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Maastricht: occupied city

Théodore Schaepkens: Portrait of lieutenant general. B. Dibbets, commander of the Garrison of the stronghold of Maastricht, 1830-1839.
Théodore Schaepkens: Portrait of lieutenant general. B. Dibbets, commander of the Garrison of the stronghold of Maastricht, 1830-1839.
In 1830, amidst the upheaval of the Belgian Revolution, Théodore temporarily returned to his parents in his native city of Maastricht then, in 1832, took up residence in Brussels, the capital of the new country of Belgium. At that time, Belgium was a rich nation with, by the standards of the day, a progressive constitution. For him, it was also where the best career opportunities by far were to be found.

Meanwhile, Maastricht was an occupied city, like an island in the middle of Belgium. Lieutenant General Dibbets, the garrison's highest-ranking military officer, lived in the Generaalshuis on Vrijthof square. A high-profile figure, he had succeeded in holding onto Maastricht for the North Netherlands, most notably during the military Blockade by the Belgian Meuse Army, which lasted from 1830 to 1833. One of the leaders of the Blockade was a native of Maastricht: the first Belgian Minister for War, Charles De Brouckère jr., who now has a famous square named after him in Brussels. After three years, the Blockade was eased but it wasn’t until April 1839 that it was finally lifted, when King Willem I signed the separation treaty.

Dibbets died shortly before Limburg was divided up, but his memory lived long in Maastricht folklore; until well into the 20th century, he was reviled as the devil incarnate, with stories told of how he would beat off rebellious youngsters with his cane. Théodore Schaepkens himself had an encounter with Dibbets in 1836 when, weakened by typhus, the artist returned from a study trip to Italy. According to legend, the commander only agreed to let him into the city on condition that the artist would paint an official portrait of him. Schaepkens finally did this painting in 1839 and it can still be seen in Limburg’s provincial building.

Schaepkens remained loyal to his native city, subsequently accepting several commissions from the Municipality and the Church. However, he took up residence in the Brussels sub-municipality of Sint-Joost-ten-Noode where, over time, he fell into obscurity. There is a street named after him in neighbouring Schaarbeek.

Many of Maastricht's citizens who regarded Belgium as their natural hinterland left the city, taking with them the intelligentsia among whom were French-language poets André Van Hasselt and Théodore Weustenraad. The contents of the studio of Maastricht's most famous sculptor, Matthieu Kessels - who lived in Rome and gained Europe-wide renown - were brought following his death in 1836 to Brussels: the city that all southern Dutch, including the people of Limburg, considered to be the true capital city. In Maastricht, Kessels is remembered in the name Kesselskade, the street alongside the canal to Liège that was dug out shortly before that (and filled in at the start of the 1960s).

Once its wealthier residents had left, the city centre became overrun with underpaid workers for the pottery and glass industries. They moved into the many rooms in the vacated patrician residences, particularly in the Stokstraat district, with entire families squeezed into one room. Work to revitalize the district began in the late 1950s, and it is now the most expensive area of the city. It wasn't until Maastricht University was established, in 1976, that the city definitely bid farewell to its industrial past.

Maastricht Institute of Arts