenckebach’s series of Jacques are caricatures of the Dutch `little man’. Each small figure highlights one aspect of character and is accurately depicted in straightforward form. Monsieur Jacques is an ironic yet sympathetic characterization of a self-satisfied, middle-class citizen. All kinds of stories were invented around him in the Wenckebach family: a fictional character without the work of fiction. And that is what everyone still does who sees or writes about him. They give their own interpretation of the life and person of Meneer Jacques.

Aukje Vergeest


*J. Boyens, ‘Beelden van Oscar Wenckebach’, Ons erfdeel XXV (1982), pp. 670-675.
*J. Slagter, ‘De beeldhouwer Oswald Wenckebach’, Elseviers Geïllustreerd Maandschrift LXXXV(1933), no. 4, pp. 1-14.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015