Tijl en Nele - Charles Samuel

Charles De Costerlaan/Keuvelhoekstraat
8300 Knokke-Heist


On the small but cosy Keuvelhoekplein, at the end of Helmweg and Charles de Costerlaan, stands the nostalgic sculpture 'Tijl and Nele'. The artwork is carved from a monolithic block of white Carrara marble by Belgian sculptor Charles Samuel. The couple is amazingly well rendered and detailed. The scene, dreamy rather than heroic, leans closely to a passage from the novel 'Tijl Uilenspiegel'. This beautiful piece of poetic-prose was written in French in 1867 and has become world literature.


Charles Samuel was apprenticed to a goldsmith and a medallist at the age of 15. He studied at the Brussels Academy and received a silver and a gold medal at world exhibitions in Paris. His bas-reliefs, busts and funeral monuments can be found all over Belgium.


At the request of the 'Cie du Zoute', a street was named after Coster in 1935 as a tribute to him. Spurred on by Mr Delloye, a resident of the Zoute, the municipal council was able to purchase the unique sculpture in 1952 for the symbolic price of 50,000 Bef. And naturally, the best place for 'Tijl en Nele' was on the Keuvelhoekplein, on Charles de Costerlaan. Knokke-Heist can rightly be proud to be the possessor of a work of art that has won many prizes and was also the true original piece for the bronze cast of the monumental Charles de Coster monument' in Elsen.


For de Coster, he wanted to carve a sculpture as a tribute to the author. For the concept of his work, he had a genius idea! He would draw attention not to the author himself but to the fictional protagonists of the literary masterpiece namely Tijl and Nele. The couple is amazingly well rendered and detailed. Tijl, sitting upright, stares ahead and seems momentarily lost in a moment full of melancholy. In an intimate gesture, he places his hand on Nele's knee. An innkeeper rests at his side and on his chest he carries in a bag the ashes of his father Klaas, who died at the stake. His lover, the beautiful Nele, takes Tijl by the shoulders and bends lovingly towards him in an attempt to comfort him. She is dressed as a Flemish peasant woman with hooded cloak and hat. The scene, dreamlike rather than heroic, leans closely to a particular passage in the book (chapter 31). With this white marble sculpture, the artist Samuel participated in the Brussels Salon' in 1890 and greatly impressed the jury. Fifteen years after author de Coster's death, some Belgian writers wanted to erect a large tribute monument to him in Ixelles. They asked Samuel to make a bronze cast of his marble statue and use it as the central group for the tribute monument. The final, finished memorial is grand and impressive and stands in a unique location on the ponds of Ixelles where it was inaugurated on 22 July 1894. The 'Tijl and Nele' sculpture garnered great success at several exhibitions including in Brussels, Antwerp, Dresden, Paris, Munich and St Louis. It won several awards as well as gold and silver medals


"In Damme, when the May month opened the blossoms on the hedgerow thorns, Uilenspiegel, the son of Klaas was born." This is how Charles de Coster began his masterful story. He derived his Tijl from an old Low German legend from 1500. In his pen, Tijl evolved from a vulgar knave to a hero of freedom under the harsh Spanish yoke, symbolising the Flemish national soul. Tijl was elevated to "the spirit" and Nele to "the heart" of Flanders. When the book was published in 1867, it was not at all liked by Belgian conformist circles, it was ignored and de Coster even received very harsh and sharp criticism. Only after his death did the novel grow into a masterpiece of world literature. Meanwhile, his 'Legend of Tijl Uilenspiegel' took revenge all over the world and in different languages again. It was even filmed in the 1970s and some filming took place in Knokke in the dunes, near Het Zwin.


The character Nele is beautiful and what especially stands out is her finely cut face. Who surely is the woman behind that pretty face? Her identity was found out and - coincidence or not - her real name is also Nele. Cornelia (Neeltje) Doff was born in 1858 in Dutch Limburg to a family of nine children. Her father, a real drunk, dragged his family deeper and deeper into poverty. They moved again and again and eventually came to live in Brussels. Very young, Neeltje was driven into prostitution by her mother. This is how she earned money to feed and support her many siblings, Determined to escape an even in rags and poverty, Neel became a painter's model for a number of Belgian artists such as James Ensor and Félicien Rops. She posed for Rops, among others, for his etching 'Ma fille monsieur Cabanel' showing an old ugly woman offering a naked young girl to a customer. Neel also modelled for sculptors such as Paul de Vigne and Charles Samuel.


In 1880, Neel left her family. In the world of artists, she worked under the pseudonym 'Emilie' from then on. Among her artistic friends, she met a wealthy bachelor with anarchist sympathies: Fernand Brouez. Like Professor Higgins from Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion', he felt his protégée urgently needed a proper education. She took classes of diction and expression at the conservatoire and also learnt to speak and write French fluently. She married Brouez and after his death in 1900 she was left as a wealthy widow and 'woman of the world'. A year later, she married Georges Serigiers, a prominent Antwerp lawyer and brilliant pleader. In 1909, she unexpectedly started writing. She did so in French, which she mastered perfectly. In her first book, 'Jours de famine et de détresse' (Days of hunger and misery), she poured out her heart and soul. The Belgians were bored with her raw and bold prose. The French, however, proved enthusiastic and she was close to being awarded the 'Goncourt Prize' for her debut. Neel's memories were painful and shocking; writing them out was a liberation. Two more autobiographical stories followed: 'Keetje' and 'Keetje Trottin' which, together with her first book, formed a trilogy. Critics compared her work to that of Emile Zola but she responded, "He wrote about it but I really lived it! She was called the Dostojewski of the North and many felt she even trumped the writer Colette. Neel also translated Dutch works into French by Louis Couper us, Multatuli and Felix Timmermans, among others.

Source: Het beeld Tijl en Nele geeft zijn geheimen prijs - Frieda Devinck