Fernand Khnopff was a melancholy man. You can sense it in the aching stillness that envelops his landscapes. Sturdy farm buildings trapped under gray skies feel distant, at once longed for and gently forbidding.
Pieces by the Belgian Symbolist, who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, come near the end of “Nature’s Mirror: Reality and Symbol in Belgian Landscape,” up through Dec. 10 at McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College.
His “Memory of Bruges. Entrance to the Beguinage” is the exhibition’s signature image: A calm canal softly reflects a bridge and surrounding buildings. The drawing, mostly somber in black chalk, is highlighted in the center with yellow pastel — the kiss of a dwindling sun — and brief passages of green lily pads.
The quiet water predominates: depth, stillness, reflection. The artist spent a portion of his childhood in Bruges, but as an adult chose to render it from memory rather than return. He didn’t want to see how the city had changed.
“Nature’s Mirror” begins on a lustier note, with several Renaissance-era graphic works, including “Summer,” Pieter Bruegel’s dynamite print (engraved by Pieter van der Heyden) of a bountiful harvest, made nearly 300 years before Khnopff was born.
The one-point perspective sets up a giddy rush toward us through a field as workers cut and bundle grain. A fellow in the foreground guzzles from a fat pitcher. He has thrown down his scythe and kicked off one shoe, and his foot and the scythe poke beyond the frame, into our space. Bruegel has replaced another figure’s head with a tray of fresh vegetables. Eat!
The artist’s festive tone, of course, contrasts with Khnopff’s elegiac one; he lunges toward us whereas Khnopff pulls away. Bruegel’s scene buzzes, and Khnopff’s moans.
Bruegel is the grandfather of realism in Flemish art. In “Nature’s Mirror,” which draws on the Hearn Family Trust’s extraordinary collection of Belgian art, curator Jeffery Howe traces landscape art from the Renaissance, when Belgium was part of the Netherlands, to the early 20th century. His thesis — that landscape, like any art, is subjective — isn’t new. Still, it’s a refreshing saunter down a mostly realist path, with starry-eyed detours into romanticism. It leads us, in the end, to the perils of the psyche.
The Greeks and Romans painted nature tableaus on walls, but after the Roman Empire fell landscapes were relegated to mere backdrops. The Reformation’s repudiation of religious iconography, the Renaissance era’s fascination with natural sciences, and a growth in urban populations opened a new niche.
The first section features wonderful prints and drawings by Bruegel, Dürer, and Paul Bril, and includes a pair of dense, daunting landscapes painted on copper by Roelandt Savery, anchored by small figures as if to amplify the majesty and threat of the trees and rivers surrounding them.
There are gaps. Rubens is missing, and the 18th century is represented by just one suite of velvety drawings by Antoine le Loup, perhaps because landscape painting was again on the wane. Art academies, which valued other genres, dominated the discussion.
But artists began to shake off the academy, and paint what they saw in front of them, around the time of the Belgium Revolution, in 1830. Some, such as Eugène Joseph Verboeckhoven, chased the sublime, like his American contemporaries painting in the Hudson River School. His “Mountainous Landscape With Bridge” brims with menace and salvation: The spindly bridge spans a dark chasm against a golden sky.
Others followed Gustave Courbet’s lead, and leaned into realism. But painting outdoors — a linchpin of realism — did not keep artists from artifice, coaxing glory from their oils.
Plein-air artist Frans van Kuyck’s “Marsh at Twilight” is explicitly painterly, with an Impressionist-inspired explosion of creamy, peach brush strokes evincing the sun behind clouds. Yet it’s also grounded in realism, right down to the crisp reflection of a small boat’s prow in still water. More marvelously down-and-dirty artists, such as Théodore T’Scharner and Jean-Baptiste Degreef, paid careful attention to mud’s many tones.
Belgium was an early industrial powerhouse, and a fascinating section of the show explores how artists integrated industry into their landscapes. In 1887, Georges Lemmen saw Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” and later painted the flickering, pointillist “Thames Scene, the Elevator.” It prickles with light-infused smog, heavy yet glittering. Lemmen didn’t critique industry; he found beauty in it.
Still, some artists set out to capture the miserable reality of worker’s lives. Constantin Meunier’s drawing “Hiercheuse Climbing a Heap of Coal” pointedly depicts a female miner stooped under the weight of her coal-laden sack.
Realist art, while aiming at reportage, was also inevitably subjective. Artists strove to shape art from what they saw. This struggle laid ground for the internal inquiry that birthed Symbolism.
My favorite work in the show, William Degouve de Nuncques’s exquisitely creepy pastel “The Servants of Death (Nocturne),” depicts two men sawing in the moonlight. The felled tree they labor over is braced above a pit, from which one man gazes ghoulishly upward, like a corpse awakened.
Pieces such as this, and Khnopff’s misty, moody landscapes, leave behind the more realist mud and mists (and the sublime sunsets) for a more tenuous, internal world. “Memory of Bruges. Entrance to the Beguinage” was made in 1904, as the new century began. Changes nobody could have imagined — war, killing machines, a world order upended, economic disaster — would turn more artists inward, and landscape art would, once again, fall to the sidelines.
NATURE’S MIRROR: Reality and Symbol in Belgian Landscape
At McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2101 Commonwealth Ave., through Dec. 10. 617-552-8587, www.bc.edu/artmuseumCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.