It may be a small and relatively young country, but Belgium punches above its weight when it comes to producing game changers and players on the world stage, from historic rulers to silver screen stars and Nobel laureates. Here’s Culture Trip’s list of ones you should know.
While there was not necessarily a “Belgium” at the time, Emperor Charles V was born in 1500 in Ghent, a Flemish city that was part of the Low Countries. As famous people from the past go, Charles was pretty powerful, as the heir to three dynasties, and he oversaw an extensive territory in Europe and its colonies during the 16th century. Those interested in discovering more about Charles and his reign in Brussels can check out the archaeological remnants of the Coudenberg Palace, where the emperor held prominent influence over the building of the site.
Born in Rupelmonde, Flanders, in 1512, Geradus Mercator is famed as a cartographer who developed the first world map to show sailing routes as straight lines. Mercator’s maps proved advantageous as they steadily became the standard model of how we view the world today. Mercator was also the first cartographer to gather a collection of his maps and create the very first atlas, and he worked on globes showing the Earth and the nighty sky.
Regarded as one of the most influential painters of the baroque era, Rubens’ iconic style as an artist would garner attention for years to come with masterpieces such as The Massacre of the Innocents and The Judgement of Paris. Though the famed Flemish painter’s works can be admired around the world, his roots can be traced to Antwerp, where today everyone can visit the his former family home and studio, Rubens House, which has dozens of artworks by the artist and his contemporaries on show.
Who would have thought that an iconic musical instrument that would revolutionize music and its genres can be attributed to a Belgian inventor? Born in Dinant in 1814, Adolphe Sax would come to hone his craftsmanship for instruments through creating a number of patented prototypes before finding success with the saxophone. Initially intended to be used for classical music in small ensembles, the saxophone picked up steam in the later 19th century and gained international recognition as a pioneering instrument of the jazz era, before becoming a classical staple once more during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
As a playwright, essayist and novelist Maurice Maeterlinck was a jack of all trades within the disciplines of literature and theatre. His first play, Princess Maleine, was a hit and was followed by several more – many influenced by his relationship with actor Georgette Leblanc, who played many of his strong leading ladies. His notable achievements include being the only Belgian to have received the Noble Prize in Literature for his outstanding literary work, especially his plays.
Victor Horta is a renowned architect, who was instrumental in the art nouveau movement within western architecture. Horta’s designs incorporated techniques that were stunning for the 19th century, and his architectural vision was envisaged through prominent buildings and townhouses that are still visible to this day. Horta also spent a period of his life dedicated to studying and teaching the style of art nouveau within the United States. Some of Horta’s works within Brussels are now designated Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Born in Charleroi, Hainaut, in 1894, Georges Lemaître is one of the famous Belgians who may seem like a bit of a contradiction. He was a Belgian Catholic priest and also a physicist, who would come to refute Einstein’s theory of relativity and first proposed what we know today as the Big Bang theory. While serving a religious life and studying physics may appear incompatible, Lemaître found a natural connection between the two disciplines, attending events to discuss science and spirituality. He became a leading scientist who would come to revolutionise modern cosmology in the early 20th century.
Considered a profound pioneer of the jazz era, Jean “Django” Reinhardt is legendary for his mastery of the Spanish guitar. As one of the most important European jazz musicians, Django’s talent for playing the guitar with two fingers earned him considerable accolades for his performances that are reminiscent of gypsy culture. This new guitar-playing technique had significant influence in developing the musical compositions for jazz music.
Perhaps one of the most famous people from Belgium, surrealist painter Magritte, who was born in Lessines (Lessen) in 1898, would come to take on the world with his work. He is known for works such as Son of Man and The Treachery of Images, but Magritte is more than bowler hats and pipes. Each of his works encompasses purposeful elements and details, right down to its title. You can see an extensive collection of his work at the Magritte Museum in Brussels or head out to the quiet commune of Jette to take a tour through his former home.
Influential comic artist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, was Born in Etterbeek and was the brains behind the best-known of all Belgian celebrities, Tintin and his pal Snowy. The adventure series has been hailed a true ode to comic art and made Hergé a world-renowned comic illustrator. Hergé’s work can be appreciated at the Comic Strip Center in Brussels, the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve and through comic murals, statues and comic book albums available across Belgium.
Born in Ixelles in 1929, Hepburn starred in films including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady. As a teenager, she and her family lived in the occupied Netherlands during World War II, and she performed in silent dance recitals to raise money for the Dutch resistance. She was also one of few people to achieve EGOT status, by winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award. Hepburn also worked charitable organizations, such as Unicef, for which she was a Goodwill Ambassador.
Renowned as an iconic fashion designer, Diane von Fürstenberg’s roots lie within Brussels, Belgium. She began her career composing sample designs before moving to New York in the 1970s, where she would then create her most famous design: the wrap dress. The wrap dress changed the modern contemporary attire for American women and launched von Fürstenberg’s career into stardom.
This Brussels-born musician has put Belgium on the hip-hop and electronic map, with his catchy beats masking some deep lyrical prose. An anagram for “maestro”, Stromae has found success as a French musical act even within the Anglophile world, with consistently sold-out performances abroad as he steadily introduces the world to the true meaning of Belgitude – the self-deprecating attitude the people of Belgium have towards their country.