Famous Belgians

According to Graham at Linguism, some people think Belgium is an adjective. Well, whatever. What struck me about his post was his claim that “most people find it difficult to name ten famous Belgians without falling back on Tintin and Hercule Poirot.” Which I expect is true.

One of Belgium’s problems in the competition for famous representatives is that it is such a young country, formed in 1830-1831. I am currently reading about Charles V “of Spain” in J. H. Elliot’s Imperial Spain: 1469-1716. He was really a Fleming (having inherited the throne through his mother Juana the Mad), and largely an absentee monarch — does that make him a famous Belgian? Is anyone from Flanders or Wallonia fair game? What about supercronopio Julio Cortazar, who was born in Brussels but grew up in Argentina — can we count him? Is Marguerite Yourcenar Belgian or is she French?

Well, let’s try to be strict. We’ll leave out Charlemagne and Bruegel and van Eyck and the like, and restrict ourselves to the post-independence period. Here then is my list of 10 famous Belgians, sensu stricto.

  1. James Ensor, painter
  2. René Magritte, painter
  3. Paul Delvaux, painter
  4. Victor Horta, architect
  5. Georges Simenon, author
  6. Michel de Ghelderode, author
  7. The various Leopolds, monarchs (Leo II was the most evil of the lot)
  8. Tom Boonen, cyclist
  9. Kim Clijsters, tennis player
  10. Hergé, cartoonist

I like the artist Marcel Broodthaers and might have listed him — is he famous? — but for some reason I can never get his name right — I had to look him up on the internet, like I always do. So I figured I can’t really count him.

There are probably Belgians I’m leaving out who are more famous than some of these. Who are they?


Image: Detail of front entrance, Horta House, Brussels (photo taken October 2005 when I was in Belgium for a press check in Ghent)


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  1. Carlota, Empress of Mexico. She was the daughter of King Leopold I, sister of Leopold II, wife of Maximilian von Habsburg.

  2. Crazy Charlotte! How could I have left her out?

    Some say she was also the mother of Maxime Weygand, supreme allied commander in WWII.

  3. Marguerite Yourcenar was *French*–that is, until she became an American in 1947. Then she was granted dual citizenship in 1980 so she could be elected to the Académie française.

  4. Okay, but wasn’t she born in Brussels, and wasn’t her mother Belgian?

  5. What – no Rubens?

  6. If Rubens is not Belgian, so Leonardo and Raphael are not Italians. Italy didn’t exist at this time. Same for Gutenberg or Luthe of course in Germany. This is ridiculous !

    For a large and view (but incomplete) of the very high number of famous Belgians in french and dutch cultures (of course…) http://www.famousbelgians.net/

  7. Yes, of course, JM. Nor was there any Spain, really, until the 18th century, and so on. But it would be too easy to name famous people from pre-Belgian Flanders, so by limiting the task to the modern period it makes it at least a little more challenging.

    BTW, would you claim Junípero Serra for the U.S. because he lived in what is now California?

  8. Of course xensen. But this game is funny because of the very high number of “famous Belgians” for example in french-speaking movies, music,TV or litterature.

    In France, Natacha Amal, Cecile de France, Benoît Poelvoorde, Marie Gillain, Deborah François, Emilie Dequenne, the Dardenne brothers, Christine Ockrent, the top 5 seller, writer Amelie Nothomb, singers Lara Fabian, Maurane and so on and on… are stars. Really. In fact, only for the small french-speaking part of the country (about 4 millions), the number of famous is huge.

    Could I name ten famous Suiss or Danish, or Irish or Polish ? Hum… Funny game indeed…

  9. JM, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and according to my web stats the majority of my visitors are from the U.S. Americans are not as a rule especially knowledgeable about other cultures, so naming ten famous people from any country at all is more challenging here than in some other places. Needless to say, I mean no disrespect to Belgium. I have traveled there several times in recent years, and if I were not settled in here in SF I would think about living somewhere like Ghent or perhaps Namur.

  10. No offense xensen ! Best personal regards.