The Cercle Artistique et Littéraire was founded in Brussels on 23 November 1847 to “provide a meeting place for lovers of the arts and literature and leading figures in the world of the arts, literature and science from Belgium and abroad, as well as a library stocked with the best newspapers and magazines”. It grew out of the Cercle des Arts founded in 1840 by the engraver Paul Lauters and composer Léon Jouret, and in 1844 established a base in the home of violinist Charles de Bériot in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode (now the town hall).
The first president of the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire was the astronomer Adolphe Quételet, founder of the Observatoire Royal which was then located close by. The Cercle, constituted by a hundred and fifty signatories, would soon bring together “all of Brussels” and two years after its foundation already had more than three hundred members: comprising all the city’s acknowledged writers, musicians and artists, including some from abroad such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. Before moving to the heart of the Parc Royal, the Cercle was based at 10, Galerie Saint-Hubert, then, following its merger with the Cercle de la Loyauté, at the so-called “King’s” residence on the Grand-Place.
At the time, the Brussels Waux-Hall was a centre for relaxation and receptions, the (privately funded) construction of which was begun under the governorship of Charles de Lorraine, as an enhancement to the Parc Royal designed by Gilles Barnabé Guimard. It became the property of the city after the French Revolution. The Cercle first occupied the premises in 1871. At that time the buildings comprised the ballroom – subsequently called the “Lorraine Room” – built in 1782 by the famous architect Louis Montoyer at the same time as the Theâtre du Parc and the room known as the “Caryatids Room”, a new, much larger ballroom built in 1820 by William I’s architect, Charles Vanderstraeten (who was also responsible for the Prince of Orange’s palace, the current Palais des Académies). The latter room was built on the initiative of the Concert Noble which had just occupied the Waux-Hall; it remained there for fifty years before moving to the Rue d’Arlon.
On moving to the Parc Royal, the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire embarked on further extensions: an exhibition room, then at the same time as Jean-Jules Van Ysendijck, who designed the Schaerbeek and Anderlecht town halls, was refurbishing the Theâtre du Parc, he was commissioned to build a new extension comprising the library, dining room, members reception area and building services rooms. The Cercle then appeared much as it does today and was to reach its peak in terms of artistic merit. With regularly over a thousand members, both artists and non-artists, it was home to exhibitions of ancient and modern art, conferences, concerts and other events, from demonstrations by Edison and the Lumière Brothers to the most prestige receptions. Up until the opening of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1928, it was by far the most important centre of intellectual, musical, artistic and fashionable life in Brussels throughout the year. In 1911, a huge Walcker organ with 46 stops was installed on the balcony in the Caryatids Room. Purchased thirty-five years later by the Coppée family, it was reinstalled with unfortunate alterations in Orval Abbey in 1946.
For its part, the Cercle de la Toison d’Or was founded in Brussels on 23 December 1911, at the instigation of the ebullient lawyer Edouard Huysmans. It was a club for university graduates providing a venue for meetings and entertainment and enabling contact between them outside the confines of philosophical disputes. On 13 June 1919, at the end of the Great War, it was renamed the Cercle Gaulois in homage to their French allies, and then Royal was added to the name on authorisation from the King in 1937. Based at the Hôtel Gendebien in the Avenue de la Toison d’Or, it amalgamated with the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire shortly after the war on the initiative of its president and president of the bar Paul Parent, and General Jacques Willems, president of the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire.
The aftermath of the stock market crash and then the 2nd World War were to prove almost fatal for the Cercle Artistique, a large part of the assets of which were dispersed between 1932 and 1946. In 1951, the merger of the two clubs enabled both institutions to overcome their post-war problems, retain their outstanding staff and make a new start. The Cercle Royal Gaulois, Artistique et Littéraire was born and was then in the privileged position of being able to celebrate two foundation dates: 1847 and 1911. In addition to its still numerous artistic and intellectual activities, it is increasingly becoming, according to various descriptions, the “second home of diplomats” and “the canteen for members of parliament”, as the latter have no restaurant worthy of the name on the other side of the street …
Today as before, the Cercle Royal Gaulois, Artistique et Littéraire, a private club with charitable status, aims to provide a centre for meetings and activities among friends, intellectuals, artists and writers, with no political, cultural or philosophical bias. It has some 1,400 members.